Are you Missing Out on a Load of Gains?
Written by Michele Vieux

Are you getting in the intended workload during your strength workouts?

The answer to that will depend on how you interpret the whiteboard and if you know your limits with each lift. Unless otherwise stated or specific percentages are given, warm-ups are NOT included in the prescribed sets – all sets listed are “working” sets. If you aren’t treating them as such then you are missing out on a load of strength gains.

For example, if you see a workout like the one below, what we are looking for is five, working sets of squats and weighted pull-ups. This means that if you know your five rep max (5RM) for your squat, you will be working as close to that as possible. Ideally, you would know what weight you can barely squeak out five reps and you would use that for all five sets. Of course you should warm-up before jumping into the working sets but those sets should not be counted toward your workout.

Five Sets:
Back Squat x 5 reps
Rest 90 seconds
Strict Pull-Ups x Max Reps
Rest 90 seconds

The alternative – and the place where many newer athletes misunderstand the prescription and therefore miss out on strength gains – is to build the weight throughout the five sets. In this example, instead of using 200 pounds for all five sets, the athlete might build over the course of the sets and end at 200 pounds (i.e. 120, 140, 160, 180, 200).

Now let’s compare the load moved by the two similar athletes over the course of the workout. Athlete A, who completed all five sets as “working” sets lifted the following amount of weight:

200 pounds x 5 reps = 1,000 pounds moved per set x five sets = 5,000 pounds moved via squat

Compare that to Athlete B, who has the same strength and ability level as Athlete A but built to their working weight instead of starting with that weight:

120 + 140 + 160 + 180 + 200 = 800 pounds moved per set x five sets = 4,000 pounds moved via squat

Athlete A was able to move 1,000 pounds more than Athlete B in the same workout by following the prescription and that is just in one day! Just think how much that can add up over the course of weeks, months and years.

Don’t cheat yourself of those gains and, unless otherwise indicated, make all of your sets working sets.

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Jem Sibay (40)
Jem Sibay (40)
September 22, 2015 10:23 am

Thank you for this interesting article. In your second example, would you suggest it’s better for someone to shot for 160kgx5 instead (also gets you to 800pounds), over your example of 120pounds building up to 200 over five sets?

Michele Vieux
September 22, 2015 2:37 pm
Reply to  Jem Sibay (40)

Hi Jem, I’d suggest that the athlete go as heavy as they can for each set. So if you know you can do 200 pounds for five reps and feel confident that you can do that for all the sets, then start there. If you know you can do 300 pounds, then start there. It is okay to go up if you surprise yourself but hopefully most athletes should have a good idea of what they can do for a rep range. The other method is okay for those who don’t know their maxes and are trying to figure it… Read more »

Jem Sibay (40)
Jem Sibay (40)
September 23, 2015 3:59 am
Reply to  Michele Vieux

Yes thank you. While I personally don’t typically have such a wide range from start to finish (as in your second example) for my work reps (as opposed to warm-ups ones), I do admittingly frequently start lower then what I know I can complete and inch up. Helpful insight, which will change how I approach these in the future…

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