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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How Does Training Apply to Real Life?

I was speaking with another trainer at my gym the other day about squatting for better Olympic lifting performance, and he said, “That’s the idea: do certain things so that you get better at other things too.” In the gym that makes sense in some very straightforward ways: increasing your strict pull-up strength will get you closer to being able to do a muscle-up, increasing your squat should help with cleans and snatches, and gaining more overhead shoulder mobility will help with… everything.

What if we step back and take a 30,000-foot view of the situation and ask, “How Does Training Apply to Real Life?” That is, your real life outside of the gym. Many people, especially in the world of CrossFit, get so caught up with WOD’s and PR’s that they rarely stop and reflect as to whether or not their toils in the gym are paying any dividends outside in “the real world.”

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How Does Training Apply to Real Life?

If you were to ask the average gym-goer this question, they would most likely respond with some clichés about discipline, hard work, sweat, and maybe even that saying “pain is weakness leaving the body.” I’d like to argue however, that there are way more benefits to physical training than simply learning discipline and hard work.

1. Do what you say you will do.

One of the best pieces of advice I could give to someone growing up and becoming more mature is, quite simply, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” In the realm of physical training, this can be translated into, “Do what you say, and say what you do.” If you walk into the gym with a realistic intention of squatting 300 lbs that day, then you better do what you say you will do. Similarly, if you leave the gym and only hit 295 lbs, then you better say what you did, no more and no less.

By committing to a regular fitness program, you have the opportunity to reinforce this habit every day, and that can have multiple benefits outside of the gym. Did you tell your boss you are going to get that project done by Friday? Great, now follow through and do what you say you will do. What about that time you had a few too many drinks and told your best friend that you actually want to quit your job and follow your passion into a new career? Ha! I challenge you to do what you say you will do, in all aspects of life, both inside the gym and out.

2. Digest information, plan, and chunk.

It is very easy to get intimidated by workout routines nowadays. One of my coaches recently sent me an outline of one week of training, and it was about 7 pages long! Many people in this situation might get frustrated, freak out, and think, “Where do I start? How do I begin? This is too much!” However, this is a golden opportunity to practice useful life skills like digesting information, planning, and chunking. In a CrossFit setting, this is directly applicable to long workouts like a 20-minute AMRAP or a multiple-round chipper. Figure out what the task at hand is, make a strategy, and then take it step-by-step.

This triad of skills might be most relevant when you start a new project or job. There’s so much already going on, and you barely know what to do. If you have years of physical training under your belt, however, then you should have had plenty of opportunities to practice digesting all the information that is available to you, planning so as to create a basic strategy of attack, and chunking things out so that you can start achieving small steps towards your end goal.

3. Stay calm in stressful situations.

The ability to stay calm in stressful situations is what separates the men from the boys when sh*t hits the fan, so to speak. Anyone who has ever practiced jiu-jitsu knows this, at least indirectly. Your opponent sweeps you, gets to mount, and is now putting his entire bodyweight on your chest. You can barely breathe, and he’s attacking your arm… what do you do?! Stay calm, slow your thoughts down, breathe in, and play some defense on that arm.

The ability to stay calm in stressful situations is perhaps most applicable to scenarios where something goes wrong during travel. For instance, you arrive at the airport only to find out that your flight is canceled, thus causing you to miss your connection and be late to your seminar. Or maybe you are in the middle of a 12-hour car trip when you get a flat tire and don’t have a spare. In either of these situations, the damage is already done, and stressing out will not help a damn thing. Rather, those who stay calm in the face of stress will be better equipped to make clear, rational decisions about what needs to happen next in order to solve the problem at hand.

Okay that’s it for today, thanks for reading!

Current Workout Schedule

Here’s an insider’s peek into what I will be doing in and out of the gym for the next couple months:

A good mixture of Olympic lifting, squatting, sprinting, straight-arm and bent-arm pushing and pulling, skill, variety, and fun. Inspired by the following: California Strength, Catalyst Athletics, Eat Move Improve (and Overcoming Gravity), Ido Portal, Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, Beast Skills, and CrossFit.