Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sets

Years ago I regularly trained legs with a friend of mine who prided himself as much as I did on how hardcore his Squat sessions were. A couple of times a week we'd meet up and push each other to the limit in the Squat rack. He was a big dude, much stronger than I was, so I'd make up for the discrepancy in weights by sheer intensity of effort. If I couldn't lift more than him then I'd make him look like a pussy some other way.

A child of this who-is-the-most-hardcore rivalry was something I dubed "The Seven Deadly Sets". Around that time the 10x10 scheme that Steve Reeves used to quickly gain weight back in the late 1940s was experiencing a sort of revival. One of the popular muscle magazines had published an interview with Reeves in which he described selecting just one basic exercise per body part and performing 10 sets of 10 reps of each. Awhile after that George Turner published an article in the same magazine presenting his version of 10x10 which he used in his gyms during the 1950s on up. Then Charles Poliquin re-worded it and presented it as "German Volume Training" - another 'secret' training program of great Eastern Bloc athletes being presented to the western world for the first time (at least if you were 17 years old and didn't know the difference).

10x10 has it's advantages. The volume of work is high, and the fatigue induced and high total workload is ideal for hypertrophy - particularly targeted at the sarcoplasmic as well as the sarcomeric varieties. In addition, a high-volume workload on a basic, compound exercise such as the Squat has been shown to result in maximum training induced growth hormone release. It's short-coming, however, is that the weights simply aren't heavy enough to cause significant strength improvement and is not ideal for sarcomeric hypertrophy training. If you try to do all 10 sets with your 10-rep maximum then you'll be too exhausted to get to the end, or if you do make it you'll need too long between training sessions in order to recover fully (and therefore muscle growth will take a step backwards). 10x10 usually involves starting out with just 60% or so of your 1-rep max and increasing from there when possible.

On the other side of the spectrum was Reg Park's 5x5 approach (which has been claimed as Bill Starr's in America despite Starr first publishing his 5x5 over 20 years after Park made it famous ...and Park probably wasn't first). Park advised performing three heavy work sets of five reps with a weight you could handle for all three sets of five (the first two of the five total sets serve as warmups). This type of heavy work is ideal for promoting strength gains and sarcomeric hypertophy; it has also been shown to result in maximum exercise-induced testosterone release. It isn't likely, however, to be very efficient at promoting sarcoplasmic hypertophy or increasing growth hormone levels. For that, a higher volume is needed.

We chose 7x5-7 - seven sets of five to seven reps, from that point on referred to by us as "The Seven Deadly Sets" ...and after you do them you'll understand why.

Seven sets of five to seven reps represents something of a middle of the road approach between Reeves'/Turner's 10x10 and Park's 5x5. Seven total sets - five work sets and two warmup sets - presents enough volume to result in a strong hypertrophy stimulus, yet the weights involved are heavy enough to promote strength gains. Five- to seven-rep sets should result in substantial testosterone elevation and, particularly if the trainee choses to limit the rests between sets, a substantial growth hormone spike should be acheivable as well. It worked for us, and if set up in a properly cycled routine (you can't just train all-out on a routine like this forever) it will work for you too. ...But it isn't easy.

Here's how to do it...

The Nuts and Bolts

For the first session, take a weight that's 90% of your 5-rep maximum (5RM), or you can use your current 8-rep maximum (it should be about the same), and perform five sets of five reps with about two-minute rests between sets. Before this, perform one warmup set of five reps with 60% of your 5RM and then a set of five with 75% of your 5RM. The first session looks like this:

Set 1 (warmup) - 5 reps with 60% of 5RM
Set 2 (warmup) - 5 reps with 75% of 5RM
Set 3 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 4 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 5 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 6 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 7 (work) - 5 reps with 90% of 5RM

Two-minute rests between sets.Most people will be able to get all five heavy sets of five reps, though if you're not accustomed at all to work volumes this high you might only get 3-4 reps on the last set or two. If you don't get all five heavy sets of five reps then use the same weights next session and try until you do. Keep doing that until you do make the last 5x5 with 90% of your 5RM. Once you achieve that (which shouldn't take long) you up the ante by going for seven sets of six reps at the next session. Like this:

Set 1 (warmup) - 6 reps with 60% of 5RM
Set 2 (warmup) - 6 reps with 75% of 5RM
Set 3 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 4 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 5 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 6 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 7 (work) - 6 reps with 90% of 5RM

It's fairly likely that if you were pushed to get all 5x5 heavy sets during the last session you won't be able to suddenly jump to 5x6 this time. That's fine, you're not really expected to - just do what you can do. Perhaps you only get something like 6,6,5,5,4 on your heavy sets. It doesn't really matter - all that matters is that next time you improve your performance by getting at least one more rep on one of the sets that you didn't get 6 reps on last time. For example, at the next session you might get 6,6,6,5,4. That's an improvement. Keep working towards all 5x6 with 90% of your 5RM, and at that point start trying for 5x7. Eventually, you'll get to...

Set 1 (warmup) - 7 reps with 60% of 5RM
Set 2 (warmup) - 7 reps with 75% of 5RM
Set 3 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 4 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 5 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 6 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM
Set 7 (work) - 7 reps with 90% of 5RM

At that point you'll be at least several weeks, perhaps months into the program and your strength will have increased by approximately 3%-7% (everyone's different). At your next heavy session test for a new 5RM or 8RM and then start the cycle over again the following session, warming up to 5x5 with 90% of your new 5RM (or use your new 8RM for the initial session of 5's).

What it Takes to Get The Seven Deadly Sets to Work

Obviously, this is a stressful workload - it shouldn't be attempted by beginners or anybody without at least several months experience on any lift they're considering using The Seven Deadly Sets for. This is a high-intermediate to advanced level program only.

Additionally, a workload like this requires plenty of food and rest to support it. At it's peak, 7x7 gives a total of 35 heavy reps each session. That gives quite a growth stimulus to the system. Immediately after the workout you should get in at least 30 grams of protein and 60 grams of carbs if you want to make the most of it. Then for the next 36-48 hours don't hold back your calories below maintenance levels. If you want to grow, consume at least 300 calories a day more than maintenance on the day you do 7x5-7 and on the next day as well. Get plenty of good protein and fats.

It's common sense that hard work requires sleep and rest, so I won't beat it to death here. If you want to succeed let your body recover from what you've done to it.

In any case, no matter what you do, you'll eventually need a break from this routine. Any good routine will go stale eventually and when that happens you need a change of pace. When 7x7 goes 'cold' switch to a low-volume, high-intensity style routine (but don't train past failure) for a few weeks as this type of training allows somewhat of a de-loading phase compared to a higher volume 7x7. After you go stale on 7x7 you should see a few weeks of rapid strength gains by switching to a HIT-style program as the gains stimulated by 7x7 are allowed to manifest. (I say "HIT-style" but training past failure is not recommended - do 1-2 'hard' sets per exercise, not necessarily even to failure, but certainly 'tough'.)

Training Frequency

Most high intermediate-to-advanced trainees should be able to handle 7x7 once every 5-7 days. To play it safe I tend to recommend performing it once a week for each major lift (or whatever major lift you want to use it on) with a second day of lower volume but perhaps heavier work later in the week (ideally four days after the 7x7). For instance, if you did 7x7 on Squats on Monday you might come back on Friday and work up to just one heavy set of 3-8 reps. Don't do the same rep count on this day for extended periods. Switch things around every few weeks. Perhaps for three weeks try a heavy set of five reps on the second day, trying to increase the weight each week; then switch to a set of eight or even three reps for a few weeks - always trying to improve your performance on this day but not pushing so intensely that you're worried you might miss your reps or have to seriously psyche up for the set.

One heavy set is a different type of stimulus than 7x7 - it isn't as metabolically stressful but the high-intensity/low-volume load can promote gains of it's own. Don't use intensity techniques such as forced reps, negatives, any type of beyond failure training, etc, on the second day, however - you need your nervous system to recover in time for 7x7 again a few days later. Do a "hard" set, but shy of failure, and call it done. The two approaches - 7x7 and 1x3-8 - complement each other nicely and should spur strength and size gains.

Wrap Up

The Seven Deadly Sets work well for any major barbell or dumbell exercise (though may be more suitable for barbell work). The 90% of your 5RM that you start the cycle with represents only about 80% of your 1RM, or roughly what you could handle for one all-out set of 8 reps. This is a load traditionally thought of as ideal for hypertrophy and bodybuilding type training. Yet, it is also heavy enough to promote regular strength gains. In addition, it isn't so heavy that it should torment your joints and fry your nervous system.

But it isn't at all easy. The first few sets probably won't seem so tough, but by the end, as fatigue accumulates, you'll know you're into something serious. It's as hardcore and productive as it's name implies... which is just what most trainees need.

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