The Rule of 40

One of my favorite bodybuilding/powerlifting programming ideas is something I call “The Rule of 40”. It’s a simple idea for learning how to program intensity and volume in your workouts. I didn’t come up with this idea, but learned it from an exceptional lifter by the name of Ryan Matthews.

I’ll show you how I would use this idea to program a typical day in the gym. Using back day as an example, I’ll pick 5 or 6 exercises that I haven’t done recently and/or haven’t done in this order, and set up the sets and reps something like this:

  1. Barbell row: 5×8
  2. Pullups: whatever you have to do to get 40 reps total.
  3. Snatch grip high pulls: 4×10
  4. db pullovers: 3×15
  5. machine reverse fly: 2×20

Another example for back day:

  1. Pullups 7×3 weighted
  2. db rows 4×10
  3. wide cable rows 4×12
  4. barbell shrugs 3×15
  5. barbell curls 1×40

The rule of 40 simply means the total volume for each exercise should equal (roughly) the magic number 40. 4×10, 5×8, or 4×12 and 5×12 are staples. 5×5 or 6×5 is a good bet even though it doesn’t add up to 40.

The 1×40 set is really interesting. It really depends on how you pick the weight. Pick a bit heavy, and it’s a trial from hell to get through that set. Pick a bit light, and this can be really good for flushing blood into the area and improving recovery.

The 40 rule is not a firm rule, but it’s a good starting point, which should help teach most people how much volume they need to progress. I’ve learned to tweak a few things, like I’ll do more total volume for exercises that have a very short range of motion – shrugs are a good example, where 4-5×12-15 reps probably works better. Also, I’ll typically do a bit more volume for back than for chest or shoulders. More often back exercises are 4×12 or 5×10, where chest will be 5×8 or 4×10.

Conversely, you might want to take the hardest exercises and drop the volume a bit. Deadlifts are a good example, where 5×5 is more than enough work. Or 7 sets of 3 reps of weighted pullups, which is only 21 reps total, is a lot of work.

Also, these rep ranges only work if you follow the “ramp up to one max set” method. As an example, if my best bench press is 225×5, and I expect to hit a PR today, I might do 5×7, like this:

  1. 135×7
  2. 160×7
  3. 185×7
  4. 205×7
  5. 225×6 (almost hit 7 today, but I made the PR of 6)

Only that last set was “all out”. So you get a growth stimulus of pushing your limit and breaking new ground, but also the volume of the 4 previous sets without blowing out your central nervous system. You can play around with this, and you COULD do 205×7 for 5 sets… But for me, always aiming for a PR just yields better results. I try to PR on the final set of every exercise, in every workout. And if I’m eating enough, training hard enough, resting enough, and rotating my exercises properly, it will happen.

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