I’m not too big on reality TV. And trust me, it aint because of my supreme intelligence. But one show I always got a kick out of was Rob & Big. I liked it because I thought that’s how life should be; guys not taking anything too seriously, joking around and thinking of new ways to entertain and make each other laugh. I mean, I love to laugh and I find everything funnier than most people do. So what would I be better cut out to do than live life like those guys? Probably not much.
But alas, in between the bouts of humor and stupidity that I try to fill most of days with, I have spent the last 16 years helping people get bigger, stronger and faster. There’s nothing I’d rather do for a living. In that time I’ve learned a lot of lessons. One of the most significant is the importance of “working up.”
Much like Big Black was always telling people to “Do work, son,” I regularly find myself telling people to “work up, son.” Or maybe I don’t say it exactly like that. But it’s my story…
A lot of my posts mention “working up to a top end set,” and I sort of assumed everyone knew what I was talking about. Judging by a lot of the questions I get that’s apparently not the case. I guess I assume too much. That could be because the first half of that word is always on my mind.
What is “Working Up” and Who is it Good For?
Beginners shouldn’t work up. Novice lifters should always stick with straight weight and use what’s known as a “sets across” approach. So if the program calls for five sets of five they should pick a weight they could do for maybe eight reps and do all five sets with that weight.
135 x 5 x 5
Advanced lifters, on the other hand, should “work up.” So instead of doing five sets of five with the same weight they would work up to one top end set of five and maybe hit one back off set after that. All in all they may end up doing more than five sets. It might be closer to ten. But only one or two is a real heavy work set.
Bar x 10
95 x 5
135 x 5
185 x 5
225 x 5
250 x 5
275 x 5
315 x 5
295 x 5 (back off set)
That ends up being nine total sets. Just because only one or two sets is heavy doesn’t mean the others are useless. As anyone who has practiced speed training or the Dynamic Effort Method understands, you get a training effect with weights at as low as 60% of your max.
In the previous example, if the lifter was working up to a near five rep max with 315 we can assume a one rep max of around 370 pounds. Therefore every set above 222 will give him a training effect. In this case their are five productive sets. This is a much better approach and easier to recover from than if he just did five straight sets of five with say 295-305 pounds.
As long as you are exploding each of the “working up” sets as fast as humanly possible you are training speed while en route to your maximal strength sets. Essentially you are killing two birds with one stone. Especially if you do a large number (6-10) of “work up” sets, which I highly recommend for the big barbell lifts.
There have been plenty of times in the past where I’ve said that there’s very little reason for an advanced lifter to do more than one or two heavy sets on a big barbell exercise. On occasion people mistook that to mean I was a big proponent of HIT (High Intensity Training). That’s not the case. As you can see from the example above it’s actually closer to ten total sets but with only one or two being really heavy.
So what sets count as warm up sets and what sets count as work sets? I don’t even think about it to be honest. The line is blurred. Anything above 60% definitely elicits a training effect so if you wanted to count that would be the place to start.
The last thing I want you to do is a couple quick, half assed warm up sets and then one or two work sets. That’s a terrible approach that doesn’t fully fire up your central nervous system and makes you more prone to injury.
So do work up, son!
What Exercises Should I “Work Up” On?
All of the big, compound barbell exercises. I never have intermediate/advanced lifters do more than one or two top end heavy sets on exercises like squats, deads, bench presses, military presses or deadlifts.
That’s pretty much standard fare for everyone and every training system from Coan to Kaz to Yates to Westside to DC to 531.
I like to do all of these exercises for ten reps or less (and usually no higher than 6-8 on the deadlift) in order to maintain perfect technique and reduce the risk of injury. So we always work up to a top end set here. Note that it’s not always a true rep max, just a good, clean heavy set.
You want to try to avoid doing extremely slow, grinding, ugly reps with sloppy form. That’s a prescription for weakness and injuries.
Certain assistance exercises are best done for sets across and others lend themselves well to working up. Bodyweightexercises like inverted rows and glute ham raises are usually best done for sets across. These types of exercises don’t beat you up too much so you can tolerate more volume on them.
Even if you are advanced it’s always best to do any new exercises you are trying out for sets across as well. For example, if you are just starting handstand pushups there is no way to really work up. So just do something like six sets of two. Or if you are just starting ring dips for the first time it would be best to do multiple sets of low reps with a constant load.
Other assistance exercises like a one arm dumbbell press lend themselves well to working up. So you might do something like this:
70 x 8
75 x 8
80 x 8 (top end set)
75 x 8 (knew you wouldn’t be able to get the 80’s again so you dropped down for one more set)
If your assistance lift is very similar to your main lift you need very little in the way of warm up or “work up” sets. If you bench press as your big lift of the day and follow it up with an incline dumbbell press your sets might look something like this:
90 x 8
And that’s all she wrote. If you’re in a higher volume phase or like that sort of training you could just do three to five straight sets with the 85’s or 90’s. Most guys I know, myself included, prefer working up.
The Same But Enormously Different
In my, Minimalist Training, I have a wide variety of set and rep schemes listed. The beauty part is that if you know the difference between “sets across” and “working up” the same loading parameters can be used for both beginner level and more advanced lifters.
Little Johnny will do ten sets of three reps with 160 pounds.
Big Bill will get to his ten sets like this:
Bar x 10
95 x 3
135 x 3
185 x 3
225 x 3
275 x 3
315 x 3
365 x 3
405 x 3
425 x 3
445 x 3
If they are doing dumbbell military presses for assistance work, Little Johnny will do four sets of eight reps with the 40’s.
Big Bill will do this:
50 x 8
65 x 8
80 x 8
95 x 8
Or something like that.
Of course, I have different programs and different frequencies for beginner and advanced lifters but some of the set and rep schemes are sometimes similar.
The huge, colossal, magnanimous difference, however, is the “working up” part. High level advanced lifters simply can’t do multiple heavy “sets across” on big compound barbell or dumbbell exercises and expect to get stronger on a regular basis.
They must always take Big Blacks advice and “Do work (up), son!”
PS. Have you seriously not picked up your copy of Minimalist Training yet?