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The Smart Program Design Series: Incorporating Variety & Making Progression Seamless Part 3 – Manipulating Sets & Reps

The Smart Program Design Series: Incorporating Variety & Making Progression Seamless

Part 3 – Manipulating Sets & Reps

By Sarah Rippel, Author of The Ultimate Group Training System & Build ‘N Burn



When it comes to programming strength work, there is a lot more that can be done than the traditional “3 sets of 10” format. If you are looking to inject a little variety into a program without following the usual progression schemes in terms of volume and loading, you’re in luck! There are numerous ways that standard sets and reps can be tweaked to create new opportunities for progress & continued engagement with your clients! I will discuss a few here which are appropriate for the semi-private/small group training environment.


Keep in mind that too much variety is usually not the best idea. Sprinkle in different strategies but keep the standard “X sets x Y reps” format the bulk of your strength work.


Straight Sets


For the sake of clarification, I am mentioning straight sets. Everyone is familiar with this basic format, which is the standard “X sets x Y reps” I mentioned above. Straight sets are simply composed of reps, and this means of getting the job done works well for most people. In fact, this basic setup could be all a person needs for their strength training work.


Straight sets are notated as sets x reps. Three sets of 10 reps is shown as “3 x 10.”


+ Sets


I have used “+” sets frequently in my small group programming with great success! I like the fact that this strategy allows for everyone to “choose their own adventure” that day in terms of pushing more or staying the course. I hope all the ‘80s/’90s kids caught that reference (if not, click here)!


The idea behind “+” sets is that you can push a bit further on days when it feels good, but you never push to a point of failure, always leaving 1-2 reps “in the tank.”


For example, taken from one of my client’s programs where we are using 5/3/1 for her “heavy” hip thrust days:

Heavy Hip Thrust – 70% of 1RM x 3 / 80% x 3 / 90% x 3+ ?

  • WU sets: 95 x 10 / 115 x 5
  • Work sets: 135 x 3 / 155 x 3 / 175 x 3+ = 5?

For this specific client, the “+” sets give her an opportunity to do more work (and possibly get a PR, which is always good for confidence) IF she feels up to it or achieve the target reps & move on.


Here’s another example:

80% of 1RM Bench Press x 3-5+

75% of 1RM Bench Press x 5-7+

70% of 1RM Bench Press x 7-9+


In the bench press sets mapped out to the left, the first set has a goal of 3-5+ reps, the second is 5-7+, and the third is 7-9+. The ladies in my 7am crew who hit this workout averaged 5.5 reps on the first set, 7.25 reps on the second set, and 10.5 reps on the third set. Obviously, a few could push past the goal reps on at least one of the sets that day.


“+” sets are a win-win and play a key role in one of the four programs I designed in The Ultimate Group Training System!


Wave Loading


If you picture how a wave rises to a crest and then drops down on the opposite side, then wave loading will make sense.


In traditional single wave loading there will usually be 3-5 sets of an exercise. Basically, across the sets of an exercise, the load is either increased or decreased. A wave that goes from higher to lower reps is best for hypertrophy, whereas a wave that goes from low to high biases strength gains. This style of loading is suitable for all levels.


Single Wave Example:

Back Squat work sets (strength bias) – 225 x 1 x 4; 205 x 1 x 5; 185 x 1 x 6

Back Squat work sets (hypertrophy bias) – 135 x 1 x 10; 155 x 1 x 8; 175 x 1 x 6


Side note: warming up for one’s work sets on the barbell lifts is an example of a single wave. Personally, I start with the bar itself and gradually add weight across a handful of sets, decreasing the reps as I go.


Another example of single wave loading is building up to a 1-rep max (1RM):

40-50% of 1RM x 8; 60% x 4; 70% x 2; 80% x 1; 90% x 1; 95-100% x 1; 100+ x 1


In multiple wave loading, the first set is done with a lighter load and more reps, the next set is done with a heavier load and fewer reps, and the next set is done with even more weight and less reps. After completing this wave, another is completed in the same pattern. The use of two waves is most common with sets involving less than 6 reps. In addition, when the wave is repeated the second time, the load for each set is a little higher than on the first wave’s sets. This style of loading is suitable for intermediate to advanced levels.


Multiple Wave Example:

Back Squat – (wave 1) 185 x 1 x 5; 195 x 1 x 4; 205 x 1 x 3; (wave 2) 190 x 1 x 5; 200 x 1 x 4; 210 x 1 x 3




This one seems blatantly obvious, but it must be included because it is a vital piece in the training model for clients of all types. I use circuits with 1-on-1 clients, semi-private, and my groups. The use of circuits in my programming for all clients means we get more work done in less time and the workout becomes more metabolic. Most people are wanting favorable body composition changes; therefore, the use of circuits is an obvious win.


I have experimented with the use of circuits in each aspect of my small group programming over the years: warm-ups, skill work, strength work, and conditioning. Most recently, I developed a strategy where the main strength lift is combined with 2-3 other exercises as our strength work. Prior to this, we typically performed our main lift as either an antagonistic super set or one that combined it with a mobility, core, breathing, or corrective drill.


A1) Hang Power Clean: 3 x 5

A2) Box Squat: using 90% of 1-rep max as a “training max”

Set 1: 75% of Your 1RM (Goal 5-7+)

Set 2: 70% of Your 1RM (Goal 7-9+)

Set 3: 65% of Your 1RM (Goal 9-11+)

A3) Reverse Hyper on GHD: 3 x 10


This strategy has really been a game-changer in terms of making the overall workout more conditioning-based. Prior to this, I felt things were working just fine, but was looking for a way to inject more “hustle” into the workout while not having it be labeled conditioning. I combined this change with my “conditioning comes first” strategy, which has also been eye-opening in a positive way. You will see both strategies used in the “Program 3” template!


Cluster Sets


A great way to inject some variety into a basic training template is to use cluster sets instead of standard sets. A cluster is essentially a set of X reps that is split into smaller sets separated by a specific amount of rest.


Clusters are a great way to get in more rep volume! I recommend them for intermediate/advanced lifters. You can use cluster sets for hypertrophy or for a strength focus.


For more info, check out an article I wrote on cluster sets! http://THEFITNESSBOOTCAMPCLUB.COM/using-cluster-sets-to-spice-up-strength-programming/


Density Sets


Density training is a method that focuses on two training variables: volume and duration. Basically, we are looking at doing “X” amount of work in “Y” amount of time. There are several ways in which we can accomplish this:


We can use a set amount of time and work to get as many sets or reps as possible. This is also known as an AMRAP or AMReps.


We can use a set goal of reps/sets and see how long it takes to finish it. Increasing the density would mean trying to decrease the amount of time required for this goal.


For more info, check out an article I wrote on density training! http://THEFITNESSBOOTCAMPCLUB.COM/density-training-for-metabolic-conditioning-strength-work




The concept of modifying tempo is not a new one, but it has become more popular in recent years regarding strength programming. Tempo training focuses on the time under tension during a set of an exercise. More specifically, it is a prescription for the speed of each rep.


Tempo Notation


The tempo of most exercises can be broken down into four components: the eccentric (lowering) phase, the pause at the bottom of the movement, the concentric (lifting) phase, and the pause at the top of the movement.


Keep in mind that the first number is always the eccentric portion of the rep. Yes, even for deadlifts, which begin with a concentric phase.


So, if you are deadlifting using this tempo, you would take three seconds to return to the floor from standing.


Continuing with this notation, the second number refers to any pause in the bottom position, so in this case you would pause for a second at the floor.


The third number reflects the concentric phase of the movement. In this example, the “X” means to be explosive upon bringing the weight up.


Finally, the fourth number refers to any pause at the top position of the movement, so in this example you would take one second in standing prior to returning the bar to the floor.


For more info, check out an article I wrote (http://THEFITNESSBOOTCAMPCLUB.COM/using-a-tempo-focus-with-build-n-burn-workouts/)


Strength work most definitely has its place in the group training setting! If you have been focusing solely on conditioning work with your groups, I encourage you to make your programming more well-rounded. You will find plenty of know-how, ideas, & a year’s worth of strength + conditioning-focused programming in The Ultimate Group Training System!


That said, be on the lookout for parts 4 & 5 of this series which will shift the focus to conditioning!

In case you missed it: Part 1 and Part 2 



……in the mean time…….

Go grab Build N’ Burn  – Done For YOU 16 Wk Metabolic Small Group Training Program for Fit Pros












And our Brand New:“The Ultimate Small Group Training System”  The most Comprehensive Guide to Semi-Private and Small Group Training








Other articles by Sarah Rippel:

SGT Workout Breakdown- Program 4  Part 1

The Conditioning Based Warm-Up: 10 Minute EMOM

SGT Workout Breakdown Program 4 – Part 2

Metabolic Circuit Revamp V1.0

Unconventional Cardio: Strongman Conditioning Circuits

Density Training for Metabolic Conditioning & Strength Work

Using Cluster Sets To Spice Up Strength Programming

4 Wall Ball Conditioning Workouts+4 Tips to Improve Wall Ball Technique(Videos)

Using a Tempo Focus with Build ‘N Burn Workouts

Speed Ladder + Static Core Continuous 30-Second Circuit Version 2.0


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