Do Work (Up), Son!

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.

For example:
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.

For example:
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.

Bo knows the importance of working up

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.

A good exercise to work up on. Even if you don't have a dumbbell that big

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
100 x8

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.

Let’s say Little Johnny has a max squat of 185 and Big Bill has a max squat of 495. The program calls for ten sets of three.

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!”

Train smart,
Jason Ferruggia

PS. Have you seriously not picked up your copy of Minimalist Training yet?

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22 Responses to Do Work (Up), Son!

  1. Raymond - ZenMyFitness November 23, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    I never heard of the word ‘work up’ but get the meaning only too well.
    If I don’t do the proper lead up sets and just go for the heaviest ones too early, I find it hard to hit my PB numbers and worse yet go beyond it, it’s like my CNS hasn’t turned on to help.
    My goal at every single work out is to lift more even if its just a little.
    But there is a fine line I found of doing too many warm up sets it would take me nearly 20 minutes before I even start getting near my working sets so my routines took forever and I felt fatigued before getting to the end.

  2. joe November 23, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    im not an advanced lifter but i try to do both styles…

    • Ross November 24, 2010 at 10:00 am #

      Let’s say you have a beginner lifter that is doing sets across of the back squat. Let’s say this lifter is doing 160 X 5 X 5. When would the weight become heavy enough that he should switch to working up? When do you consider someone intermediate and when do you consider someone advanced when it comes to the back squat? I guess for arguments sake lets pretend the lifter is 6 feet tall and 200 lbs? I guess the size of the lifter might matter? This is something I have always been lost on……Again though all your articles are great ……Thanks J!!

  3. Danny November 23, 2010 at 10:05 am #

    Great article but what about Coach Dos’s method where he basically works down after the warm up sets. Like he says start at the most weight you can do on a lift and then decrease the weight by a few pounds for each set after that. Basically the thought being that by working up you are only reaching a point of overload on your last set therefore getting less overload on your muscles instead of lifting the most you can on every work set. It seems like that would push your muscles more than working up would. Just wanted to hear your thoughts on the other side of the spectrum.

  4. Jason Ferruggia November 23, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    Danny- I’m not familiar with what Dos has said here but it sounds like the same deal. You need to work up to your heaviest set and then you can do a back off set or two or three. Without a bunch of low rep warm up sets you will never hit your heaviest weight. Your joints and most importantly, your CNS just wont be ready for it. So yeah, hit your heaviest set first and then do some back off sets and assistance work. It’s really just semantics when you get to counting the warm up/ working up sets. The stronger you are the more you have to do. And the more you do, within reason and assuming you don’t go above 5 reps, the higher your top end set of the day will be because you have done a better job of firing up your CNS

  5. Michael November 23, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    So for a beginner he should do a 5×5 at a fixed weight. How do you know when to move the weight up? If you can not finish the last set of 5 reps do you leave the weight the same for the next workout(s) and keep trying until you reach 5 full sets of 5 reps or lower the weight so you can do the 5×5? Thanks. Great post by the way.

  6. david November 23, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    what would you consider advanced?

    im not sure what category i would be in. im 19 about 168lbs. squat 340 deadlift 385 benchpress 225

    im thinking im probably intermediate or beginner but just curious?

  7. Mike Westerdal November 23, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    We definitely do the work up approach at my powerlifting gym.

  8. Louis November 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    I follow both styles slightly. With my big lifts I will either do 3×5 or 5×5 with same weight and sometimes I will go up son. If I want to pr on a lift or see what I can do I will use the go up style seems to work best for me but I wouldn’t call myself advanced so I don’t do that real often. Great article.


  9. Brandon Cook November 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    Definitely agree with working up, yet shouldn’t little Johnnie do some type of warm-up sets before doing the straight sets? He has a nervous system too, albeit a less efficient one!!!

    Even though he can’t lift as heavy, beginners can still get injured.

  10. Brandon Cook November 23, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Yeah, I figured since you just got done talking about making these assumptions you were spelling it all out for us. I like the ol’ saying about the word ASSUME… They make an ASS out of U and ME. haha.. thanks for clarifying!

  11. Fred November 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    How long do you suggest the rest periods to be in between each set? Just long enough to catch your breath, or something more standardized like 60-90 seconds. I would think for those first 5 or so sets your rest period could simply be the time you take to add more weight to the bar.

  12. Novan November 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    Great article, really informative – especially about the Dynamic Effort Method.

    I have a question, though: when does one consider himself an intermediate or advanced lifter?

  13. Graeme November 24, 2010 at 2:32 am #

    Jason – why shouldn’t novice lifters ‘work up’? I agree with you that advanced trainees couldn’t sustain HEAVY sets across, but I would have thought that the working up principle applied regardless of experience. I certainly ask all my clients to work up so am interested to know if I should be changing my tactics….(I’m assuming it’s something to do with embedding technique and form, and conditioning the CNS to heavy work, but I wouldn’t want to assume too much!).

  14. Jack November 24, 2010 at 4:23 am #

    I’m curious about the amount of rest in between work up sets, too. What is recommended?

  15. alex November 24, 2010 at 7:06 am #


    How do you decide on what weight to use when doing for instance your 4 x 8 or 9 x 3 set and rep scheme? Is it the weight you can do for 3 more reps?


  16. Gards November 24, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    This may be a bit off topic…why is renegade strength and conditioning for football unavailable until 2011?

  17. Shane October 2, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    In Rippetoe’s Texas Method, an intermediate lifter would do sets across (squats 5×5 early in the week, and later in the week work up to a single maximal set (maybe 1 rep, maybe 3 reps, depending). The sets across portion is still done with maximum weight though (that can be handled for all reps of all sets). Now obviously there has been much success with this method, but I wonder how a trainee would strictly use only working-up sets. How would they achieve enough weekly volume to induce a stress response and achieve super compensation, weekly? Would several back-off sets have to be added in, in order to get enough volume to disrupt homeostasis?
    I just signed up to start following you. Have enjoyed everything I’ve read. Thanks.

  18. Jake July 9, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    Hi Jason,
    As the “work up” sets are essentially warm-ups for your top set, I have always dropped the reps as I get closer to my true working set, so I can really put everything into that one (or two) set(s). So if I am squatting 320 x 15-20, I would work-up (warm-up) like this:

    -bar x 10-15
    -135 x 8-10
    -185 x 5-6
    -225 x 4-5
    -275 x 3
    -300 x 1
    And then hit my all-out set. What do you think? Do you find an advantage keeping the reps at the same number across the board? Does it not detract from your main work set? Or does that approach work best when your top set is fairly low reps (3-6 or so). As you can see, I enjoy training higher, all-out reps on squats, and deads too, more Dr. Ken style. Thanks man!
    P.S. You gotta come hit up Austin again! Do you remember I recommended you train at Hyde Park Gym several years back when you were here? True Old-School training there:)

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