Straights Sets Should Never Be To Straight
We recently published a piece discussing the conflict between straight sets and supersets – with the conclusion that it’s all about what suits your goals.
Today, we’re going to dive deeper into muscle-building techniques by discussing why straight sets should never be too straight.
Read on – we’re going to shed light on one of the simplest ways to optimise your training in just 450 words.
What are straight sets?
You’ve probably seen them in programs: “5 sets of 5 at 75% of your 1-rep max”. They’re the bread and butter of a strength training program because they provide a predictable and reliable way of building out a program.
We all use them as coaches, too, so it’s clearly lodged in deep into the culture and traditions of strength training and strength sports.
However, today we’re going against the grain and looking at how we can tweak straight sets to improve your results.
Why straight sets don’t work optimal
The point of training is to produce “stimulating reps” – the ones that are challenging enough to recruit many muscle fibres and provide them with enough tension to force growth. This doesn’t just happen – you have to force change.
The problem is that in most working sets, you’re only going to be able to get 3-5 stimulating reps, which tend to be the last 3-5 reps of a set!
When you’re working in straight sets, there’s a real disparity between the first sets and the latter sets. This goes double for any higher-rep “pump” sets – where local fatigue isn’t going to set in effectively until late in a set.
This results in more muscular damage for the same amount of stimulating reps, meaning that you’re cutting your actual results short.
So what can you do about this?
Getting past straight sets
Let’s take another look at that hypothetical 5 sets of 5 at 75% of your max:
Sets 1 and 2: Feels breezy (RPE 7) – 2 stimulating reps
Sets 3 and 4: Getting tastier (RPE 8.5) – 3-4 stimulating reps
Set 5: Feels rough (RPE 9.5) – 5 stimulating reps
Can you see the problem here? The first few sets aren’t doing nearly enough to get the maximum results, while the final set is providing maximal stimulus but you’re knocking on the door of a failed attempt.
Walking the line between easy and impossible is the challenge of effective training. The sweet spot for training here is probably between sets 3 and 5 – while sets 1 and 2 are likely to be ineffective in order to make sure you can complete the workout.
You’re basically limiting your overall performance just to make sure you can keep the same weight over 5 sets. This is a good “shotgun approach” – of doing enough to make sure you get something – but it’s not optimal.
Making it Better: Top Sets and Drop Sets
The best response to this problem is a simple one: start heavier, drop down. You don’t even need to change the % you use for your workouts – you can just use it as an average guideline for what you’re putting on the bar.
This is likely to be a simple top-set of 5, followed by slowly backed-off sets and a balance rather than dogmatically sticking to the same weight the entire time. It means more plate-changing, but that’s a small price to pay for more strength and size.
Let’s take one final look at what a rep scheme looks like with this approach:
Set 1: 5 reps at 80%
Set 2: 5 reps at 77.5%
Set 3: 5 reps at 75%
Set 4: 5 reps at 75%
Set 5: 5 reps at 70%
This brings out your average intensity at 75.5% - a small bump to your intensity that results in a better workout. These sets are all likely to be higher in stimulating reps and produce a comparable volume across the whole workout.
This is also going to be important for maintaining strength, which responds to intensity, as well as building muscle mass effectively.