Top Sets and Back-Off Sets

Top Sets

Each training session, as you are completing your working sets, you should aim to reach a “Top Set”. As you may guess, this is the set in which the highest amount of weight is used for the day.

Some days, a top weight will be used for multiple sets. Other days, you will be able to continually escalate the weight throughout your working sets, all the way up to one single top set.

The top set(s), is the peak of the training session. Sometimes this also represents the end of the session. Other times it does not.

The higher the weight you work up to, the less sustainability you will have. As you near your limits, fewer repetitions and fewer sets will be possible to be completed. But just because you can no longer climb in weight or continue to train with a relatively high-percentage weight, does not always mean you need to (or should) quit for the day. This could be an excellent time to utilize back-off sets.

Back-Off Sets

Back-off sets AKA “Down Sets” are done with weights that are reduced from your top weights. They are used to accumulate more training volume in a safe way. Tallying up more reps - in a fatigued state, is what carries over to more strength, more muscle, and more total energy expenditure down the road, even with the use of sub-maximal weights.

A highly overlooked reason to employ back-off sets is to help build confidence. Lets say you work up to a top weight of 405lb and then drop back to 330lb to do some down sets. 330 is going to feel like a toy. Your body will be tricked into it feeling lighter than it felt working up to, and past it from zero. This presents a great scenario to become more efficient with weights that are under your top weights for the day. You will learn to move these weights faster. You will learn to not let weights that used to get in your head, get in your head anymore. If you use them correctly, back-off sets can help bring up your top weights, and the higher your top weights, the higher your back-off weights will be as a result.

Back-offs can be used to do any number of sets, for any number of repetitions, and loaded to any percentage of a lift.

As an example of all of this, below is the deadlift workout my 5:45pm class did just last night…

Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 1.00.25 PM.png

This workout involved working up to a top set - a top single.

After that, back-off sets were completed, on the minute, at 80% of the top weight reached.

After the back-off sets where completed, with whatever time was left, we worked up to a single again, this time using the lifters’ non-preferred stance.

Working Sets

Unlike warm-up sets, working sets are always important. In fact, they are actually the only thing that is important.

Working sets AKA simply “work sets” or “main sets” are what your training is all about. These are the sets that you want to record and track. These are the sets that you look to progress upon. The toughest part of your training sessions should be as you are completing your working sets.

Working sets are the sets that build strength and muscle, and the ones that help you to lose body fat. In order to accomplish any of these changes, you need to be working with an adequate amount of weight. Warm-up weights are too light to stimulate your tissues to the point of adaptation.

Up until your first working set, your only objective should have been to have yourself prepared to that point. You want to feel warmed-up, but still fresh. You should have used your warm-up sets to groove crisp and deliberate movement for the lift you are training. Now that you are feeling good and have things firing well, it is time to push the intensity.

There is not a minimum or maximum number of working sets that need to be completed, just know how to differentiate them from your warm-up sets.

In coming posts, I will go over “top sets” and “back-off sets”, both of which fall into the category of working sets.

Warm-Up Sets

To put it simply and artistically, the way I see it, warm-up sets should be used to slowly wake up and excite your nervous system. To not use warm-up sets would somewhat be the equivalent of slapping your nervous system in the face while at rest, and expecting it to perform at a high capacity, at that moment.

Warm-up sets, AKA ramp-up sets, or work-up sets are meant to prepare you for your working sets. During warm-up sets, we are not looking for much of a training effect. We are simply using the weights we take to gradually warm our body up and to slowly become acclimated to heavier weight. I like to think of warm-up sets only as stepping stones that must be taken to reach your first real set (working set).

There is no ‘set in stone’ way to go about structuring your warm-up sets. You don’t have to waste too much mental energy on deciding what weights you’re going to take for your warm-ups because they really aren’t that important. Your working sets are what is important. If you spend too much mental and physical energy on choosing and performing your warm-up weights, you won’t be able to take on your working sets with as much intensity.

But on the other hand, warm-up sets are important. If you skip warming-up altogether, your first working set will feel shockingly heavy, and you will not be able to move the weight with as high of quality as you would have, had you have gone through a series of warm-up sets.

The Warm-Up

Always start light and work heavier. Always practice crisp and deliberate repetitions. Never take a warm-up set to exhaustion.

Your warm-up weights are going to be light enough that you can move them well. Work on moving the weights like you mean it. You will need to move the weight like you mean it once you reach your working weights, so it is very productive to dial this effort in right off the bat. Not only will these weights be so light that you can move them easily, they will be so light that there is not a point to overdoing it with repetitions, it will only work to your detriment later in the session, and also months down the road.

Let’s say you are overhead pressing, and your first working set calls for 95lb for 10 reps. DO NOT just slap 95lb on the bar and jump right into your first set. DO NOT do 10 reps for each warm-up set.

This is (one of many ways) I would recommend working up to a set of 95 x 10…

Bar x 5

Bar x 5

65 x 5

65 x 3

85 x 3

95 x 1

Next set would be 95 x 10

Here is another way to warm-up to 95 x 10…

Bar x 8

55 x 6

65 x 6

75 x 4

85 x 2

95 x 1

Next set would be 95 x 10

In the first example, I took the Bar and 65lb two times. I like to do this at times. Many times, taking a weight twice will make for it feeling a lot better the second time. Any time a weight feels better, you can move it better. The better you move a weight, the better you can recruit motor units. The better you can recruit and put motor units to use, the more weight you will be able to lift, and for more repetitions.

If you do like to take weights more than once, do that earlier on in your warm-up schedule. Remember that the weights will continue to get heavier the further you go, which also carries with it a greater risk of exhaustion. Notice that in the first example, I only took 85lb one time. 85 is close enough to 95 that I wouldn’t get much from taking it again. It wouldn’t do much more than bring on unnecessary fatigue.

In the second example, more total repetitions are performed, and smaller jumps are taken. This is a matter of preference. Some lifters like taking smaller jumps. Some lifters like to take the early and lighter sets to more reps. It is a matter of experimenting with different weights and jumps to determine how you perform best, and what helps build your confidence the most to take on the working sets.

You will notice that both examples show a total of 6 warm-up sets, and that in both examples I took my working weight of 95lb for 1 rep as my last warm-up set. You may think: You did 1 rep with 95, why not just continue on to 10 and make that the first working set? This is something I like to do. Not all of the time, but I wanted to include it as an example of another variable you can use in your warm-ups. Taking 95 for one last crisp rep allowed me to feel the working weight without the exhaustion associated with going all the way to 10. A lot of times this feels nicer and less shocking than going from 3 warm-up reps to 10 working reps does, and also with a heavier weight factored in.

The better you understand how to effectively use warm-up sets, the more you will see how unimportant they are. Do them, but do them in a way that preserves energy, doesn’t take a ton of thought, and most importantly, do them in a way that has you feeling good and moving well by the time you are finished with your last warm-up set.

Set Intensities

In my next several posts I will be laying out how you could expect the sets (of any given lift or exercise you do) to look.

During this series of posts, I will be referring primarily to barbell lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and presses.

I will go over Warm-Up and Working Sets, Top Sets, and Back-Off Sets.

The loading (amount of weight being used) of each set is what differentiates warm-up sets from working sets, and amongst your working sets, what separates your top sets from your back-off sets.

In order to progress, a combination of different intensities should be used during each training session. This means that you should expect to go through, at the very least, warm-up sets followed by building up to a top working set. In some instances, you may even utilize back-off sets.

“Warm-Up Sets” to come soon.

What I’d like to know is - Are you familiar with any of these terms? Please comment below.

Replicate

What have you done before that you wish to do again?

Demonstrate somethings possibility, and it will always be there for you to go back to.

If you have lost 15lb before, you can lose 15lb again.

If you have lifted 300lb before, you can do it again.

If you have pulled yourself up from tough circumstances before, you can do it again.

Maybe it will require a different path.

Or maybe all you will need is to replicate your process.

What You Think Is Long-Term, Is Actually Short-Term

The calendar year is already halfway over, and most of you reading could agree that 2019 is going by pretty fast.

Back in January, June seemed far away.

Some of us may have set a goal to lose a certain amount of weight.

Some of us may have set a goal to add pounds to the weight we can lift.

Setting out to lose 20lb. or to add 20lb. to your squat in 6 months is more difficult than it looks on your calendar.

Failing to reach these types of goals is frustrating, but do remember that half-a-year’s time is actually a short amount of time - it’s already June 2019, remember?

There is nothing wrong with chasing short-term goals, and really, most of the goals you will have will be short-term. Just don’t confuse long and short, and expect to see long-term results in a timeframe that is surprisingly short-term.

If you didn’t lose the 20lb. you hoped to by June, maybe you lost 12.

If you didn’t add 20lb. to your squat, maybe you added 12.

That’s on pace to make a 24lb. difference in a year…

still a short-lived amount of time.

Done With It

I kept with my experiment for almost the time I said I would.

But I am abandoning it a couple of days short. I know this is lame, but I took it to the point that it pissed me off and I don’t really care that I’m giving up.

I have discovered that getting my carbs from fruit and vegetable sources alone is not an efficient way for me to train.

Over the last several weeks, my strength didn’t go up - it actually went down in some areas. My body composition has worsened.

I just didn’t feel like myself either.

I felt like something was lacking.

As I said in a recent post, when I worked out the weights felt heavier.

My bones felt hollow under weight. I could feel my strength leaking away with each rep.

For the most part, I could keep pretty close to the weights I was able to hit a few weeks back, but doing that was a huge challenge. And staying close to where I was is not the goal. I want to keep moving forward.

Each session felt like I was dragging my feet through mud - barely making a set, then needing to recover for several minutes before I could take my next set. I definitely did not see any progress, but did notice a drop in some lifts - especially the squat.

It wasn’t until deadlifting yesterday, when I couldn’t even budge a weight off the ground (a weight that had become routine for me over the last few months), that I knew this was doing me no good. I decided right then that I was done with my low starch diet.

I would have loved to have found that this way of eating could support training the same way a diet containing starchy sources does, but that is certainly not the case for me.

I DO NOT recommend eating this way for anyone with the goal of building muscle, and especially anyone prioritizing gaining strength.

For me, it’s back to lots of rice and oats!

"Control"

If we are talking about lifting, the word “control” is a word that I have come to dislike.

Many people tend to interpret controlled lifting as being synonymous with slow lifting. That is a problem because in order to demonstrate supreme control, you actually need to be able to lift a weight fast.

There is more to lifting than just moving a weight. We need to train our muscles to contract against resistance. One connection that needs to be made is for that muscular contraction to happen quickly, not to just happen.

Really, I am a huge proponent of lifting in a controlled fashion.

But just because you are doing an exercise slowly, does not necessarily mean you are the one who is in control.

Doing slow and (seemingly controlled) squats, but with wobbly feet - allowing your weight to shift from the front to the back part of your feet - is not controlled.

Bench pressing the bar up for a 3-count (and down for the same) is practicing little control if your back is relaxed and the bar flops around like a leaf in the wind, spanning from over the top of your forehead to over the top of your chest.

Control comes back to your body.

Can you produce enough tension throughout your body to handle and support the weight you are about to take? Have you established the proper body positions, positions that are necessary to safely begin the set? From the positions you create, are you able to generate enough force to move the weight without crumbling out of position?

Over the past couple of years, I have fallen in love with the word “deliberately”.

Deliberately means to do something consciously and intentionally; on purpose.

It is hard to not be controlled if you are doing things deliberately.

Approach your sets deliberately, don’t just go through the motions.

Once you have begun each set, move the weight deliberately, not casually.

Work on putting some speed on the bar.

This is where you really begin to understand what control is.

A Few Days In

On Monday, I began avoiding starchy foods (M-Th). I’m planning on going with this for a few weeks and then assess things from there.

I was nervous to begin this way of eating, not because I thought I might not be able to do it, but because I feared eating this way would not fuel my workouts.

Monday was difficult. Definitely the toughest workout of the week for me. I initially thought it was due to less glucose in the system and that my concern was confirmed. Looking back now, it was probably due to the fact that it was a Monday coming off eating quite a bit of junk over the weekend.

My Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday workouts went better than Monday.

It is only one week in, but so far I have been able to keep performance to the level I want it to be.

However, It is a struggle to do this. I do notice that I need more recovery time between sets and even though I’m making the weights I want to make, the weight feels heavier.

I’ll get back to this eating regimen again on Tuesday (since Monday is Memorial Day). On Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, (and this week, Monday) I’ll eat whatever I want.

I would hate to gross any of you out, but comment if you want me to document the things I eat this weekend…

What I Am Eating For (At Least) The Next Few Weeks

Black coffee for breakfast (no picture)

Lunch:

Shredded chicken, carrots, red peppers, cucumbers.

Shredded chicken, carrots, red peppers, cucumbers.

Frozen blueberries and raspberries, watermelon.

Frozen blueberries and raspberries, watermelon.

Chocolate Milk and a Banana Post Workout (no picture)

Dinner:

Shredded chicken + a few drops of Frank’s Red Hot sauce, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, cucumbers.

Shredded chicken + a few drops of Frank’s Red Hot sauce, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, cucumbers.

Watermelon.

Watermelon.

Shake containing chocolate whey protein, 1 banana, flaxseed meal, milk, peanut butter.

Shake containing chocolate whey protein, 1 banana, flaxseed meal, milk, peanut butter.

Next Week: No Starch

It’s time for me to experiment again.

This is how I learn.

This is how I form my own fitness beliefs.

Findings from my own experiments are what I use to contribute to the people I train.

Starting next week (and for at least 3 weeks) I am eliminating starchy foods from my diet - Monday-Thursday, that is.

Over the past several months, I have been eating a lot of rice and oats, but next week they will be off limits.

My training has been going great as of late, and I am curious to know if I should attribute that to the starchy foods I’ve been eating, or if carbs from fruit alone can support the same training intensity.

I’m hoping to continue training at the same level, but we will see if it starts to drop off any.

Comment below if you’re interested in doing this along with me.

If there is enough interest I will share my eating plan moving forward.

Getting Toned

A goal that many trainees have is to “get more toned”.

They want their arms and legs to have better shape.

They want a flatter stomach.

They want to look lean and athletic, but they don’t want to look too bulky.

While there is nothing wrong with having this type of goal, most people who desire this kind of physique do not understand what it takes to get there.

They think they do.

They read online and in numerous fitness magazines that “higher reps with lighter weight will make you more toned, and lower weight with heavier weight will make you bigger”.

Both of these claims sound sensible, but neither of them are true.

“Toning up” is simply the building of muscle tissue combined with simultaneous body fat reduction.

In order to satisfy your goal of toning up, you need to have both of these things, not just one or neither of them.

Tricep pressdowns done with light weight for sets of 30 reps will do neither of them for you. They won’t build muscle and they will do nothing to help you lose body fat.

“But Drew, I see all kinds of in-shape people (people who look how I want to look) doing tricep pressdowns with light weight for sets of 30 reps!”

If a person is already in shape, they can train this way. They are already lean enough and built in a way that showcases their toned features. They could even make you believe that doing tricep pressdowns with light weight for sets of 30 reps is what is responsible for their appearance. It’s not.

If you want to look more toned, you really must understand energy expenditure.

If you aren’t as toned as you want to be, you have more body fat than you want to have. You have a surplus of energy. That’s all body fat really is.

In order to get rid of some of that body fat, you need to create a deficit of energy.

To do this, you will probably want to eat less (fewer calories in), and you most definitely need to expend more energy during your workouts (more calories used).

Tricep pressdowns done with light weight for sets of 30 reps isn’t going to increase your energy expenditure.

Squats, presses, and deadlifts done for 6-12 reps will.

Tricep pressdowns done with light weight for sets of 30 reps will keep you stagnant and free of results.

Squats, presses, and deadlifts done for 6-12 reps will get you the toned body you crave.

An Uncommon, Yet Effective Way To PR

I recently wrote about three ways you can set new PRs: 1RM, Rep PRs, and Volume PRs.

It is important to PR.

It is indicative of progress.

If you are never reaching higher weights, not pushing to do the same weights for more reps, or never adding more sets to accumulate more total poundage, you’re not making progress.

A good mentality is to try to PR (in some way) every single session.

For a while you will be able to do this, but you will notice that the longer you lift for, the harder PRs are to come by.

An experienced lifter won’t see PRs as frequently as a novice lifter.

Some days you won’t be able to hit higher weights. Some days you won’t be able to do more reps. Some days you will be too beat up to crank out more volume.

Pre-Exhausted PRs

Pre-exhaustion is a method that is most commonly used in bodybuilding to induce more muscle growth. This is where we intentionally fatigue smaller muscle groups first, which will then require the bigger and stronger muscle groups to work harder during compound exercises.

An example of this is to do bicep curls before doing pull-ups. The biceps would fatigue to the point they could not contribute to the pull-up as much as if the curls were done after the pull-ups. The pre-exhaustion of the biceps forces the lats to work harder to perform the exercise.

PR attempts are conventionally taken when a lifter is fresh, but we can utilize pre-exhaustion to push the body in a different way, and to boost PR numbers when we return to a fresh state.

Don’t be afraid to push your numbers later in your workout when you are fatigued.

The fatigue makes you work at a disadvantage. When a disadvantage is introduced, there becomes more room to build up.

Then, when you take that disadvantage away, you be left stronger.

Push to lift heavier and heavier weight in a state of fatigue.

Push to do more reps of a certain weight in a state of fatigue.

If you can hit a 600x1 deadlift at the end of your deadlift workout, how easy will it be to hit 600+ at the beginning of it?

Types of PR

When lifting weights, there are 3 main ways to PR.*

“PR” means to set a new personal record.

1RM

For the majority of lifters, the most sought after PR is the 1RM (1 Rep-Max). This is the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted a single time for a given exercise. If you take your max bench press from 80lb to 95lb - your PR bench used to be 80, but is now 95.

Repetition

You don’t necessarily have to push a higher weight to PR. You can set new repetition, or rep PRs. This is the number of repetitions that can be completed at any given weight, for any given exercise. If during your last training cycle you could squat 275 for 8 reps, and your current cycle has you squatting 275 for 10, you have established a new rep PR (for 275lb). The convenient thing about rep PRs is that they can be set for every single weight. This gives you more opportunities to set new ones.

Volume

The type of PR that is most overlooked, yet the easiest to make is a volume PR.

Volume = Sets x Reps x Load (weight).

Calculating and tracking your volume can be complicated if you want it to be. Because of this, I typically only consider the total volume for the main lift of each training session.

Here is a very simple way to ramp up volume over a relatively short period of time…

Let’s say that today you deadlifted for 5 sets of 5 using 135lb for all five sets. That would put you at 3,375lb worth of volume. The next time you deadlift, you could increase your volume by doing everything the same, except for bumping up the weight to 145lb on only your fifth set. That would give you 3,425lb worth of volume. The next time you deadlift after that, you could boost your volume again by using 135 for your first three sets, then 145 for your remaining two. That would be 3,475lb worth of volume, and you would have volume PR’d three deadlift sessions in a row. Continuing to fill your working sets with heavier and heavier weights will get you stronger over time.

As you see in the above example, it is very feasible to set new volume PRs and it is something you can do pretty quickly and regularly.

*There is another “type” of PR that I use. It opens up your PR setting possibilities even further, and I will write about it in another post (once I can come up with a name for it, or figure out if there is already a name for it).

How Important Is Variety?

Not as important as many people think.

I rarely train a person who I think needs more variety in their training.

It is almost always the opposite.

I usually find myself stripping away the (mostly) pointless exercises a trainee thinks they need, and instead spend the majority of time building up the basics.

I understand that switching up and tweaking exercises keeps things fun and interesting, but nothing is more exciting than adding weight your lifts.

Many people wouldn’t believe or understand this because they have not stayed with an exercise long enough for this type of progression to take place.

I am not all the way against exercise variety, I just want you to get closer to reaching your limits on foundational exercises before you start getting too fancy.

Before you start doing the Side Step Squat Jumps and Spinny Kick Lunges you saw your favorite fitness model doing on Instagram, prioritize working toward squatting 2x bodyweight.

You're Doing The Right Things, You Just Need More Time

What are you trying to accomplish?

Are you trying to lose weight?

Are you trying to lift heavier weights?

Whatever it is, accomplishment is not difficult to understand.

You have to do the right things.

You know that in order to lose weight you will need to clean up your eating and you should probably exercise.

You know that in order to lift heavier weight you will need to lift heavy things, recover, then lift heavy things again.

Understanding the right things to do is only the first step.

It is the easiest step.

Everyone is willing to go this far, but few are willing to go further than this.

The hard part is doing the right things for long enough.

This is the part that is most time-consuming.

This is the most crucial part.

You don’t need me to tell you what you should be doing. You already know, and hopefully are already doing what you should be doing. You just need to give the things you need to do more time.

Preparation Is Most Important

For the three of you who read my stuff, you know that I have written a lot about preparation. It’s very key. Things like consistency and hard work are obviously extremely important when it comes to pursuing any goal, but in order to be consistent, you first have to be prepared to start, then stay consistent. In order to work hard, you have to prepare yourself (mentally and physically) for it.

Some of you know that I am giving up desserts for the month of April. I know that I will be successful in doing it because I am willing to think ahead and prepare myself for the moments that I will have cravings for desserts. Even though I only allow for these cravings to hit on the weekend, I will be ready with a pre-made protein/banana/peanut butter/oats shake (that tastes almost as good as many desserts) when they do.

It’s all about being prepared - to give yourself the opportunity to stay on track with where you are going.

Foundations

So you’ve been going to the gym a few times a week for the last couple of weeks. You’ve been eating better each day over that same course of time.

Why aren’t you seeing faster results?

Why aren’t you much stronger, and why do you not look much better when you take a look at the mirror?

The short and cliche answer is that “it takes time”, but what that really means is you haven’t built enough of a foundation yet.

The lifts you can or cannot make are a result of the time you spent or did not spend in the gym over the last several months and several years.

A person does not become obese by eating pizza and cake a few times a week for a couple of weeks. It takes years of poor eating habits and low activity levels to do that.

Most things you are doing today will not affect your health (whether that be positively or negatively) until months and years down the road.

It’s great that you’re getting to the gym a lot right now.

Keep doing that.

You’ll be stronger and look better in July.

A Daily Goal That Led To A Finding

At the start of February, I set a goal for myself to begin each of my workouts with at least a couple sets of dumbbell rows. I planned to do this for a month, and was hoping to strengthen my upper back to help boost my deadlift.

Also, I wasn’t planning on doing ordinary DB Rows - I was using a very heavy dumbbell (one that was so heavy that it required some body english to hoist around).

I started doing these rows at the beginning of each workout without much focus on the movement or much planning. Some days I would do sets of 5, some days sets of 8-10. Some days I would do a ton of sets of just one or two at a time. I didn’t really care about set and rep structure, I just wanted to pull some reps on a heavy weight.

For most of the month I was consistent and stayed true to my goal. Toward the end of the month though, I got lazy a couple of days and skipped the rows at the beginning of the day.

And on the days that I skipped my rows, I noticed a surprising correlation…my lifts were lousy on those same days and my workout in general was not good.

When I first devised the idea to start each session with heavy rows I figured that my performance would go down a little bit due to pre-exaustion from the rows. I never really noticed that to be true, but I certainly didn’t expect the rows to enhance my performance every session.

It wasn’t until I linked my bad workouts to the skipping of rows that I actually did believe they helped my lifts that same day.

Here is what I now believe…

Starting your lifting session with a few sets of heavy rows activates your upper back and helps familiarize a “set” shoulder position.

You need a strong upper back and “set shoulders” to support the weight you are trying to squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, etc.

Any compound movement you can train will heavily involve the upper back.

Starting your workout with heavy rows warms you up in a hurry.

If you are using heavy enough weight, your whole body will be stimulated making the exercise a potent energizer.

My theory is that the weight you are rowing should be very heavy - nothing you can do in strict fashion - and done at relatively low volumes (I would say 25 or less total repetitions each side).

If you’re rowing a weight that doesn’t require use of straps, the weight isn’t heavy enough.

I do predict that if you performed rows at higher volumes to begin each workout, say 30-60+ reps per side, that a pre-exhaustive effect would set in and your performance would in fact suffer for that session.

That’s just a guess though. Maybe I’ll try that in the future.

As for now I’m going to keep doing my heavy rows at the beginning of each day. I like how they make me feel and I like what they do for my lifts.

Try them for yourself and let me know what you think…