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) for your glutes
  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.

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Reps and Resources

Just a quick post today to get you guys a bit of information about what I have been up to. I have created a “Resources” page that features a few links:

Precision Nutrition’s Coaching Program is top-notch in the field of sports and exercise nutrition. This link brings you to a free 5-video course, and from there I highly recommend their certification program. They focus on principles rather than ideologies, meaning it is better to get results using varied means rather than stick to just one method. In this course you will learn both nutritional science and basic coaching psychology.

Precision Nutrition’s Fat Loss Course for Men and Fat Loss Course for Women are great resources, and these links bring you to a free 5-video course about eating to achieve leanness and confidence. From there you can sign up for their Lean Eating coaching program, which I highly recommend simply based off the thousands of people who Precision Nutrition has helped lose body fat. If you are interested in seriously committing to losing excess weight in 2014, then there is simply no better place to go than here.
Also, I spent the past weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina attending an Original Strength Workshop led by Tim Anderson. Without giving away too much, Original Strength is based around the ideas Tim originally espoused in the book Becoming Bulletproof, and it is centered around the idea of “pressing reset” on your body by focusing on breathing, rolling, rocking, and crawling. We went through hundreds of progressions and regressions for each of the movements, and all those reps really helped the group learn the intricacies of the drills better.

This reminded me of a bigger picture point that although we all can occasionally gravitate towards the 5-minute instant fix, sometimes simple repetition is king. If you are learning a new skill, regardless whether it is speaking Spanish, playing an instrument, or doing barbell snatches, you need to do reps and reps and reps and reps. I once had a drumming student e-mail me asking about a particular rudiment, called a “flam drag.” My response was, “Play 1,000 flam drags over the course of the next week, and then let me know if you still need my help.” He never responded!

Thanks for reading! Remember to check out my article in the November issue of the Performance Menu, and be on the look out for another one coming up in January!