Q and A: Separating Warm-Up Sets and Work Sets

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Q:  Hey Tony, I was wondering if you could write up a blog post on the proper way to work up to a heavy set, like when you work up to a 1rm, 3rm or a 5rm. When does the warm up end and the work sets begin, etc?  Thanks in advance, love the blog.

A:  This is actually a really great question because if there is any one thing that I see most people flub in the gym, it’s this. 

You have two sides of the coin, really.  On one side you have the guy who thinks he’s some kind of superhero, and just loads the bar up to his “working” set(s) and has at it.

Unless you’re name is He-Man or Charlie Sheen, this is stupid.

On the flip side – and equally as stupid – is the guy who takes foooooooooooorever to get up to his work set.  In reality, he’ll do what seems like 17 sets before he even sniffs his actual sets; and then wonder why he’s always struggling to make any progress.

But to keep this as concise as possible (I could easily go off on a rant here.  As a matter of fact, I kinda alteady did HERE), lets use myself as an example and go through how I’d progress to a heavy single on the bench press.

Note: Lets just assume that “heavy single” means anything at or above 90% of my 1RM.

Another Note:  it’s also important to keep in mind that anytime we’re going for a heavy single, there’s going to be some sense of auto-regulation coming into play.  Meaning, you’re not always going to feel like a million bucks and break PR’s every time out.  Sorry, it’s the truth.

Having said that, we always need to be cognizant of the fact that every day is different – some days you’ll have it, and others you won’t. 

Current 1RM:  315

Goal is to work up to 3 singles at or above 90%

Bar x whatever – as silly as it sounds, I always start with the bar just to groove technique.

From there I typically add either a 45 lb plate or a 25 lb plate with each subsequent “set,” until I start getting close to my estimated “work set’ (which again, is at or around 90% of my 1RM = anything 283 lbs and up).

For less advanced trainees, it may come down to adding only 25 lb plates and 10 lb plates – this is obviously dependent on the individual and their current strength levels. 

Basically, with every subsequent “set,” I add a 45 then a 25, like so:

135 x 5
185 x 3
225 x 3
275 x 1 – for me, this is generally my last warm-up set, and depending on how “fast” this feels is usually my marker for how high I think I’ll be able to go.  If it’s fast, it’s on like donkey kong.  If it’s slow, I suck at life.

295 x 1 – was a little bit of a grinder, but still have a little more in me.  Technically, this would also count as my actual first set since this was my first set above 90% of my 1RM.  As such, I now have TWO more sets left, which means anything at or above 285 (rounded up) lbs would count as a true work set.

305 x 1
300 x 1

And that’s basically it.  You can also use the 90% rule when working up to a 3RM or even a 5RM.  So, for example, if you’re planning on working up to a heavy 3RM, you’ll follow the same warm-up and just gradually work up to a challenging set of three.  Once you hit it (lets say it’s at 225 lbs), then every set that’s at or above 205 (rounding up from 202) lbs will count as an actual “work” set.

I really like this approach because it forces people to 1) work at a higher intensity than normal and 2) Be less douchy.  Many trainees tend to undershoot their actual work sets by counting their warm-up sets, too.  Big, big mistake.   Is it any wonder, then, why so many people are baffled why they’re not making any progress when they’re counting their set of 135 lbs as an actual set!

Nevertheless, while this is a topic that could easily be dissected a bit more, I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

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