Programming for strength training is a mystical art only known to the master. No more!
I will now reveal the trade secrets that helped me become the strongest Indonesian Starting Strength Coach (SSC).
Except, there’s no trade secret, just some knowledge I’ve gained from coaching for the past few years. But, yes! I am the strongest Indonesian SSC, since I am the only one. Haha!
I want to share a few thoughts about programming for intermediate lifters; it’s a vast subject for someone who just finished their Novice Linear Progression (NLP). If you don’t know where to start, look no further. You can watch this video by Shaun explaining how to transition from a Novice to an early Intermediate.
After listening to Shaun and creating the weekly mainframe of your training, you will then need to fill in the details and decide how to adjust your training stress so you can continue to make progress. In the bodybuilding world or a big box commercial gym, you may hear that the 3 sets of 12 followed by a pyramid, then a reverse pyramid is the only way to go. However, I don’t understand anything about that world and their art of programming. Therefore, I can only share these three loading protocols that will work for barbell strength training.
We start the discussion from the most straightforward way of loading, “sets across.” A familiar example for “sets across” is the NLP; 3 sets of 5 reps at the same weight.
Do not downplay the effectiveness of this uncomplicated loading protocol! Our body doesn’t need anything complicated or even be “confused” to get bigger and stronger. Most of the time, the lifter doesn’t need anything more than this for the first few months. For example, in the Novice setting, when the last rep of your 3×5 gets hard, you can shift to 4×4 or even to 5×3 (5 sets – 3 reps).
Sets across gets harder and harder after each set as you accumulate fatigue. Although sometimes, some lifters find that the second set feels more manageable than the first – this is likely due them being more “warmed-up” or getting used to the weight. However, we all agree that this protocol’s most challenging rep will come on the very last rep of the very last set. Thus, adding the rest time before the last few sets is a good idea, especially if you are doing more than 3 sets across.
How long, you ask? If you rest 3-4 minutes after the first set, you might want to take 5-6 minutes before the last set.
That reveals the weakness of doing sets across at higher intensity/weight, such as the Stronglifts 5×5 template. It’s time-consuming!
Even worse, the law of diminishing returns applies to the length of rest before it negatively impacts your next set. Don’t believe me? Try resting 30 minutes between your squats, and you will realize that you might need to warm up again.
To me, doing sets across as a novice and early intermediate lifter is essential. Not only because it works well in adding weight to the bar, but it also teaches a person to do hard things. Under a heavy barbell, you are in the express lane of a character-building class.
You are in a situation where there’s no option to make it easier by reducing the load or the number of reps. So it’s either you fight for it, or you fail. Sometimes, people get creative and create the third option, TO CHEAT. For example, not hitting the depth when squatting, not touching the chest during benching, and so on, which creates another opportunity to reflect on ourselves, “Is that acceptable?”, “Will I allow that again?”, “Am I a cheater or a fighter?”
The sets-across protocol is versatile in its application – from the main lifts, like what use in the NLP, all the way down to the assistance/accessories exercises e.g. 3 x 8-12 reps for the biceps curl.
The variable to control here is the total volume across the sets. I typically program 9-15 reps for the high-intensity day/ main lifts, 16-25 for volume day, and above 25 reps for accessories.
Top set and backoffs
If you can only perform a solitary heavy set and fail the next one, the sets across program will no longer work for you. Given that it’s not because of the first three questions, and it doesn’t make sense anymore to keep reducing the reps and adding more sets, you will end up using the top set and backoff protocol.
The “top sets and backoffs” call for one or (rarely) more heavy sets followed by a drop in weight for a few more sets.
The heaviest set is always done first after finishing your warm-up, giving you the best chance of completing the most challenging set before the fatigue sets in. On top of being a component of training stress, the top set also demonstrates your ability to produce maximal force, thus becoming the primary indicator of whether you are getting stronger week after week.
As the novice exhausts their ability to a set of five, the top sets can also be done in fewer reps, more commonly between 1-3 reps, before their backoffs. This will give new lifters more experience doing different rep ranges, especially the rep range that shows their maximal force production (a.k.a. 1 rep max).
Despite its high intensity, due to the lack of repeatability/volume at the top set, we need to find another way to fulfill the ever-growing demand for training stress to continue progressing. In this protocol, the backoffs function as the filler for stress, whereby the intensity is lower, but volume is higher. Thus, compared to the sets-across counterparts, the “top set and backoffs” protocol will require a higher total training volume.
How many sets and how heavy? Unfortunately, like all programming questions, there are no exact answers. However, as a common practice, I’d like to use the same amount of volume as their previous “sets across” program. So, for example, if someone was doing a 3×5 squat, I might put a heavy set of 3 reps for the top set and 3×4-5 reps for backoffs. Or for a 1×5 deadlift, I might put a heavy triple and then 1×5 for the backoff.
The backoff intensity will vary depending on whether there’s any difference between the top set and backoff rep range. If the top sets and backoffs are executed within the same rep range, a 5%-10% drop will be suitable. I like to do it for overhead press, where there’s a need to “practice” at heavier weights. So if the top set is at 1×3 reps, the backoffs will be at 4×3 reps at 95% of the top set weight.
If the top set is in lesser reps than your backoffs, a more significant weight drop from 10%-20% might be necessary. The higher the rep range discrepancy between the top set and backoff, a more substantial weight reduction will be required. For example, a 2×5 rep backoff at 80% might be required after a heavy single for your deadlift, whereas 15% might be sufficient for 1×5 backoffs after a heavy triple.
While more sets mean more time at the gym, the 10-20% reduction in weight from the top set allows the backoffs to be done more rapidly with a shorter 3-4 minute rest in between. That will shorten total training time or more work within the same duration.
So far, we have seen a protocol whereby the weights are flat throughout all the working sets and another where by the weight decreases after the top set. So try to guess the next one! Yup, ramping up is where the loaded weight increases with each subsequent set.
If you are doing the Starting Strength NLP, you will remember this from day 1 – doing a set of 5 with an empty bar, gradually increasing the weight in sets of 5 until you found a suitable weight. Ramping up works in a similar fashion but without you needing to do sets of 5 from an empty bar. For example, if your working sets are 100kg x 5, 110kg x 5, and 120kg x 5, you’ll warm up as per normal until before your first working set e.g. 20kg x 5, 50kg x 5, 70kg x 3, and 90kg x 2 before the 100kg x 5.
How is the ramping up protocol useful?
I love “ramping up” for the main lifts in preparation for a meet or peaking. While the top sets and backoffs allow you to be as fresh as possible on the heaviest set on a training day, that’s not the typical scenario in a meet or PR day. In a meet, you have three chances to lift something extra challenging in ascending manner. If you succeed with your first attempt, the next one will be heavier and therefore harder, and the next one will be even more so. The ramping-up protocol allows you to have a feel of doing precisely that. For this application, the number of reps per set will gradually be lower closer to the meet, allowing them more exposure to singles for the last few weeks.
Ramping up is also suitable for dealing with scenarios with many unknown factors where we need to be extra cautious. For instance, when dealing with an injury or returning to training after an extended layoff. Doing ramp-up sets for these two scenarios allows more flexibility for the lifters. The weight increments can be a little more aggressive than the initial plan if the lifter feels exceptionally good or less if the lifter performs worse than expected. In a worst-case scenario, the lifter can decide to abort the plan before it gets into the highest load. For this application, we should consider starting making more conservative increments.
More exotic loading protocols: Myo-reps, EMOM, AMRAP within a time duration, etc
There’s no secret that humans and magpies are attracted to shiny things. Magpies might not be that driven by the bling, but humans like complicated stuff (or to complicate things).
All of the fancy and more complicated protocols above, which you can learn from a google search, are means to get the work volume done within a shorter duration. While this can be good for more accessories exercises (arms, chin/pull-ups, abs), I wouldn’t recommend any of these protocols for the main barbell lifts.
Have fun applying these protocols to your training! Remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect program. Play around with the variables and see what works for you. Until next time!