Best alternative to the light weight / high rep lie for beginners
There’s a nasty lie going around high school weight rooms, and unfortunaltely it been circulating for quite some time. The lie is that using light weight and high reps is the best way to prepare beginners to weight training (aka lifting).
In all fairness, let’s highlight why someone might confuse light weight and high reps as a good idea. Here’s the rationale I’ve heard from coaches over the years:
>> Lighter weight so kids don’t get hurt
>> Higher reps to learn proper technique
>> This is how athletes get ‘muscle memory’
>> Light weight and higher reps are easier to coach to groups and teams
Well… needless to say I disagree with the above statements – and you should too. Not only is light weight an oxymoron, it completely defeats the original purpose of weight training in the first place: to get stronger. And high reps? I’ve seen coaches write programs that call for 4×50 on back squats. That’s 200 reps of the same movement pattern with minimal loads.
THE REASONS WHY
Here are some thoughts why light weight and high reps might not be the best for beginners:
>> What weight should the athlete use for sets of 20 or more? Have you ever told a novice lifter to “use a weight you can handle”? The look you get is complete confusion mixed with frustration and anxiety (something you never want an beginner to feel during their first experiences in the weight room).
>> For reps past 7-8, it’s much harder to gauge rep maxes or appropriate weights of failure. Don’t confuse rep maxes with crushing your athletes with big weight. Appropriate weights of failure means at what loads and reps does the athlete lose the desired training effect and go into survival mode. When you go beyond 7-8 reps, it gets much harder to determine.
>> Research has shown (in studies and real world under the bar experience) that Inter and Intra muscular coordination can be achieved though the use of higher loads, with some novice lifters it’s around 60%. I can tell you right now if you’re squatting for reps over 20 as a beginner there’s no way your near 60%. Besides, most of the time the coach will say “just use the bar”.
>> To actually hit 20 reps, the weight is too light to elicit any type of desired response
>> Once you get to about 12 reps of a 20 rep set, all you start to care about is getting to 20… regardless of technique, or tempo, or position. The mindset shifts to “get this set done anyway I can so I can be finished”.
>> The last couple reps, the most important reps, the technique is so bad you want to make them stop. The muscle memory you’re after is ingraining the worst reps of the entire workout.. something I don’t want for my beginners – or yours.
>> If you’ve deemed the athlete ‘ready’ to lift weights, they should be ‘ready’ to handle some work loads beyond the bar. If you’re using absolute or core lifts (squats, dead lifts, presses, rows, lunge variations) as foundational movements of you lifting program, there are about 10 billion exercises that should have lead you to this point. Your athletes should be proficient at body weight exercises, at all positions, at varying angles.
THE SOLUTION: Tornado Sets
There are many alternatives to using light weight and high reps, but best solution I’ve come up with are what I call Tornado Sets. They aim to achieve all the same goals coaches seek with light weight and high reps, but do so using more physiology and plain old common sense.
Now, don’t let the name fool you. The beauty is this set and rep scheme can be used across all training ages, from beginners to the most seasoned lifters. I call them Tornados because they touch down, wreck havoc, disappear, and then touch down wrecking havoc all over again.
In the case of beginners, havoc means to do work. For experienced lifters it means pure hell.
I use Tornado Sets on our core lifts for a given workout. That can mean trap bar deadlifts, barbell bench press, wide grip lat pull down, etc. You can use them on just about anything besides pre-hab or stabilizing exercises. You’ll want to be careful because they are taxing to the body if pushed too far.
The image below is taken directly from one of our workouts using Tornado Sets. This will shed some light on how they’re used.
Tornados follow our normal FOCUS System for athlete development. After we’ve completed the first four components of the system, we’re ready to hit it. Notice under the sets and reps for the back squat, it reads 7-7-7, 6-6-6, 5-5-5-5. The dash (-) represents 20 seconds of rest between lifts.
Here’s how they are set up:
1. All equipment and weight is ready
2. If multiple athletes are using the same equipment, the order of athletes is determined
3. Athletes will start their warm up sets. Note: if the athlete can’t handle the bar or complete the exercise without restriction, they won’t be doing Tornados.
4. Once the warm up sets are complete, the first athlete loads the bar for the first Tornado Set. I or another athlete is ready with the watch. The weight used is determined by the warm up sets. For the first Tornado, or any set for that matter, always undershoot vs. overshooting the weight. You don’t want to get buried or miss reps because the weight is too high, especially on the first set.
5. The athlete completes the first set of 7 reps and racks the weight. The clock starts and runs for 20 seconds as soon as the weight is racked. The timing athlete counts out 17, 18, 19, 20. When the lifting athlete hears 17, they should be getting in position for the next set of 7 reps. This is repeated for the third set of seven. After three sets of seven are completed, the athlete is done with that Tornado.
6. Weight is immediately switched for the next athlete, and they start their Tornado. This is completed until all Tornados are done for all athletes.
To get an idea of this in action, below is a video clip of actual FOCUS athletes demoing a Tornado Set of trap bar dead lifts.
With so many benefits to list, let me highlight the main reasons I like Tornado Sets for beginners (based on common sense):
>> Consistent set-up, practice un-racking the bar or preparing the weight to be lifted, proper positioning, and proper spotting
>> Development of work capacity through proper technique and reinforcement
>> Easily target desired training effect depending on level and goals of individual athlete
>> The 20 second rest allows the athlete to regroup, but not totally recover
>> Has proven to be one of the easiest and fastest ways to add size to all our athletes, especially those able to handle higher loads of increased intensity.
If you couple this with the physical benefits it should be clear why light weight and high reps might not be the best thing for beginning lifters. Jim Wendler, from Elite Fitness Systems, wrote and article called Max Effort Training for Dynamic Results. In the article he states a similar rationale that sums it up pretty clearly:
“It should be noted that the repeated effort method does not have to be to failure as this can lead to poor form and often injury. In fact, in preparing their young lifters for the rigors of training, the Soviet Union would have them perform the classical lifts and their variations with sets of 3-4 reps with a weight that can be confidently lifted 5-6 times. This would allow good form, attention to detail as well as not eliciting an incredible amount of muscle soreness, which can impede future workouts and motivation. Preparation of the muscles through sub-maximal lifting as well as learning a variety of different movements and teaching proper form is essential.”
Surely there will be questions and rebuttals to Tornado Sets. Chime in and leave your comment below.