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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

CRITICAL SETS, CRITICAL REPS “having a decisive or crucial importance in the success, failure, or ex


The primary goal of every bodybuilder is to build muscle. Shape, proportion, symmetry, etc., are all important aspects of bodybuilding success, but they take a back seat when it comes to the business end of bodybuilding — building muscle mass. Over the course of my lifetime, I have spent literally thousands of hours working out, or working in gyms, and it has always fascinated me to see just who succeeds in this muscle-building endeavour, and who does not. Although genetic potential plays a large part in your ability to grow muscle, ultimately it comes down to a combination of nutrition, sleep, and how hard you train — just how much effort you are prepared to put into your workout. A workout consists of sets and reps, these are the building-blocks of a training session. This is absolutely basic stuff. However, to get the optimum result from training it is important that we understand that not all sets, and not all reps, are equal. It is imperative to have an overview of the workout as a whole, and to develop the ability to recognise the few precious opportunities within that entity, within the workout, that are central to the success of building muscle. I have a lot I want to say about sets (and super sets) in general, but that is for another time. For now, this is my guide to understanding exactly when and where critical sets and reps occur, how to mentally approach them, and how to physically execute them. THE WORKOUT — identifying the critical sets The typical bodybuilding workout would consist of about 25 sets — 5 or 6 exercises, with 4 or 5 sets of each. Let’s look, for example, at a standard chest and triceps workout. Bench Press 5 x 10 Incline Dumbell Press 4 x 12 Flat Flyes 4 x 12-15 Dips 4 x 12 Lying Tricep Extensions 4 x 12 Tricep Pushdowns 4 x 15 Sounds good! Twenty five opportunities to build muscle? Not quite. Not all sets, as we are discovering, within the context of the whole workout, are equal. Let’s look at our chest and tricep workout again in a bit more detail. We start with 25 sets. Every exercise has to have a warm-up set and nobody ever grew muscle on a warm up, so . . . 25 minus 6 equals 19 Heavy-duty exercises like Bench Press, Incline Dumbell Press and Lying Tricep Extensions need a second warm-up, or intermediate set. Therefore . . . 19 minus 3 equals 16 Of these 16 remaining sets, in reality, only about 12 will be to absolute failure, employing forced reps, partials or drop sets, and therefore really qualifying as muscle-building sets. These are the workout’s critical sets. So we have about a dozen genuine muscle-building sets in the average workout. Our goal, if we want to maximise our strength and size gains, is to put one hundred percent, mentally and physically, into each and every one of those critical sets. Knowing which sets are critical, and acting upon that information, makes them critical. If you do not have the overview to recognise the critical sets, they cease to be so! Now that we have established which sets in the workout are critical let’s look at the structure of the set itself. THE SET — Break it down A set is made up of repetitions, starting from a single rep at its most extreme, going up to almost any number you choose — 50, 60, or even higher. However, for most bodybuilders, powerlifters, and your average gym user, a set would consist of repetitions ranging from 4 to 20. In each set you need to choose the correct number of reps, depending on whatever it is you want to achieve. Essentially: low reps: 1 - 4 are for strength middle range reps: 5 - 10 are for size high reps: 11 - 15 are for endurance and muscle-shaping. As we have seen with regard to sets within the workout, not every rep, within the set, is critical, either. Unlike sets in the workout, however, it is much simpler to identify critical reps, as they always occur towards the end of the set. Which is not to say that reps at the beginning of the set are unimportant — they are, as they lay the foundation for those final critical repetitions themselves. PSYCHOLOGY — mentally approaching the set Although working out is a physical endeavour, without the correct mental or psychological approach in the first place, we are doomed to fail physically. The plain fact of the matter is that critical sets require your total commitment. If you are not able (or prepared) to give 100% effort, to push into and through the pain and fatigue, then you will never achieve any substantial measure of muscle-building success. So we need to be ready; we need to relish the challenge, we need to embrace the pain, we need to hurl ourselves into the fray, and what’s more we need to love it! In my post Big. Dick. Energy., I mention a phrase used to describe how Arnold Schwarzenegger trains; he is described as having a “Fierce Joy” when working out. These inspirational words encapsulate the perfect mental attitude we all ought to aspire to when tackling those brick-wall critical sets! As your physical strength wanes, your mental strength must increase. As the set progresses, so do your determination and effort, knowing that every rep is more useful than the previous, that the last few reps are exponentially more worthwhile than the first. The difficulty is, of course, that the deeper you go into the set the more painful it becomes, which is why we need to employ every trick in the book to get every last drop out of those all-important reps. I want to illustrate in another way how important the last reps of a set are. What if you only did the first 3 reps of a 12-rep set? Think of your typical workout and imagine you only did the first 3 reps of every set — what a waste of time! With that image in mind we can see more clearly that a set without the last critical reps is worthless. I think it was Muhammad Ali who, when asked how many sit-ups he did, replied that he did not know, as he only started counting when it began to hurt. Now there was a man who knew a critical rep when he saw one. THE NEXT LEVEL — use your imagination One of the sneaky ways I use to get the most from the critical reps is to imagine that the last reps count as double or even triple reps; thus “fooling” myself into giving even more effort to them. So I count a ten-rep set differently, imagining the last single reps as 2’s or 3’s — emphasising their importance in my mind and encouraging my muscles to follow suit. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 1-2-3-4-5-6-8-10-12-15!! Visualising yourself performing the set before you actually do it is another very useful tool, enabling you to achieve the maximum from a set. My friend and client Mr B-B does this to great effect. He imagines himself taking the bar off the rack, feeling its weight, telling himself he is lowering the bar under control, then pushing it up strong and true. Getting stronger as the set progresses, feeling positive and confident. He physically performs the (weightless) movement as he describes it to himself — a very strong way of physically and mentally reinforcing what you want to achieve from the set. GOAL SETTING: calling it right Setting the reps goal is important. Setting the correct reps goal is vital. If the target is too tough you will lose heart and give up — you have to be in with a reasonable chance of achieving it; on the other hand, if you set the bar too low you will reach it before you come anywhere near the “growth zone”. It is wise to bear a few factors in mind when choosing a rep target. Relying on previous experience is helpful; think back to prior workouts and use that information to help fix your target. Apart from looking back on previous sessions, take into account how you are feeling on the day. Are you getting stronger? Are you tiring? Are you feeling super-charged? You can change your target mid-set if you really have to, if it becomes obvious that the target is either unachievable or too easy. For instance, if you are aiming for a standard 12 reps and you feel you have just one more rep in you, then why stop at a Dirty Dozen? Go for the Bakers! Add that extra rep to get the maximum from the set, turning a wasted set into a critical set. Also, it’s ok to set a target and fail. It’s the trying that is important. I estimate that I fail to achieve my target about half of the time, but, I get a great set done 90% of the time. I like to annoy my clients with enigmatic statements like: “Fail to succeed.” If you can’t make up your mind on a rep target you can set a do-able “insurance” target plus a more risky stretch target. So there we have it, my little guide to critical sets, in a nutshell. 1. Identify the critical sets. 2. Realise the importance of the last reps. 3. Set your target. 4. Mentally prepare yourself. 5. Give it your all! 6. Relish the challenge. 7. Get bigger. 8. Get stronger.  


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