Quick Tip: How to Count Sets for Strength Work

Quick tip today related to how to count sets for strength work. Many people program workouts such as 5 sets of 5 reps in the back squat, for instance. If your heaviest back squat ever (your 1 rep max, or 1RM) is 200 lbs, then perhaps your goal is to lift 175 lbs, or 75% of your 1RM, in this workout. Some people might do this:

  1. One set of 5 reps with the bar (45 lbs)
  2. Add 25-lb plates and do 5 reps (95 lbs)
  3. Swap them out for 45-lb plates and do 5 reps (135 lbs)
  4. Add 10-lb plates and do 5 reps (155 lbs)
  5. Add 10-lb plates and do 5 reps (175 lbs)

That’s 5 sets, right? Nope! That’s 2 warm-up sets and 3 working sets, not 5 working sets. I would recommend that the athlete in the given example above do 2 more sets at 175 lbs in order to truly have done 5 sets of 5 in the back squat that day. The question then is, how do you determine what counts as working sets for strength work?

Charles Poliquin has a general rule for determining how to count strength sets, and I have found it to work rather well:

There should be no more than a 10-20% spread in load from the lightest to heaviest set.

This principle is very easy to apply when you have a workout such as 3 sets of 3 reps, 4 sets of 6 reps, 10 sets of 1 rep, etc. Thus, if you aim to overhead press 100 lbs for 5 sets of 3 reps, then you should only start counting sets once you reach at least 80 lbs on the bar.

Things get a bit trickier, however, when you have wave-loading rep schemes like 5-3-2-5-3-2. Here, if you aim to deadlift 300 lbs for 2 reps on the last wave, then perhaps your first set is 225 lbs for 5 reps. (You could start at exactly 80% and do 240 lbs, but I’m a big fan of just using “natural weights” like Dan John discusses here.)

So there you have it: keep things simple when counting your strength sets, but don’t fool yourself and do less work than is prescribed. I hope this tip helps you optimize your time spent training! Thanks for reading.