Whether it's 5x5, 4x8 or 3x12, many lifters perform these and other popular set/rep schemes with the same weight for each set. This is called the sets across method. Many adopt this method because it's easy and mindless—you toss on a weight for your first set, then you don't have to think about it again.
Once you fall into the habit of lifting like this, it can be very tough to break. You get into the mindset that you simply cannot increase or decrease weight from one working set to the next, which inhibits progress far more often than it encourages it. Even for lifters who do not use the sets across method, they often think their final working set of the day must be the heaviest. This imaginary "rule" is likely causing you to leave significant strength gains on the table.
The sets across method is not a bad strategy for beginners, as their focus is on learning correct lifting form, and their gains come quite easily. However, past the newbie stage, the sets across method is not very effective for strength gains, and can lead to plateaus quickly. Luckily, there are other, more effective tactics at your disposal. Let's compare the sets across method with one such tactic to help illustrate the difference.
Sets Across vs. Variable Weights
Let's say your 1-rep max on Trap Bar Deadlifts is 500 pounds and your 5-rep max is 440 pounds (which is 88% of your 1RM).
Since today's workout calls for five sets of five reps, you won't be using 440 pounds for all sets, because you can only hit a weight that heavy for one set. So, after some quick calculations in your head, you decide to go with 405. The first few sets seem light while the fourth and fifth feel progressively heavier. You're able to complete all sets for the given reps, so you'll bump the weight up to 410 pounds next time.
- Max weight used: 405 pounds (81% or 1RM)
- Total training volume: 10,125 pounds
Now, how might this same workout look with variable weights?
Variable weights allow you to listen to your body and adjust accordingly. They also allow you to peak before your final set, which can be mighty handy due to factors like fatigue. Since you're not locked in to the same weight for each set—or even the idea that you have to progressively ramp up the weight on each subsequent set—you have a lot more freedom. You decide to start with 425 (still 15 pounds below your 5RM) and take it from there.
- Set 1: 425x5. This felt rather easy, so you add 10 pounds to your next attempt
- Set 2: 435x5. Last two reps were very challenging but form remained solid. If someone held a gun to your head, you probably could grind out 440 on your next set, but opt to cap it at 435 today. You know that you're just a week or two away from hitting 440 and 445
- Set 3: 425x5. After the previous set with 435, 425 felt a lot less smooth than the first time. Realizing that you're getting tired from the cumulative effort of performing multiple sets at and above 85% of your 1RM, you take some more weight off the bar.
- Set 4: 405x5. Bar speed remained faster than with 425, so you stick to 405 for your last set as well.
- Set 5: 405x5. Felt slightly heavier than the previous one, but still a good, solid set to wrap things up.
Next time, you will attempt 440 pounds for 5 within the first two sets of the day, because that's when your nervous system is at its freshest. Depending on how heavy it feels, you can either take a gamble with 445 (which would be a new PR) right then and there, or do so the following week.
- Max weight used: 435 pounds (87% or 1RM)
- Total training volume: 10,475 pounds
Why Variable Weights Lead to Better Gains in Experienced Lifters
Sticking to the same weight for all sets is inferior to varying the weights you use from set to set for a couple of reasons.
First, a high training intensity (defined as a percentage of your 1RM) is mandatory for gaining strength in experienced lifters. A good rule of thumb is to lift weights at and above 85% of your 1RM when maximizing strength is your goal. This translates to 1-6 reps per set, on average. Working up to your heaviest set of the day within the first couple of sets while you're fresh ensures you're using weights that are heavy enough to promote strength gains.
Second, as you can see in our example above, you're often able to perform slightly more volume with the variable weights approach. As we all know, training volume is one key factor that contributes to muscle gains.
Third, past the beginner stage, adding weight to the bar from one week to the next becomes increasingly difficult. It becomes even harder when you're supposed to top your previous numbers on ALL of your work sets. Unless your goal is to plateau quickly, I cannot recommend the sets across approach.
Let's go back to our imaginary lifter who, after hitting 405 for 5x5 on Trap Bar Deadlifts, returns to the gym next week and posts these numbers:
- Set 1: 410x5
- Set 2: 410x5
- Set 3: 410x5
- Set 4: 410x4
- Set 5: 410x4
Once the weights get heavy enough, the cumulative fatigue from his earlier sets causes a drop-off in performance on the last set(s).
Sure, he can grind away with 410 for another week or two, and probably build up enough endurance to complete all sets for 5. But what do you think is going to happen when he goes up to 415 or 420? He'll hit the wall hard to the point where he might not be able to move past 415 for 5x5 despite taking that sucker to town for a month. That's a month of wasted training time trying to blast through a plateau that simply won't budge.
It's much, much easier to make progress when you're trying to beat your previous performance on just ONE set rather than three, four or five. Work up to your top set for the day early on during your session. Then, perform a few back-off sets at slightly lighter weights to accumulate extra volume that helps build strength and muscle.
You will still try to beat your previous back-off set numbers with your current back-off sets whenever you can, as well. However, your focus is on pushing your heavy set beyond your previous best. If, on a given training day, you can only improve on one or two back-off sets after a new PR on your main set, that's still a huge victory. Rack up as many of these sessions as possible and enjoy the ride. That's how you keep strength gains coming for a long time as an intermediate lifter.
Photo Credit: bogdankosanovic/iStock
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