Charles Poliquin was one of the world’s greatest strength coaches. He trained Olympic gold medalists in 24 different sports and countless professional athletes.
One of Charles’ biggest competitive advantages is that he understood the “mathematics of strength training.” In other words he knew how to manipulate training variables like the number of sets and reps to produce better results.
If you want to build size and strength as fast as possible then you must try Charles Poliquin’s favorite set and rep schemes!
- Part 1: Sets And Reps For Maximum Muscle Mass
- Part 2: Sets And Reps For Pure Strength Gains
- Part 3: Sets And Reps For Size And Strength
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you 13 of Charles Poliquin’s favorite set and rep schemes and how to use them to build muscle mass and strength.
If you are past the beginner stage then your regular old “3 sets of 10” routine just isn’t going to cut it. You have to continue to challenge your body with new set and rep schemes to spur on progress.
Some of Charles Poliquin’s favourite set and rep schemes include contrast sets, omni-rep protocols and “death circuits.” If you are stuck at a training plateau or if you just want to make faster progress in the gym then these routines are for you!
Before we get started I have to talk about how Charles writes his training routines. Charles Poliquin uses the A1 / A2 system for almost all of his routines.
Take a look at the following routine:
- A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / neutral), 4 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
Whenever you see more than 1 “A” exercise, “B” exercise, “C” exercise etc. you know you are performing antagonistic supersets.
An antagonistic superset means you are alternating back and forth between sets for opposing muscle groups. Some great examples of antagonistic muscle groups are chest / back, biceps / triceps and quadriceps / hamstrings.
For this routine you perform a set of squats, rest 90 seconds, perform a set of leg curls, rest 90 seconds and perform another set of squats. Charles Poliquin uses antagonistic supersets in almost all of his routines. This is true regardless of what sets and reps he uses.
Antagonistic supersets have 3 major advantages:
- They increase your strength
- They increase your endurance
- They increase your training density
You will see antagonistic supersets in almost all of the routines in this article. Charles likes antagonistic supersets so much that he focuses on training splits where antagonistic body parts are paired together.
Here is the exact training split that Charles used with about 70% of his world-class athletes:
- Day 1: Chest / Back
- Day 2: Legs
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Arms / Shoulders
- Day 5: Off
- Day 6: Repeat!
This training split lets you train each muscle group about once every 5 days. As you can see this training split perfectly accommodates the A1 / A2 training system.
Here is another training split that Charles liked to use:
- Day 1: Chest / Biceps
- Day 2: Legs
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Back / Triceps / Shoulders
- Day 5: Off
- Day 6: Repeat!
The main difference with this split is the organization of the upper body workouts is slightly different. Charles believed this second split worked very well for advanced athletes with a large percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
If you use any of these routines without the antagonistic supersets then they will be less effective. If you want a more in-depth discussion on how to read Charles Poliquin style training routines then make sure you check out this article on how to read a training program.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Sets And Reps For Maximum Muscle Mass
Charles Poliquin was a master at helping his world-class athletes build muscular size. He even worked with many professional bodybuilders like Ben Pakulski throughout his career. Charles had many set / rep schemes that he liked for building muscle mass as quickly as possible.
Here are a few of his favourites:
- German Volume Training
- The 6/12/25 Method
- Escalating Density Training
- Death Circuits
Don’t worry, I will explain each of these in more depth as we go along.
Charles Poliquin’s German Volume Training
German Volume Training is Charles Poliquin’s most popular training program. Many trainees report that they were able to add several pounds of muscle after just a few weeks on the program!
German Volume Training is sometimes called the “10 sets of 10” program. The idea is simple: you are going to perform 10 sets of 10 reps with the same weight on 2 primary exercises. In order to do this you will have to use a weight you can lift about 20 times or a weight that is around 60% of your 1-rep max for a given exercise.
Charles Poliquin was a big believer in performing 10+ sets on a single exercise to build size and strength. He often had his athletes perform 10 sets of 10, 10 sets of 5, 10 sets of 3, or 10 sets of 1 in their routines. This is called the “law of repeated bouts.” Charles found that one of the best ways to get better at an exercise was to perform 10+ sets on it!
Here is what your first 10 sets of 10 workout might look like:
- Set 1: 10 reps
- Set 2: 10 reps
- Set 3: 10 reps
- Set 4: 10 reps
- Set 5: 9 reps
- Set 6: 9 reps
- Set 7: 8 reps
- Set 8: 7 reps
- Set 9: 7 reps
- Set 10: 8 reps
Most trainees find that they actually get MORE reps on their 8th, 9th or 10th sets. This is due to short-term adaptations in your central nervous system. Your body becomes so efficient at performing that exercise that you get a short-term strength boost on it. This is just one of the many benefits of performing 10 sets on an exercise.
Here is how Charles might design a full German Volume Training workout. Check it out:
Chest / Back German Volume Training Routine
- A1: 15 degree incline DB press (neutral grip), 10 x 10**, 4/0/2/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Cable pulldown (medium / supinated grip), 10 x 10**, 4/0/2/0, 90 seconds rest
- B1: Incline hammer strength machine press, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Unilateral DB arc row, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with your 20-rep max or 60% of your 1-rep max.
Most trainees are a little confused when they first see a German Volume Training workout. Why are you performing 10 sets of 10 on one exercise? Wouldn’t it be better to perform 5 sets of 10 reps on two different exercises so you can handle more weight? Actually this is a great question!
Whenever you perform a hypertrophy routine you are lifting weights to create an internal response in the body. The internal response from performing 10 sets of 10 reps on one exercise is completely different from performing 5 sets of 10 reps on two different exercises.
With the 10 sets of 10 set / rep scheme you get the benefits of nervous system related adaptations and a radically different fatigue management curve.
If you need a break from lifting ultra-heavy weights or are after some quick size gains then I highly recommend you give this 10 sets of 10 routine a shot. Just make sure you follow the exercise tempos and rest intervals as written. They are written that way for a reason!
Charles Poliquin’s 6/12/25 Method
One of Charles Poliquin’s favourite ways to train for hypertrophy was to use “omni-rep” protocols. The prefix “omni” stands for “all.” Omni-rep protocols mean you are going to train in many different rep ranges to fatigue as many different muscle fibers as possible!
One of Charles Poliquin’s favourite omni-rep protocols for building muscular hypertrophy is the 6/12/25 method. The idea is simple: you are going to perform a tri-set where you perform 6 reps on the first exercise, 12 reps on the second exercise and 25 reps on the third exercise. For example:
- Perform exercise #1 for 6 reps, then rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise #2 for 12 reps, then rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise #3 for 25 reps, then rest 2-4 minutes, then repeat the tri-set!
Here is a great video of Josh Bryant performing a 6/12/25 arm workout:
Tri-sets are already one of Charles Poliquin’s favourite hypertrophy training methods. When you perform three exercises back-to-back you create significantly more muscular damage and metabolic fatigue.
When you pair together tri-sets with the 6/12/25 rep scheme you take it to a whole new level! Each exercise let’s you target a different type of muscle fiber with the varying rep ranges.
The 6-rep exercise is ideal for targeting the fast-twitch muscle fibers while the 12- and 25-rep exercises are perfect for damaging the slow-twitch muscle fibers and creating tons of metabolic fatigue. In other words the pump will be so big that you will feel like your muscles are about to explode!
Here is a Poliquin-style 6/12/25 arm workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
6/12/25 Method Arm Workout
- A1: Decline ez-bar extension (to forehead), 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Flat bench press against chains, 3-4 x 12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Overhead cable rope extension, 3-4 x 25, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A4: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), 3-4 x 6, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A5: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3-4 x 12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A6: 60 degree incline cable curl, 3-4 x 25, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
When you are using the 6/12/25 set / rep scheme it is very important that you use the correct exercise tempos. Charles recommends you use a 4/0/X/0 tempo for the first exercise, a 3/0/X/0 tempo for the second exercise and a 2/0/X/0 for the third exercise.
Charles recommends these tempos because he wants you to accumulate enough time under tension to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible. If you just “wing it” and ignore these exercise tempos then your results will be sub-optimal.
Charles Poliquin’s Escalating Density Training
I first heard about escalating density training through the writings of Charles Stacey. Escalating density is completely different from any training method you have used in the past.
Charles believes that you should forget about sets and reps. Instead you should focus on the total amount of work that you perform in a given period of time. This is known as the “density” of your training.
In my opinion Charles Poliquin invented a new and improved version of this program. Charles called his new program “the 30/15/15 method.” Here is a basic template for this workout:
- Minutes 0-30: Perform sets of 2 on exercises A1 / A2 with no rest between sets
- Minutes 30-45: Perform sets of 8 on exercises B1 / B2 with no rest between sets
- Minutes 45-60: Perform sets of 20 on exercises C1 / C2 with no rest between sets
I’m not kidding when I say no rest between sets! Charles wants you to perform exercise A1, then immediately walk over and perform exercise A2, then immediately walk back and perform exercise A1 again etc. Your goal is to perform as many sets as possible in the 30- or 15-minute time interval for each exercise.
I recommend you start with your 10-rep max for the A exercises, your 20-rep max for the B exercises and your 30-rep max for the C exercises. Each time you repeat this workout your goal is to perform more sets with the same weight.
If you perform more than 20 sets on the A exercises or more than 10 sets on the B exercises in the strict time interval then you can bump up the weight on the next workout.
Let’s take a look at a sample training routine before discussing this further. Check it out:
Charles Poliquin Escalating Density Training Arm Workout
- A1: Standing behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip), sets of 2**, 3/0/X/0, no rest
- A2: Seated DB hammer curls, sets of 2**, 3/0/X/0, no rest
- B1: Lying kettlebell extension, sets of 8***, 2/0/1/0, no rest
- B2: 45 degree incline DB curl (offset grip), sets of 8***, 2/0/1/0, no rest
- C1: Seated dip machine, sets of 20****, 1/0/1/0, no rest
- C2: Standing ez-bar cable curl (narrow / supinated grip), sets of 20****, 1/0/1/0, no rest
**Perform sets of 2 with your estimated 10-rep max for 30 minutes straight.
***Perform sets of 8 with your estimated 20-rep max for 15 minutes straight.
****Perform sets of 20 with your estimated 30-rep max for 15 minutes straight.
This is another “omni-rep” training protocol that will give you one of the best pumps of your life. The metabolic fatigue from this routine is out of this world!
This workout actually feels a lot like the 10 sets of 10 German Volume Training program. For the first 10-15 minutes you will feel like you are hardly doing anything. However, after the first 15 minutes or so the “burn” really starts to creep in. By the 25 minute mark you are going to be begging for mercy!
If you are stuck at a hypertrophy training plateau then I highly recommend you give the 30/15/15 escalating density method a shot.
Charles Poliquin’s Death Circuits
It’s time to bust out the big guns! If Elon Musk went to Charles Poliquin and said “I’ll give you a billion dollars if you can increase the size of my legs by 3 inches in a month” then Charles would immediately put Elon on a death circuit routine.
According to Charles Poliquin a death circuit is a series of 5+ exercises performed back-to-back for 10+ reps each. Normally these death circuits are performed for legs although technically they can be performed for any muscle group.
Here is what a death circuit might look like:
- Perform exercise #1 for 10+ reps, no rest
- Perform exercise #2 for 10+ reps, no rest
- Perform exercise #3 for 10+ reps, no rest
- Perform exercise #4 for 10+ reps, no rest
- Perform exercise #5 for 10+ reps, rest 2-5 minutes, repeat!
Keep in mind that every set is performed just shy of failure. Death circuits are no joke! Charles Poliquin loved to use death circuits for quads with big compound exercises like back squats, leg presses, machine hack squats etc. The more lactic acid you can produce in your legs the better!
Death circuits work so well because they increase both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy in the muscle cell. In other words they increase the size of the muscle fibers AND they increase the fluid volume in the muscle cell.
If you are looking for a strategy to add muscle mass as quickly as humanly possible then death circuits are as good as it gets.
Here is a Charles Poliquin inspired death circuit that you may want to try. Check it out:
Quadriceps Death Circuit Routine
- A1: Back squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 4 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, no rest
- A2: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, no rest
- A3: Leg press against bands, 4 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, no rest
- A4: Machine hack squat, 4 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, no rest
- A5: Walking alternating DB lunges, 4 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, rest 3-4 minutes
It is very important that you perform every single set just shy of failure. In other words your last rep should be very challenging on each and every exercise. Death circuits are basically a post-failure training method. If you do not push yourself hard enough on the first exercise then you will not get optimal results from this routine.
I have to warn you: death circuits are an advanced hypertrophy training method and should be reserved for serious trainees only. You have to have your nutrition, recovery, sleep etc. completely dialed in before you attempt a routine like this. Otherwise this routine will spit you out alive!
If your recover program is completely dialed in and you have the guts to push yourself on every set then you can expect some of the fastest gains of your entire life on this routine.
Even someone like Elon Musk could add inches to his quads in a few weeks on this routine!
Part 2: Sets And Reps For Pure Strength Gains
Almost all of Charles Poliquin’s athletes needed to get stronger to perform at their best. Whether it was Adam Nelson in the shot put, Dwight Philips in the triple jump or Helen Maroulis in Greco-Roman wrestling all of his athletes needed to get stronger!
I think Marc Bell said it best: “strength is never a weakness and weakness is never a strength.”
Charles Poliquin used a huge range of set and rep schemes to help his athletes build strength in record time. Charles believed that advanced athletes needed more variety in terms of their sets and reps to build strength. At some point a simple “10 sets of 3” workout stops getting the job done!
Charles liked to use novel set and rep schemes that were psychologically and physiologically stimulating. Here are just a few of his favourites:
- Cluster Sets
- 3/2/1 Wave Loading
- The 1-6 Method
- The Modified Hepburn Method
- The 3 Then 1 Method
If you are past the beginner stage and want to get as strong as humanly possible then these routines are for you! Now let’s take a closer look at them one-by-one…
Charles Poliquin’s Cluster Sets
Charles Poliquin believed that cluster sets were the best all-around set / rep scheme that you can use to build strength. If that doesn’t get you excited about cluster sets then nothing will!
There are many different cluster set protocols but they all have one thing in common: you take short rest periods every rep in your sets.
Charles Poliquin’s favourite cluster set protocol features 5 sets of 5 reps with 15 seconds rest in between each rep. For example:
Poliquin Cluster Set Template
- Perform your 1st rep, rack the weight and rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 2nd rep, rack the weight and rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 3rd rep, rack the weight and rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 4th rep, rack the weight and rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 5th rep, rack the weight and rest 3-5 minutes before your next set
Here is a perfect demonstration of cluster sets on the bench press and preacher curls.
As you can see the athlete is resting about 15 seconds in between all 5 of his reps on the bench press and preacher curls. These 15-second rest periods give your muscles just enough time to rest so you can put in a true 100% effort on every rep. In fact these short rest periods work so well that Charles recommends you use your 3-rep max for each exercise instead of your 5-rep max!
Here is a sample cluster set routine that you may want to try. Check it out:
Poliquin Cluster Sets Chest / Biceps Routine
- A1: 30 degree incline bench press against bands (medium grip), 5 x 5**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher unilateral zottman curl (offset grip)***, 5 x 5**, 5/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 75 degree incline DB press, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 30 degree incline DB curl (hammer grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Rest 15 seconds in between all 5 reps for each set. So you would perform rep #1, rest 15 seconds, perform rep #2, rest 15 seconds, etc. until you perform all 5 reps.
***Hold the weight with your pinky finger touching the inside of the dumbbell. This will make your elbow flexors work harder on the concentric and eccentric range of the exercise.
If you perform this routine correctly then you should be able to perform all 5 sets of 5 reps with your 3-rep max on the bar. The short intra-set rest periods are just THAT good at helping you to recover. The 5 sets of 5 reps cluster set protocol has many advantages.
First of all it places your fast-twitch muscle fibers under a huge amount of time under tension with a fairly heavy weight. This is great for stimulating neurological adaptations as well as increasing the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The other benefit of cluster sets is they let you focus on performing 5 picture-perfect techniques. You can really focus on exploding as fast as possible on every rep to further recruit the fast-twitch fibers.
I think you will be shocked at how effective cluster sets are for boosting maximal strength. But don’t just take my word for it: they were Charles Poliquin’s secret weapon for rapid strength gains!
Charles Poliquin’s 3/2/1 Wave Loading
Wave loading is another one of Charles Poliquin’s favourite set / rep schemes. Charles first learned about wave loading through his strength training mentor Pierre Roy. A strength training wave is a series of 3 sets performed with decreasing rep ranges.
The best wave loading protocol for pure strength gains is the 3/2/1 wave. Here is what it looks like:
- Set #1: 3 reps
- Set #2: 2 reps
- Set #3: 1 rep
These three sets count as 1 complete wave. A typical 3/2/1 wave loading workout would feature 2-4 waves depending on your work capacity for that day.
If you feel like superman during your 3/2/1 wave loading workout then go ahead and perform 4 total waves. On the other hand if you get to the gym and realize you’re grumpier than Darth Schwarzenegger then stick to 2 total waves.
Wave loading works on the principle of post-tetanic potentiation. In other words the varying rep ranges helps to “excite” your nervous system so your strength actually increases as you progress through the workout.
Here is what a typical progression looks like for a 3/2/1 wave loading workout:
- Set 1: 300 pounds x 3 reps
- Set 2: 310 pounds x 2 reps
- Set 3: 330 pounds x 1 rep
- Set 4: 302.5 pounds x 3 reps
- Set 5: 312.5 pounds x 2 reps
- Set 6: 332.5 pounds x 1 rep
- Set 7: 305 pounds x 3 reps
- Set 8: 315 pounds x 2 reps
- Set 9: 335 pounds x 1 rep
As you can see the weights are slightly increased from one wave to the next. I highly recommend you use “micro plates” to allow you to make small 1-3 pound jumps in weight from one set to the next.
Let’s take a look at a sample Poliquin-style 3/2/1 wave loading workout before discussing this training method further. Check it out:
3/2/1 Wave Loading Chest / Back Workout
- A1: Chin up (narrow / supinated grip), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Reverse band bench press (shoulder-width grip), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: 45 degree incline barbell extension (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 3/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Seated DB external rotation, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
**Performed as a 3/2/1 wave loading protocol. Perform 3 reps on your first set, 2 reps on your 2nd set, 1 rep on your 3rd set, 3 reps on your 4th set etc. Perform 6-12 total sets depending on your performance that day.
As you can see Charles likes to focus on two primary exercises during his wave loading workouts. This is something that he learned from the legendary Olympic weightlifter Doug Hepburn.
After the two primary exercises you can perform some accessory work if you still have the energy for it. However, the main priority of the workout is the first 2 exercises.
Charles likes the 3/2/1 wave loading set / rep scheme because it is psychologically and physiologically stimulating. The weights vary from one set to the next which challenges you mentally and physically.
It also prevents you from “burning out” on one specific rep range. This helps your endurance as you progress through the workout and helps you to get in more high-quality sets.
Finally the 3/2/1 wave loading scheme lets you perform some maximal singles without burning out. If you were to try and perform 6-12 heavy singles you may burn out. However, if you only have to perform 2-4 heavy singles in a workout then it becomes much more feasible.
If you want to build maximal strength then you have to give 3/2/1 wave loading a shot. Charles Poliquin believed it was right up there with cluster sets as one of the very best easy to train for both relative and absolute strength.
Charles Poliquin’s 1-6 Method
Charles Poliquin first learned about the 1-6 method from the strength coach Dragomir Cioroslan in 1991. Charles immediately started using it with his athletes preparing for the 1992 Olympic games and was blown away by how well it worked.
The 1-6 method is a form of contrast training. You are going to alternate back and forth between singles and 6-rep sets. Here is what this set / rep scheme looks like in practice:
1-6 Method Set / Rep Scheme
- Set 1: 1 rep
- Set 2: 6 reps
- Set 3: 1 rep
- Set 4: 6 reps
- Set 5: 1 rep
- Set 6: 6 reps
For the 1-6 method you are going to perform 6 total sets on 2 major exercises. So why would anyone train this way? What’s the point? That is a great question!
We know from research and real-world experience that when you perform a maximum single several minutes before performing a 6-rep set you can actually lift more weight for the 6-rep set. This has to do with a phenomenon called “post-tetanic potentiation.”
The maximum single forces your body to recruit as many high-threshold motor units as possible. Then when you perform your 6-rep set these high-threshold motor units are all still firing! This means that you can tap into more motor units than normal during your 6-rep set and thus create a stronger stimulus for strength and size gains.
It gets even better though: most trainees find that they actually get stronger as they progress through the workout. The singles make you stronger on the 6-rep sets. However, the reverse is also true: the 6-rep sets potentiate your nervous system so you lift more weight on the maximum singles!
If you have never performed a wave loading or 1-6 method workout then this is just something you have to experience for yourself to believe.
Here is a sample 1-6 method front squat workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
1-6 Method Front Squat Workout
- A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels slightly elevated), 6 x 1/6**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Kneeling leg curl (Poliquin method / feet neutral), 6 x 1/6**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Front foot elevated split squat (barbell on back), 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Reverse hyperextension, 4 x 10-12, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a 1/6 contrast set training protocol. Perform your 1st set for 1 rep, your 2nd set for 6 reps, your 3rd set for 1 rep, etc. until you have performed 6 total sets.
Charles Poliquin believed that the best way to approach this workout was to treat the single-repetitions as all-out maximum singles. He wants you to lift close to 100% of your estimated 1-rep max for the day.
Some of you reading this may find that you have a hard time recovering from this. If your recovery ability is not your greatest asset then you may want to try using about 90% of your 1-rep max for the first single and adjusting upwards from there on your subsequent sets. This is something that Christian Thibadeau recommends and it also works quite well.
Whichever strategy you use I highly recommend you use the 1/6 method to build maximal strength. It works like magic when applied properly.
Charles Poliquin’s Modified Hepburn Method
Charles Poliquin used to say that “the internet is the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to the strength training universe.” On the one hand you now have instant access to the ideas and training programs of all the best strength and physique coaches in the world!
I mean, what do you think I’m trying to do here at Revolutionary Program Design?
Unfortunately there is a dark side to the internet. There is so much information available that it can be hard to figure out which programs actually produce results.
One of the best programs that you have never heard of is the Modified Hepburn Method. This program is a modified version of the program that Doug Hepburn used to become the undisputed strongest man in the world in the 1950s.
Doug was an Olympic Weightlifting world champion and the first man to officially bench press 500 pounds. As Charles used to say, “success leaves clues.”
Doug Hepburn used to divide his workouts into two separate phases:
- Phase 1: 8 sets of 1-2 reps
- Phase 2: 5 sets of 5 reps
During the first half of his workouts Doug would perform 8 sets of 1-2 reps on two major exercises. Then in the second half of his workout he would perform 5 sets of 5 reps. This is an unbelievably effective set / rep scheme that Charles Poliquin has repeatedly used with his world-class athletes.
So why does it work so well? During the first half of the workout you are performing a huge volume of singles or doubles. These sets teach your body to recruit the high-threshold motor units and promote adaptations within the central nervous system.
After 8 of these sets your central nervous system is fully primed. Then when you perform your 5 sets of 5 reps you are able to fatigue the high-threshold motor units to promote functional hypertrophy gains.
Charles recommends that you slightly vary your exercises from the first phase to the second phase of the workout. For example you may slightly change your grip, stance or angle of the exercise from phase 1 to phase 2. This slight change let’s you tap into a slightly different portion of the motor unit pool and will enhance the effectiveness of this set / rep scheme.
Here is what a Poliquin-style Modified Hepburn Workout would look like. Check it out:
Chest / Back Modified Hepburn Method Workout
- A1: 45 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 8 x 1**, 2/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Chin up on rings, 8 x 1**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 5 x 5***, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Lean-away chin up on rings, 5 x 5**, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
**Perform your 1st single with 90% of your estimated 1-rep max. Slowly increase the weight over the course of the 8 sets. Your last single should be challenging.
***Your goal is to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with the same load. It is better to use a weight that is too light and go heavier the next workout than use a weight that is too heavy.
A lot of people seem to think that it is impossible to perform 8 singles or doubles in a single workout without burning out. After all, the Westside Barbell program only has you perform 2-3 heavy singles per max effort workout!
There are a couple of reasons why this works in the Modified Hepburn Method. First of all you are performing antagonistic supersets. For example in this workout you are super setting incline bench presses and chin ups with 2 minutes rest between exercises.
Research and real-world experience have shown that your muscular endurance is MUCH higher when you use antagonistic supersets. In other words you can perform more sets without your strength going into the toilet.
The other reason this works is these are not all 100% all-out singles. Charles recommends you start at about 90% of your estimated 1-rep max for that day and slowly work up from there.
For example here is what your first 8 singles might look like:
- Set 1: 300 pounds x 1 rep = easy
- Set 2: 300 pounds x 1 rep = easier than Susie Howard from college
- Set 3: 305 pounds x 1 rep = a little harder but still pretty easy
- Set 4: 310 pounds x 1 rep = hard
- Set 5: 310 pounds x 1 rep = hard
- Set 6: 310 pounds x 1 rep = hard but it moved a little faster
- Set 7: 315 pounds x 1 rep = very hard
- Set 8: 315 pounds x 1 rep = very very hard, an absolute grinder!
This is a sample progression if your estimated 1-rep max was around 330 pounds. On your next workout you could perform your first working set around 305-310 pounds depending on how you feel and go from there.
With the Modified Hepburn Method your performance on any one individual set isn’t that important. It is the high volume of quality work that provides the stimulus for gains in strength and functional hypertrophy.
Sometimes old-school workouts really are the way to go. If you are looking for an old-school workout to help you blast through strength plateaus then give the Modified Hepburn Method a shot. Charles Poliquin used it with his world-class athletes for a reason!
Charles Poliquin’s 3 Then 1 Method
Charles Poliquin has a saying that I really like: “strength training is like learning a foreign language.” When you learn a new language you always start by learning a few basic sentences:
- “Hello, my name is Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
- “Me greatest bodybuilder of all times!”
- “I lift things up and put them down!”
As your mastery of the language improves you learn more complicated words and sentence structures:
- “I like the color red because it’s a fire. And I see myself as always being on fire.”
- “All I know is that the first step is to create a vision, because when you see the vision – the beautiful vision – that creates the want power.”
- “To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: don’t be economic girlie men!”
The same thing is true with strength training. When you first start lifting weights you start with the basics. You learn the basic exercises and some basic set / rep schemes like 3 sets of 10, 5 sets of 5 etc. As you become bigger and stronger you have to learn more advanced strength training methods to continue making progress.
Charles Poliquin has said that the 3 then 1 method might be the single most advanced set / rep scheme he knows for boosting maximal strength.
The 3 then 1 method is really a form of contrast set training. You are going to alternate back and forth between a regular triple and an eccentric-only single rep. For example:
3 Then 1 Method Overview
- Set 1: 3 regular reps
- Set 2: 1 eccentric-only rep
- Set 3: 3 regular reps
- Set 4: 1 eccentric-only rep
- Set 5: 3 regular reps
- Set 6: 1 eccentric-only rep
The 3-rep set is performed just like any other 3-rep set. However, the singles are performed as eccentric-only singles with ultra heavy weights.
We know from research and real-world experience that heavy eccentric-only singles are one of the fastest ways to boost maximal strength. These eccentric-only reps place an unbelievable amount of tension on the fast-twitch muscle fibers and are fantastic for recruiting new motor units in the target muscle groups.
The biggest challenge with this training method is finding a way to safely perform the eccentric-only reps. One option is to use weight releasers. These are giant metal hooks that attach on either side of a barbell.
Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect demonstration of weight releasers:
As you can see the weight releasers drop down to the ground after they hit the floor. This means the exercise is heavier on the way down and lighter on the way up.
Another option is to use exercises where eccentric-only reps are easy to perform. Great examples include preacher curls and V-bar dips.
Here is a sample 3 then 1 method routine that you may want to try. Check it out:
Chest / Biceps 3 Then 1 Method Routine
- A1: Flat bench press (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 3, 4/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher DB curl (hammer grip), 3 x 3, 4/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- A3: Flat bench press with weight releasers)**, 3 x 1, 10/0/1/0***, 180 seconds rest
- A4: Eccentric-only preacher DB curl (hammer-grip)****, 3 x 1, 10/0/1/0***, 180 seconds rest
- B1: PJR pullover, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Standing unilateral cable reverse curl, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Load the barbell with 80% of your 1-rep max. Then load each weight releaser with 5-30% of your 1-rep max. The total weight on the bar should be 90-140% of your 1-rep max on the eccentric range and 80% of your 1-rep max on the concentric range.
***No, that was not a typo: you must use a 10-second lowering phase! If you cannot lower the weight over 10 seconds then you reached “failure” and you have to lighten the load
****Start at the top part of the exercise, then slowly lower your arm down over 10 seconds. Use a dumbbell that is 90-140% of your 1-rep max. If you cannot safely lower the weight over 10 seconds then it is too heavy.
The 3 then 1 method works for similar reasons to the 1-6 contrast set method. The eccentric-only singles teach your body to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. Then when you go to perform your heavy triples you will be able to lift more weight than usual.
The 3 then 1 method is also great for improving your “carryover” from eccentric training to more traditional concentric / eccentric reps.
If you are an advanced lifter with AT LEAST 2 years of hardcore training experience under your belt then you have to give the 3 then 1 method a shot. It is by far one of the best ways to train for pure strength gains.
Part 3: Sets And Reps For Size And Strength
Charles Poliquin believed that one of the best ways to train for a mix of size and strength gains is to train in the 4-8 rep range. The reps are low enough to get the benefits of nervous system adaptations but still high enough to build muscular size.
You may or may not know this but Charles Poliquin is a huge fan of the accumulation / intensification model of periodization. He believes that the best way for most trainees to build size and strength is to alternate back and forth between accumulation phases of training and intensification phases of training.
The accumulation phases feature higher reps and are designed to build muscle mass while the intensification phases feature lower reps and are designed to build strength.
Here’s where things get interesting: your accumulation and intensification phases will look very different depending on your goals. For example:
- Accumulation phases: 8-20 reps per set
- Intensification phases: 4-8 reps per set
- Accumulation phases: 4-8 reps per set
- Intensification phases: 1-5 reps per set
Do you notice anything interesting here? Charles believes that bodybuilders and powerlifters should spend some time training in the 4-8 rep ranges! This means that the set / rep schemes in part 3 of this article will work for you regardless of what your goal is.
Here are 5 of Charles Poliquin’s favourite set / rep schemes for a blend of size and strength gains:
- The 5% Solution
- 5 Sets Of 6-9 Reps
- The 5 To 8 Method
- 7/5/3 Wave Loading
Now let’s take a closer look at each of these training methods…
Charles Poliquin’s 4% Solution
You may have noticed that Charles Poliquin likes to use routines where the number of reps varies from one set to the next. 3/2/1 wave loading, the 1-6 contrast method and the 3 then 1 method are all perfect examples of this concept.
Charles also likes to use routines where the number of reps varies from one workout to the next. The best example of this is the 4% solution. Charles believes that every time you repeat a workout you should be about 2% stronger.
For example let’s say that someone is performing 4 sets of 8 reps on an exercise. Here is what their progression might look like using the 2% rule:
- Workout #1: 4 x 8 @ 100%
- Workout #2: 4 x 8 @ 102%
- Workout #3: 4 x 8 @ 104%
- Workout #4: 4 x 8 @ 106%
- Workout #5; 4 x 8 @ 108%
- Workout #6: 4 x 8 @ 110%
After the 6th workout the lifter might switch to a different type of routine using a different set / rep scheme and start progressing all over again. There is nothing wrong with training this way. However, Charles believed that some trainees got better results if their target reps changed from one workout to the next.
With the 4% solution you pick a target rep range that varies by 2 reps. Here are some examples:
- 6-8 reps per set
- 5-7 reps per set
- 4-6 reps per set
- 3-5 reps per set
You start at the higher end of your rep bracket and decrease the number of reps by 1 at each workout. Because you are decreasing your reps you can take a 4% weight jump from one workout to the next rather than just 2%.
Here is how your progress might look using the 4% solution:
- Workout #1: 4-5 x 8 @ 100%
- Workout #2: 4-5 x 7 @ 104%
- Workout #3: 4-5 x 6 @ 108%
- Workout #4: 4-5 x 8 @ 106%
- Workout #5; 4-5 x 7 @ 110%
- Workout #6: 4-5 x 6 @ 114%
The main benefit of the 4% solution over a more traditional 2% weights progression is you are more stimulated from a mental and physical standpoint. It is very exciting to take big weight jumps from one workout to the next.
As a general rule of thumb the more excited you are to train the more effort you will put into your sets and the more you will get out of them. Here is a sample 4% solution workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
4% Solution Arm Workout
- A1: Preacher ez-bar curls (narrow / supinated grip), 4-5 x 6-8**, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Lying ez-bar extension with chains (to chin), 4-5 x 6-8**, 2/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B1: 60 degree incline DB curl (supinating grip), 4-5 x 6-8**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Seated unilateral DB french press, 4-5 x 6-8**, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
**Use the 4% solution rep scheme as described above. Your reps fluctuate each workout.
If you are more of a beginner or intermediate trainee then you may find that your strength goes up by more than 4% from one workout to the next. If that is the case then go ahead and load up the bar with as much weight as you can handle for the target rep range!
I have coached many clients who see their strength go up by as much as 6-8% from one workout to the next when using this set / rep scheme. If you are really advanced then you may even want to try Charles Poliquin’s “Advanced German Volume Training” workout.
Unfortunately that lies beyond the scope of this article so I won’t discuss it any further here.
Charles Poliquin’s 5 Sets Of 6-9 Reps
Another set / rep scheme that Charles loved for building size and strength is “5 sets of 6-9 reps.” The idea is simple: you pick a weight that you can perform 5 sets of 6 reps with. You keep the weight the same on every workout until you can perform 5 sets of 9 reps with it.
For example here is what your progression might look like over 6 workouts:
- Workout #1: 200 pounds x 6, 6, 6, 6, 6
- Workout #2: 200 pounds x 7, 7, 7, 7, 6
- Workout #3: 200 pounds x 8, 8, 7, 7, 6
- Workout #4: 200 pounds x 9, 8, 8, 8, 7
- Workout #5: 200 pounds x 9, 9, 9, 9, 9
- Workout #6: 220 pounds x 6, 6, 6, 6, 6
Charles calls the 5 sets of 6-9 reps program another version of the “patient lifter’s method.” You continue using the same weight until you reach a certain goal, and then you bump up the weight.
This method works very well for trainees with a more balanced neurotransmitter profile. These guys don’t need as much variation in terms of sets and reps to make optimal progress.
Here is a sample program that you may want to try. Check it out:
5 Sets Of 6-9 Reps Chest / Back Routine
- A1: 15 degree incline DB press, 5 x 6-9**, 3/2/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Pull ups (medium / overhand grip), 5 x 6-9, 3/0/X/2, 90 seconds erst
- B1: 45 degree incline bench press with hanging bands (medium grip), 5 x 6-9**, 5/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Seated hammer strength unilateral row (neutral grip), 5 x 6-9**, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
**Perform 5 sets of 6 reps on your first workout. Use the same weight at every following workout until you can perform 5 sets of 9 reps. Perform 2 forced reps at the end of your 5th set on every other workout.
When Charles uses this set / rep scheme he likes to use it on two major exercises per body part. You would start out with 5 sets of 6 reps on all of these exercises and progress them as much as possible at each workout.
Charles also likes his athletes to perform forced reps on every other workout. More specifically he tells his athletes to perform 2 forced reps on the last set of each exercise on every other workout.
At the end of your last set your training partner will help you perform 2 additional reps after reaching failure. He will help you through the concentric range of the 2 extra reps and you will lower the weight back down on your own.
These forced reps help you to overload your eccentric strength levels and are fantastic for boosting size and strength.
Charles Poliquin’s 5 To 8 Method
The 5 to 8 method is one of the most under-rated set / rep schemes in the world. It is a modified version of rest-pause sets as popularized by Dante Trudel. Here is the exact protocol for a 5 to 8 set:
- Perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max, then rest 15 seconds
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, then rest 15 seconds
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, then rest 15 seconds
- Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, done!
The 5 to 8 method is sort of like a hybrid between DC-style rest-pause sets and cluster sets.
First you perform 5 reps with your 5 rep max. You want your last rep to be hard but it is very important that you DO NOT FAIL on the first 5 reps! Then you rest 15 seconds and perform 1 more single. The single will feel very difficult but you will make it! You repeat this process, resting 15 seconds and performing 1 more rep with the same weight until you have performed 8 total reps.
The 5 to 8 method is so effective cor both size and strength gains because you are overloading both your central nervous system and your muscular system.
Your central nervous system is absolutely torched because the extra single reps literally feel like all-out 1-rep maxes. However, your target muscle groups also get torched because of the post-failure reps. This method is so effective that Charles Poliquin calls it his #2 training method for boosting functional hypertrophy.
Here is a sample 5 to 8 method lower body workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
5 To 8 Method Lower Body Workout
- A1: Safety squat bar squat with chains (wide stance / heels flat), 3-5 x 5**, 4/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointed out), 3-5 x 5**, 3/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- B1: DB squat (heels close / elevated), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Glute ham raise, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as the 5 to 8 method. Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 15 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 15 seconds, perform 1 rep, done!
There are two main ways that you can perform this workout. It really depends on your unique recovery ability.
If you have above-average recovery then you can perform the 5 to 8 method on all 3-5 of your sets for the first 2 exercises. This is the approach that Charles usually uses with his world-class athletes.
On the other hand if your recovery ability is not your greatest asset then you should perform the 5 to 8 method on your last set of 5 reps only. In other words if you are planning on performing 5 total sets for exercise A1 then your first 4 sets would be performed as regular sets of 5 reps and your last set would be performed as a 5 to 8 method set.
This way you still get the benefits of the 5 to 8 method but you are less likely to overtrain yourself.
Charles Poliquin’s 7/5/3 Wave Loading
Earlier in this guide I showed you how Charles Poliquin uses 3/2/1 wave loading to build maximum strength. It turns out you can use wave loading in higher rep ranges for a healthy mix of size and strength gains!
Charles’ favorite wave loading protocol for a mix of size and strength gains is the 7/5/3 wave loading scheme. The idea is simple: you are going to perform 7 reps on your first set, 5 reps on your 2nd set and 3 reps on your 3rd set. For example:
- Set #1: 7 reps
- Set #2: 5 reps
- Set #3: 3 reps
- Set #4: 7 reps
- Set #5: 5 reps
- Set #6: 3 reps
The 7/5/3 wave loading protocol was another one of Charles’ favorite routines for boosting functional hypertrophy. In other words it was great for increasing the size of his athletes’ fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Here is a sample chest / back 7/5/3 wave loading routine you may want to try. Check it out:
7/5/3 Wave Loading Chest / Back Routine
- A1: Decline bench press (medium grip), 6 x 7/5/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Pull ups (narrow / neutral grip), 6 x 7/5/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 4 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: T-bar row, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a 7/5/3 wave loading protocol. Perform 7 reps on your 1st set, 5 reps on your 2nd set, 3 reps on your 3rd set, 7 reps on your 4th set, and so on.
One of the nice things about the 7/5/3 wave loading protocol is it lets you flirt with the lower rep ranges without burning out your central nervous system. This method works really well for bodybuilders who want to play around with some lower-rep sets in a safe manner.
I highly recommend you give it a shot!
Charles Poliquin was absolutely obsessed with using the best set and rep schemes in his athletes’ training programs. He had a saying: “the rep is the mother of all loading parameters.” In other words Charles figured out how many reps his athletes were going to do before he decided on things like the exercise selection, tempo etc.
The number of reps is just that important!
I hope you found this article on Charles Poliquin’s favourite set / rep schemes helpful. I am confident that many of these 13 set / rep schemes will work awesome for you!
Of course this article wouldn’t be possible without the master blaster himself Charles Poliquin. Thank you Charles for sharing your gift with the world!
I will leave you with one last quote from the Austrian Oak to pump you up:
“You can’t always win but don’t be afraid of making decisions. You can’t be paralyzed by the fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know that it is the right thing to do and success will come. So don’t be afraid to fail!”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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