Straight Sets Are For Newbies
If you've ever used a training program that calls for 3 sets of 10 reps, you probably assumed that you should use the same weight for every work set. The same goes for 5x5 or whatever the recommended set/rep bracket happens to be.
"Straight sets" are fine, at least for newbies. But there are other options that work better for experienced lifters, like variable sets. Sadly, few lifters take advantage of them. Let's change that. Why limit yourself to a single approach when you've got other great options available to you?
The 3 Types of Challenge
In terms of adaptation, your muscles only understand challenge. The way you organize sets and reps is simply how you decide to present that challenge to your body.
For any given period of time (a day, week, or month) the totality of that challenge is known as the training load, and it has a few different characteristics:
1 – Intensity
This refers to the difficultly of the work you do, expressed as a percentage of your current max (1RM). So if your best bench press is 300 pounds, a set done with 270 is more "intense" than a set performed with 240, regardless of how many reps you do with either set.
2 – Volume
This is the amount of work you do, usually expressed as weight multiplied by total reps. So, if you military press 135 for 4 sets of 8 reps, your volume for that exercise is 3780 pounds (135 pounds for 24 total reps).
I specified "usually" because range of motion is an important component of work. For example, if you deadlift 10 reps with 315, you've technically done more work than if you pulled 315 for 10 from 4-inch blocks. It's just that most coaches don't include ROM in their volume calculations.
3 – Density
This is the work/rest ratio of the work you do. If you do a workout that takes you 80 minutes, and you repeat that exact workout next week but this time you do it in 65 minutes, that second workout had the same intensity and volume, but it was more dense.
I bring up these aspects of the training load because you'll need to manipulate them appropriately according to your current training goal. A quick synopsis:
- When strength is the desired outcome, you'll need to prioritize intensity in your training.
- When gaining muscle is the goal, volume must take precedence.
There are proven ways to manipulate your work sets for both of those outcomes.
Variable Sets For Strength Goals
While straight sets certainly can and do work for strength – 6x3 with a constant weight for example – let's contrast this with a slightly different approach:
Let's say that the most you could possibly squat for 6 sets of 3 is 365. This means the highest intensity weight you'll touch that day is 365. Let's further imagine that 365 is 85% of your current max, which is 435. Now of course if you were only required to hit one big set of 3, you could probably hit 390, which is 90% of your 1RM.
Given that intensity is the name of the game in strength training, you should hit that 390. Here's how:
Your last warm-up sets will probably be between 315 and 325 for a couple of reps. Here's how your six work sets might look:
- Set 1: 365x3. This set felt like you had at least 2 reps still in the tank, so next you do...
- Set 2: 385x3. This sets was very hard, but 390x3 would be a PR, so you take a gamble and take...
- Set 3: 390x3. You barely got this, but you've hit a new PR, which will be fuel for your longer-term goal of 405x3. But you're pretty fried at this point, so your next set is...
- Set 4: 375x3. You're so tired from the 390 that you barely made it. So the next set is...
- Set 5: 365x3. This felt manageable, so for your last set you do...
- Set 6: 365x3
What we've done here is to manage accumulating fatigue levels by giving ourselves permission to lower the load on latter sets if necessary. This strategy allows you to go all-out for one big set and reach an intensity level that you wouldn't have managed otherwise. Also, the post activation potentiation (PAP) from the set with 390 lead to bigger numbers in your latter sets than would have otherwise been possible.
By managing accumulating fatigue through creative set manipulation, your average intensity (and volume) was higher than it would've been had you used a straight sets approach.
Here's a quick comparative analysis of both approaches:
Straight Sets Approach
- Peak Intensity: 365
- Peak Intensity: 6570
Variable Sets Approach
- Peak Intensity: 390
- Peak Intensity: 6645
Another way to vary your sets strength training is to use straight weight, but for varied reps. For example, your last pull-up session was weighted chins — 4 sets of 5 reps with a 35-pound plate. Since your training focus is strength, you want to increase intensity, so next time out you use 40 pounds. Your work sets now look like this:
- Set 1: 40x8
- Set 2: 40x8
- Set 3: 40x7
- Set 4: 40x7
You lost a bit of volume by increasing the intensity, and that's okay given your current goal. Next workout, shoot for 4x8 with 40.
Variable Sets For Size or Body Composition Goals
Again, fatigue management is the foundational principle that should inform your decision-making. Let's use another hypothetical:
Imagine that the most you could possibly flat dumbbell bench press for one set of 12 is a pair of 85's (170 pounds). The key metric, when training for more muscle mass, is volume, which is the number of fatiguing sets you do per muscle group, per workout.
If you decide to do 4 straight sets of 12 for this exercise, you'll need to use considerably less than 170 pounds, since that's your absolute max for one set of 12.
My best set of 12 happens to be about 170 pounds. I can make a pretty accurate guess that if I were to do 4 sets of 12 using the same weight, I'd likely use a pair of 70's (140 pounds). So, after doing the math on that, we get 6720 pounds of total volume.
That's a solid bench session, but could we get even better numbers if we used a different approach? What if we maxed out on the first set, then lowered the weight as needed to complete 3 additional sets of 12? It could look like this:
- Set 1: 170x12
- Set 2: 160x12
- Set 3: 150x12
- Set 4: 150x12
Doing the math on that, this leads to a total volume of 7560 pounds – roughly a 13% improvement over doing straight sets.
It might seem paradoxical at first, but lowering your weights over successive sets to compensate for accumulating fatigue actually leads to more volume. And, from a psychological point of view, giving yourself license to take "down sets" when needed is likely to make you more aggressive, not less, in the early going. After all, if you completely trash yourself on set 1, you can lighten things up on your remaining sets.
Straight Sets and Training Age
As a newbie, straight sets are appropriate – it's a simple approach and it makes the numbers easy to understand. But the longer you've been training, the less value straight sets actually have.
Let's say you're in your first year of training, and last week you pressed 115 pounds for 3x10. This week, you'll likely hit 120 for 3x10. Next week, probably 125 for 3x10. This rapid rate of improvement is referred to as "beginner's gains."
If you've been training consistently for several years, your beginner's privileges have expired. Now your gains come much slower and harder. Perhaps on the third week of a new cycle, you might front squat 225 for 4 straight sets of 8. On the following week however, 230 for 4x8 will be unlikely. So instead your four sets might look like:
- Set 1: 225x8
- Set 2: 230x8
- Set 3: 230x7 (couldn't get the last rep)
- Set 4: 225x8 (backed down due to what happened on the previous set)
Then, the next week, you might hit numbers like this:
- Set 1: 225x8
- Set 2: 230x8
- Set 3: 230x8
- Set 4: 230x7
As a seasoned lifter, this is the rate of progress that you should expect. Unfortunately, we can't make progress indefinitely, because we do have genetic limits, and the closer you are to those limits the slower your progress will be.
So you can't expect to do straight sets and add 5 pounds every week. If you did, you'd improve by 260 pounds in one year, which is unlikely for the experienced lifter.
The Big Picture
Ask yourself this question:
- If your main goal is strength: "What can I do to arrive at the highest possible intensities today?"
- If your main goal is size: "What can I do to achieve the highest possible volume today?"
In both cases, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Lowering your weight on a single set might seem like a bad move if you're simply looking at that single set, but by adopting a wider perspective it becomes clear that it contributes to a better overall workout.
The Cliff Notes
- Straight sets are fine for beginners and for the first week of a new cycle for more advanced lifters.
- More experienced lifters have slower rates of progress, which makes varied sets more appropriate for their needs.
- The use of variable sets will allow for a more aggressive approach to your numbers.
- Adjust numbers set by set as needed to compensate for accumulating fatigue.
- What really matters is overall session intensity (for strength training) and volume (for hypertrophy purposes), not what occurs during a single set. Therefore, adjust your numbers set by set to achieve those ends.