Sets and Reps: The X’s and %’s

Sets and Reps: The X’s and %’s

An unfortunate byproduct of starting on your fitness journey is learning the meaning of the numbers on the board.  Few things can be more intimidating for a new athlete than to see a whole bunch of reps and rounds on the board and not being able to make any sense of it.

If you are intimidated by all the percentages, rounds, reps, DBD – Difficult but Doable and everything else that come with moving heavy weights? Here’s a guide to help you out. Keep in mind that most of these ideas are unique to Atomic Athlete, not standard across the board of strength and conditioning.

IMG_7307 Rep(s): A rep (or repetition) is a single movement of any exercise.  

Why do we do different rep variations? 2-3x reps vs 5x or 10x?  The lower the rep ranges the more weight you are expected to lift.  This will have you lifting much closer to your max weight or One Rep Max (1RM)   Something we hammer over and over again is that intensity is proportional to the percentage of your 1RM you are lifting.  Meaning the heavier it is the less reps you can do.  

The following is an approximate scale for the repetitions that an athlete will be able to perform in relation to their 1RM.  Keep in mind that this is approximated loading and will not be entirely accurate for all athletes.

1RM – 100%

2RM – 95%

3RM – 90%

4RM – 85%

5RM – 80%

6RM – 75%

7RM – 70%

8RM – 65%

9RM – 60%

10RM – 55%

Rounds: A round is a series of reps of an exercise done in sequence.

Again due to the nature of the programming rounds will vary.  Due to the changing goals of cycles rounds and reps change by the goal.  Rounds and reps are used together to dictate total volume of work that is desired.  This volume or total amount of work contributes towards the goal of improving the athlete’s strength or capacity

DBD:  Difficult but Doable.  

This is our form of Autoregulation and basically leaves it to the athletes discretion to work up to an appropriate loading.  Every athletes DBD is going to be different, and it will be different depending on the volume of the exercises.  A good rule of thumb is work up to a load that you are able to do for the prescribed reps as fast as possible.  You want this load to be difficult- meaning that if it is 5x reps you should be able to hit all 5 reps, but it should be hard to get the last couple of reps.  But also doable- you should never need a spotter when working DBD- if you are working to 5 reps you should have 5 good reps, a definite 6th rep and a possible shaky 7th rep in you.  DBD never means go to total failure.

IMG_7179 How are the %’s supposed to feel?

Here’s a simple guide to what percentages should feel like. Keep in mind these are separated between the fast lifts (olympic-style lifts) and slow lifts (everything else).  The lifts are separated because of the anaerobic nature of the fast lifts.  Meaning that if you are Olympic lifting for more than a 2-3 reps in a row you are limited more by technique and cardiovascular ability that actual strength.

Fast Lifts:

60-70% – light and fast – perfect practice  

70-80% – our bread and butter for Olympic lifts- where technique is trained

80-90% – the meeting of technique and strength- you should always be able to make these numbers, but you should have to focus on it.  If your technique is off you might still be able to muscle through, but that’s not the goal.

90%+ – heavy- if your technique is off, your strength won’t help you here

Slow Lifts:

50-60% – a weight that doesn’t require special set up- something that can be used during conditioning sessions.

60-70% – should be difficult but doable for 10+ reps

70-80% – should be difficult but doable 8-10 reps

80-85% – should be difficult but doable 4-6 reps

85-90% – should be difficult but doable 3-4 reps

90%+ – should be difficult but doable- you should get this with confidence, but it’s gonna take  work.


“The resistance that you fight physically in the gym and the resistance that you fight in life can only build a strong character.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger


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