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Welcome back everyone. This post is the second in a multi-part series on progressing in strength training. During this video blog series we’re going to be answering questions like…

1. Why am I not getting better with my barbell movements? AND
2. How do I get stronger over a long period of time?

In our last post, Taylor gave you a great overview of how to warm up to a target work set. In that video blog, we used the back squat as the lift, and an initial work set target load of 185lbs. Let’s build off that conversation today as we explore how best to build from that target first work set weight.

Structuring out Work Sets:
Picking up where our last post on this topic left off, let’s take a glimpse at the first of several examples. In work set scenario one, the individual’s first working set of back squat starts at 185lbs, progresses at equal 20lb jumps, and finishing with a fourth and final work set at 245lbs. This situation is not uncommon for many individuals; however it can be problematic. If 245lbs is the final set because it took place at a weight where things became challenging enough to call it, then we have to ask the question, “How challenging was 185lbs as a first set if we ended almost 60lbs heavier at 245lbs?” If we look at the math, the gap between 185lbs and 245lbs is substantial to say the least. In terms of percentage of total pounds lifted that 60lbs difference is nearly 25% of the final set at 245lbs (percentage is important as we will reference it later).

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As we look at work set scenario two, you’ll see a situation where the individual uses the same weight for all working sets. Before we get into the reasons why this is less than ideal, I have to state that for the beginner this way of going about work sets can be beneficial and often best. For those new to strength training, some of the greatest training you can do is to find a weight that you feel comfortable and confident, thus leading to a consistent and effective training experience. That being said, the thrust of this conversation is about progressing your strength. If every time you walk into the gym you’re just finding a random number that feels like six on a scale of one to ten, you’re throwing away the merits of strength training by hanging out at a mediocre percentage of your capacity and ability.

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How It’s DONE:
In this last work set scenario, let’s keep the same initial target of 185lbs but preface by saying that we want the number you choose to start with to have some teeth to it. By that, we’re looking for something that feels like a seven or eight on a scale of ten — it’s tough, but in the end you know that you’re going to be able to go up a little bit from there. You’ll see in our below outline, we’ve painted a picture where 185lbs is tough enough that this particular individual has chosen only a five pound increase to 190lbs for their second work set. The sets continue to build in intensity, steadily increasing by 5lbs until their final work set finishes at 200lbs… and while this isn’t designed to be or feel like a 100% maximal lift, it is VERY challenging and looking at that one to ten scale, we are into that solid 9, 9+ range.

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Let’s take a look at that spread from 185lbs to 200lbs and compare that to our first scenario of 185lbs to 245lbs. The first work set environment included a huge spread of nearly 25%, telling me that 185lbs was less like a first work set and more like a glorified warm up. This is problematic because it skews the volume (total work) at a planned intensity (load or percentage of max load) and essentially equates to less work done on the day.

Conversely, every set in our final example is a work set, indicated by training intensity, showcased by the small jumps this lifter took. At this point you might be asking yourself, “Okay, I see your point, but how do I guarantee my sets will actually be work?”  We recommend sticking to a percentage difference that is ideally less than 12% between your first and final work sets. Doing the math on our last (and best) work set picture, 12% of 200lbs is 24lbs. Since 185lbs is only 15lbs less than 200lbs we know that the four sets put in were all quality sets from an intensity stand point. Compare that 12% gap back to the first example’s 24% difference and you’ll have a pretty clear indication of who set themselves up better for the goal of getting stronger.

In conclusion, an 8-12% window is a general framework to operate within when it comes to multiple work sets. You can clearly see from our examples that the goal of multiple work set strength training is having sets as closely clustered as possible. We are always going to warm up to a place where set number one is tough work, and then progressing the weight jumps up from there to be small enough because it truly is HARD enough. The first set should never be so light that you could crush it and increase by 40% or make huge jump after huge jump. Stick to that 8-12% window. Make small jumps, cluster your work sets, and you’ll be well on your way to making strength gains in your resistance training work.

One obvious side note here is that you MUST be able to identify, based on the movement and rep scheme, know what weight will be truly an appropriately challenging first work set. This comes through experience and detailed training data note taking. In the beginning you’ll get it wrong, and that’s ok.  Over time, as you dial in your notes and exposure, it will get better and better…which happens to be a small tease into our next video blog on this topic coming your way in a couple of weeks.

We hope that from these three examples, you can see how to translate the principles of progressing work sets to any strength training scenario. If you haven’t seen our video on how to warm up for similar strength gains, make sure to check it out. Like stated above, this video blog is part two in a three part series. Stay posted for the final post about making progress week after week and month after month.

-Written by Michael S. Pilhofer and Taylor Gish

We at MSP Fitness feel passionately that under a proper training program and coach, you never have to plateau. If you are in the Minneapolis / St. Paul area and are looking for a coach who can help you reach your strength, health, and wellness goals, CONTACT US today!

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