What Ever Happened to Straight Sets?

With the ever increasing availability of training videos/clips on the Internet these days there seems to be a trend of showing the world who can train the hardest. I’m all for hard training and training consistently hard is what gets results. What I find happening at the moment is that there’s plenty of people confusing good, honest hard work with who can do the most forced reps, drop sets, negatives, super sets etc.etc. I think you get the picture!

I think sometimes these ‘intensity’ techniques get in the way of simple hard training. You see it all the time, watch a few people next time you’re in the gym. If they are doing forced reps for example, watch closely and you’ll see them ‘fail’ early so that their training partner can get their hands on the bar and help them get numerous extra reps. If done correctly, you only need 1 or 2 forced reps to get the job done and they should be the hardest reps of your life!! It seems that people are forgetting that you need to work hard before you get to these ‘advanced’ techniques.

I know this goes against the current trend but next time you train stop your sets just short of failure, even if it’s 4 or 5 sets. There’s simply no physiological need to take a set well past failure to cause a response. This is supported by research and look at the training of strength athletes and power lifters, not many train to complete failure and beyond and theses guys carry plenty of muscle. However, I don’t want to turn this into a debate about bodybuilding versus powerlifting training. I’ll just say that both sides can learn plenty from each other.

A good challenge on the last set of an exercise, such as a big drop set, is great for people who have been training a long time. The longer you have been training the more resistant your muscles get and sometimes they need that extra push.

I’m not contradicting myself here – the majority of the work is still straight sets. Sometimes we all need a challenge and for the bodybuilders who have been training for years and years it’s probably a must to push that extra mile. But there is absolutely no need to put in intensity techniques on every set of every exercise.

For most in the gym pushing that extra mile is not necessary, you can get everything you need by keeping your form good which means the quality of your sets will be very high, still work pretty damn hard but keep your sets to 1 rep short of failure and get enough muscle building volume by not counting your warm-up sets as work sets. If you do this correctly it’s still very hard work. You must realise that an advanced bodybuilders’ 1 rep short of failure maybe someone else’s all out ball’s to the wall ‘I’ve never trained as hard as this in my life’ set. I’m still advocating very hard work here it’s just that some may think they are working hard but the reality is very different.

When pushing yourself on a good basic exercise don’t be afraid to rest a little longer between sets. This way you will get more quality sets with your heaviest weight. Remember, form is still paramount as we want to stimulate the target muscles as much as possible but the more quality reps we can get within our heaviest sets the better.

Yes, when performing your isolation movements you can move somewhat quicker between sets to get that all important pump (yes it is important) but give your heavier movements the respect they deserve.
Training this way might mean a training session lasting a little longer than an hour. Don’t panic you won’t suddenly shrink especially if you have good pre, intra and post training nutrition.

Take every single set seriously and that includes warm ups, remember your warm up sets are getting you ready for the main event. If you want to get great results you must look at training like its your job and half hearted efforts won’t be tolerated. Always set high standards for yourself and your training partners, and if they are holding you back, get rid of them.

Remember don’t count your warm ups as sets and don’t perform too many reps on your warm up either we want to get the maximum benefit out of our work sets as we can. For example, if on a particular day I was going to squat four plates aside for my working sets. This is how I would do it:

Warm-up 1: one plate aside x 10
Warm-up 2: two plates aside x 6
Warm-up 3: two and a half plates aside x 4
Warm-up 4: three plates aside x 2-3
Warm-up 5: three and a half plates aside x 1-2

Now I am warm, used to the weight and ready to go for maximum reps.

When using straight sets I will generally work within a certain rep range and when performance drops off that’s it for that exercise for that day. For example if I’m working in the eight rep range I’ll rest a good three minutes between sets and go for another eight and so on. Once my reps drop by two I move onto another exercise (different rep range, different execution) and how many working sets I get will vary from session to session. It could be four sets, some days only two and performance drops off, other days everything is going well and I may get six sets. The point is, take advantage of the good days and move on when things are not so good!

Don’t clutter your workouts, good old fashioned hard work gets the best results – enjoy it!

Mike Gelsei