How many reps and sets to correct muscular imbalances?

Posted on June 20, 2013

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Before delving in, do not come away from this post thinking it’s as simple as “I need to work my glutes, X amount of sets and reps is optimal, that’s all I need to do in order to correct my imbalance.” That approach completely ignores what exercise you’re doing, your form, how much stimulus one muscle group is getting in comparison to another, what your activities of daily living are like, etc.

We’re going to assume the right exercises are in place, the proper form is being executed, ADLs are being paid attention to, etc. (Massive assumptions.) With that said, how many sets and reps of each exercise should we do then?

Enter: A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. 

This is a study reviewing a shitload of other studies to determine, when you want to get stronger,

  • How many days per week should you work a muscle group?
  • How many sets should you work a muscle group each of those days?
  • What intensity should you work a muscle group each of those sets?
  • Based off optimal intensity, we can deduce: How many reps should you work a muscle group each of those sets?

Quick side note: Getting stronger and getting bigger often go hand in hand. Muscular size and muscular strength are highly intertwined. Not completely, but in the context of this post they’re close enough.

The study divvied exercisers into two groups. Been working out over a year? You’re “trained.” Less than a year? “Untrained.” We’re going to examine only the untrained group because 1) This is the most common person I have and 2) Often times even if a person has been working out for a long time, the reason they’re having pain / imbalances is because certain muscles (movements!) are untrained / not trained enough. I often have people doing exercises they’ve never done before, working muscles in an unknown manner, so we’re calling either them -or the particular muscles they need- untrained.

What the study found:

  • “The dose-response curves were similar in shape for all ages.”
  • “In untrained populations, 60% of 1 rep maximum [intensity], 3 days a week [frequency], employing four sets elicited the greatest magnitude of strength increases.”
  • 60% of your one rep max is about 12 reps. If you did an exercise for one set of 12 reps, and it was as much weight as you could do for 12 reps, that’d be about 60% of your one rep maximum.

Here’s a big reason this is so important:

“Over-prescription of resistance training exercise may result in over-stress injuries, whereas under- prescription will result in a failure to achieve the necessary or desired strength improvement.”

For instance,

“It appears that diminishing returns begins in untrained individuals who perform more than four sets…

…diminishing returns appears to begin in untrained individuals who train at higher intensities as the magnitude of strength improvements decreases as mean training intensity exceeds 60% of 1 RM.”

This is something I stress over and over with clients: Doing more is not only not better, it can make you worse! And, at the same time, we need to make sure we do enough to generate a stimulus. One set a week isn’t going to make much change.

This doesn’t mean you immediately jump into doing 4 sets of 12 reps 3 days a week.

“caution should be used when prescribing high-volume training to untrained populations as adequate time is needed to become accustomed to the stress of resistance exercise and avoid over-stress injuries in the early phases of training. These individuals may also lack the desire to commit to a training program requiring the additional time needed to perform multiple sets and thus reduce adherence to the exercise regimen.”

I’ll also add my words of “Adequate time is needed to become accustomed to exercise technique. When it comes to correcting muscular imbalances, poor technique can make the imbalance worse.”

It’s better to screw up 2 sets of 8 the first week than 4 sets of 12. So, we don’t jump right into 4 sets of 12 reps at 3 days a week, we work our way there. Even if the person has perfect form, I don’t want them getting too sore. When somebody comes back a couple days later the most I hope to hear from them is, “Yeah, I was just aware I did something.” There’s no point in putting a person in unnecessary painLess sets initially helps this principle.

An argument for eliminating exercises

A common thing clients will ask is, “Ok, can I still do X exercise or Y activity?” My answer is pretty much always no.

Say a person has an imbalance between how much their arms are pulled down and how much their arms move up, favoring the down. A common manifestation is their arms hang too low.

Depressed traps

Jeremy Back downward rotation lines 1

The most common impairment going on at the shoulders and neck.

Reasons for this imbalance often include the person doing too many pulling exercises, carrying things too often, doing anything where their arms are pulled downward too much. Specific examples include lat pulldowns, DB rowing, chin-ups, farmer’s carries, a woman holding a heavy purse, you get the idea.

In order to even out this imbalance we need to conjure up a corrective plan heavily focusing on properly getting the person’s arms overhead. We’ve seen how we need work our way towards a set/rep scheme of 4 sets of 12 reps, 3 times a week. Anything more and we’ll get less results.

If you continue to do a bunch of pulling exercises, still hold a heavy purse, or whatever nonsense you refuse to stop doing, you’re lessening the impact of the corrective strategy. We had 48 reps, 3 times a week in our favor of upward arm movement, but if you kept in your 200 reps a week of pulling exercises, we’re not evening things out. You need to be unbalanced in order to get balanced. 

Brief example

Let’s broaden this.

Kanye is a cockbagel, but he’s come for help. At first I told him I can’t help head injuries, but he insisted he wanted help with his shoulder.

We’ve assessed he needs more upward rotation at his shoulder.

Shoulder scapular motions

Part of his corrective plan will consist of Wall Slides:

He’s going to do these Monday, Thursday and Saturday each week. We space things out as evenly across the week as we can, opposed to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. A sample progression:

Week 1 = 2 sets of 8 reps (each Monday, Thursday, Saturday)

Week 2 = 3 sets of 10 reps

Week 3 = 4 sets of 12 reps

Week 4 = 4 sets of 12 reps

Of course, he’ll have other exercises, ADL modifications, and will (temporarily) be told to eliminate any and everything resembling downward rotation (shoulders drooping).

He won’t have too many exercises though

An important note from this research is the frequency, sets, reps, intensity are per muscle group, not exercise.

Back to our example, we know Kanye needs to work his upward rotators. By doing the wall slides his upward rotator muscles are hitting their optimal ranges each week. If we add another 4 exercises for his upward rotators we will actually diminish his results. And while I hate him, I have ethics.

Do you see why you can’t have 20 different exercises all aimed at blasting a muscle group? Sure, you could have 2 exercises for the upward rotators, and do something like 2 sets of 12 for one and 2 sets of 12 for the other, giving us that 48 number again. But doing something like 4 exercises of 12 reps each isn’t ideal. You’re also increasing the amount of exercises a person has to learn.

Often, the less exercises you can use, the better.

Final note on intensity

The intensity of an exercise is going to change with time. For some people’s shoulders, 12 reps on wall slides is going to feel HARD. So, the 4 sets of 12 will work perfectly. In a month or two, 12 reps may feel pretty easy. If it becomes easy, then we can get away with either 1) Adding resistance to hit our intensity mark or 2) Substituting another exercise.

Let someone else pick the reps, sets, and exercises for you. 

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