June 1, 2014

The 100 Rep Method, And How It May Be Exactly What You Need To Continue Making Progress

Betcha any money, you can’t do that again

The ability to repeat efforts is what differentiates a ‘one trick pony’, from someone who can prove that they’re not just a fluke. As it relates to strength training, work capacity (the ability to repeat efforts in a set amount of time), and your ability to build upon it, can be the catalyst for newfound progress when it seems like all else is failing.

The ‘results chain of events’ typically sees trainees making strength gains first, followed by increases in muscular development (this happens because it’s a lot easier for the nervous system to become more efficient than it is for the body to slap on pounds of muscle), but after that gains taper off. While you could ‘switch it up’ and continue to see small increases in strength (primarily as a result of the nervous system adapting to the new stimulus), the gains are generally minimal at best. There comes a time when getting stronger becomes seemingly impossible, especially at a given bodyweight, and when that happens, the only way to see your strength go up is to simply gain more weight (easier said than done, otherwise everyone would already be packing on pounds like nothing).

For most, gaining more weight isn’t an option (if it was, it would already have happened, and would still be happening), and when strength gains have pretty much been maxed out at a given bodyweight (as we can only deadlift, squat, or bench press so many times our bodyweight), you arrive at a crossroads and are left with a decision to make – do you keep doing what got you to where you’re at, with the hopes that the progress you once experienced will magically pickup where it left off, or do you re-evaluate the situation and use the strength you’ve acquired to your advantage?

If ya keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten

Sadly, most simply choose the former by default of not knowing another way, and keep truckin’ down the path they started on way back when, pushing harder and harder, and seeing minimal return on investment. A more effective approach may be to play the cards you’ve now been dealt and use what you’ve got to the best of your ability. This is where developing work capacity becomes a very viable option.

Instead of trying to lift more and more weight, work capacity focuses on lifting the heaviest (using that term loosely, as relatively light weights are recommended) weights you can lift, as many times as you can, in as short a time as possible. Progress is quantified by being able to complete a given rep total in less sets. For example, when you can perform 100 reps in four sets with your current 20 rep max (which mathematically should take over 5 sets to do), you will have increased your work capacity, at which point you could move on to something else, or increase the resistance by 5-7 percent and aim to keep making improvements.

Not only is improving your ability to repeat efforts trained when performing capacity work, but it also provides a very effective stimulus for those primarily looking to build muscle, and secondarily for those looking to improve strength. The high volume of work, with a weight that allows a great deal of perfectly executed reps to be performed will help ingrain proper technique, while also completely depleting glycogen stores. The resulting pump also helps with feeling the muscle, thus improving the ability to recruit the muscle at will.

Generally when targeting work capacity, you want to select a weight that you can manage for at least 15 reps, and the focus is on increasing your ability to lift that weight by 5 reps for multiple sets (at least 4 sets of 20 in this case).

If you select a weight that is heavier than what you can manage for 15 reps, you’ll be targeting a different strength quality (non-functional hypertrophy in this case), and there will likely be a greater drop off in performance from set to set. For example, with a weight you can lift 15-20 times, you should be able to perform almost as many reps for each set, without needing much rest to do so. If you can’t perform within 5 reps of what you got on your first set the weight is too heavy. For example, if you can perform 15 reps on the first set, you should be able to manage at least 10 reps on every set afterwards until hitting your rep goal. If you can’t, it’s too heavy.

Due to the high volume, capacity work is generally best suited at the beginning of a training session when you are fresh so that you are not limited by fatigue, which makes it easy to quantify progress (if you’re not completely fresh, performance can be dramatically altered because of fatigue, and thus it will be very difficult to know if, or by how much, you’re improving). Upon completion, there is little need to perform any more direct work for the trained muscle(s), although, for those who can tolerate a high volume of work, or have difficulty feeling the muscle they want to be training, this method could be used to flush a muscle to improve awareness (AKA, the mind-muscle connection), before moving on to a few other exercises (which will now be more effectively executed because of the enhanced awareness). In this situation, because the goal would be to fully exhaust a muscle, a couple of super sets should do the trick, and be all that you need to ensure no muscle fibers are spared.

This method is also a very effective ‘finisher’, especially after performing a great deal of high intensity work, to pump and flush as much blood into the targeted area to boost recovery. The high intensity work may also have a potentiating effect (making lighter weights feel lighter than they are by contrast to the heavy weights used at the beginning of the workout), enabling you to use heavier weights for the capacity work.

In either case, performing capacity work at the beginning or end of a training session, make sure to proceed with caution, as the volume tends to add up quickly, and can be counterproductive if the body can’t recover from the workload.

Below are a couple of examples of how to practically apply a work capacity protocol for various goals:

Work Capacity To Promote Growth Emphasis

A: Barbell, or T-Bar Row, 20RM, 100 reps (resting as little as possible, but enough to manage at least 15 reps each time)

B1: Cable Row, 3 sets, 15-20 reps, 10 sec rest
B2: Close Grip Pulldown, 3 sets, 15-20 reps, 2-3 min rest

*C1: Straight-Arm Pulldown, 2-3 sets, 15-20 reps, 10 sec rest
*C2: Bent Over Dumbell Laterals, or Cable Reverse Flyes, 2-3 sets, 15-20 reps, 2-3 min rest

*Option to perform some isolated work for the same region. Generally you would only perform this much isolation work for larger muscle groups like back, or legs. It would be counterproductive to perform this much work for smaller muscle groups like the arms.

Work Capacity To Promote Recovery Emphasis

A: Bench Press, 4-6 sets, 4-6 reps, 3 min rest

B: Incline Press, 3-5 sets, 5-7 reps, 2-3 min rest

C: Cable Crossover, 20RM, 100 reps (resting as little as possible, but enough to manage at least 15 reps each time)

To take this method and further gear it towards hypertrophy, you could use mechanical drop sets for your capacity work movement. For example, instead of performing one movement which allows for 15-20 reps, you could choose a slightly heavier weight that allows for 10-15 reps, but with a mechanical adjustment allows for another 10, or so, upon reaching failure. This enables you to use a heavier weight, and also target different muscle fibers due to the mechanical change.

Here’s an example of a workout using mechanical drop sets with a capacity protocol:

*A1: Straight-Arm Pulldown, 15RM, rest as long as it takes to position your body to perform the next movement
*A2: Lat Pulldown, AMRAP (as many reps as possible, should be able to get at least the same amount as you got during the first exercise)

*The reps performed for both movements contribute to your overall rep goal. If you can’t perform within 5 reps of the first set of the seconds exercise it’s ok, as long as you can manage to perform within 5 reps of what you started with for the first exercise.

B: One-Arm Dumbell Row, 3 sets, 10-15 reps, 2 min rest

C: Rack Pull (deadlift from knees), 3 sets, 10-15 reps, 2 min rest


Regardless of whether you elect to begin with your 15 rep max, or your 20 rep max (or anywhere in between), the goal when training work capacity should be to reach the century mark (complete 100 total reps), for no other reason than it is probably the most psychologically beneficial rep count there is. Nothing inspires one to continue working hard, and indicates complete control and ownership over a weight, more than the ability to lift it 100 times, at will!

If starting on the heavier side (15RM) the goal should be to get to 100 reps in 6 sets, while reaching 100 should be manageable in 4 sets if starting on the lighter side (20RM).

If you have any questions about work capacity, or how to determine if it’s suited for what you want to accomplish, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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