Intermediate Sets for Better Training Cycles
By Josh Pelland and Zac Robinson
For powerlifting training, it is common for coaches to prescribe “top sets” followed by “back off” sets. For example, a top set could be a set of 1 repetition at RPE 8 (2 repetitions in reserve). This could be followed by back off sets such as 4 sets of 6 repetitions at 75% of the lifter’s 1 repetition maximum (1RM).
This protocol makes a lot of sense when examining the current body of literature. Top sets provide exposures to high intensities, and research indicates that high loads are more conducive to improving 1RM strength (1). These exposures are specific to the test the lifter would like to improve at, provide practice with executing a heavy set, and make the lifter more comfortable with maximal loads. Top sets also produce reliable estimated 1 repetition maximums (e1RMs), which I’ll discuss more in a bit. The back off sets are more conducive to volume accumulation, and sufficient training volume is necessary for maximizing muscle hypertrophy (2). While there is debate as to whether hypertrophy contributes to strength gains (3), I’m going to work under the assumption that it does (4).
A recent study found that RPEs are more accurate with higher intensities and when close to failure (5). This makes top sets, as I mentioned before, ideal for producing reliable e1RMs. You can easily calculate e1RMs using the chart below. For example, if your top set was 315 for 1 repetition at RPE 8, your e1RM is 340. As an aside, APLYFT’s app automatically computes these for every logged set which can expedite this process for you and make it easier for this to be visualized over time. We of course want to see an upward trend in e1RMs over time. With that said, this data should be interpreted within the context of the training phase.
Image Credit: Reactive Training Systems
Note: This chart is based on averages, and some lifters will deviate from these percentages significantly. It is important to adjust prescriptions for yourself or your lifters accordingly.
While top sets are certainly beneficial, they don’t come without issues. For example, it is common for lifters to “overshoot” the prescribed RPE and record an RPE that is lower than the actual difficulty of the set. While discipline can certainly solve this issue, intermediate sets can do so more reliably. An intermediate set is performed after a top set and before back off sets. Using our example, an intermediate set could be implemented as shown below. Keep in mind that this is just one of the many ways that intermediate sets can be applied.
Top set: 1 set of 1 at RPE 8
Intermediate set: Calculate 89.2% of your e1RM based on the top set and perform 1 set of 3
Back off sets: 75% 1RM for 4 sets of 6
I’ve found intermediate sets to provide three main benefits.
1) Intermediate sets keep the lifter honest with their top sets.
Some lifters get into mind games with their top sets. They’ll try to force progress and end up overshooting the prescribed RPE. They also might record a lower RPE than the set actually was. In our example, 89.2% for a set of 3 would be RPE 9 based on the chart. If the top set RPE is underreported, the lifter will end up with a weight that’s too heavy, and they’re likely to fail the intermediate set. These underreported RPEs will quickly become obvious to themselves and their coach, and the lifter is likely to record more accurately going forward. Importantly, this also reduces the undesired fatigue that results from overshooting top sets.
2) Intermediate sets provide more accurate e1RM data.\
Since you’re reading APLYFT’s blog, I’ll assume I don’t need to convince you that collecting and analyzing training data is extremely important. This data needs to be accurate so it can be appropriately analyzed. Since intermediate sets help to keep the lifter honest with their RPEs as described in point #1, the e1RMs produced are less likely to be inflated.
This leads to a more reliable assessment of athlete response. Ultimately, the program individualization process is improved, which I’d argue is the most crucial aspect of effective coaching.
Remember the study I mentioned before that found RPEs are more accurate with higher intensities and higher RPEs (5)? Similar to top sets, an intermediate set checks both of those boxes. By adding an intermediate set, we’re essentially doubling the number of sets that provide accurate e1RM data.
3) Intermediate sets provide more practice, and thus more confidence, with high intensities and high RPEs.
Intermediate sets are likely to be programmed at high intensities and high RPEs. This increases the dose of 1RM-specific sets, resulting in a higher average intensity throughout the training week. This will likely improve strength outcomes for most lifters (1), but individual responses are expected to vary.
Some coaches might be concerned that this intermediate set will be fatiguing and will reduce the quality of the back off sets. I also had this concern at first, but I noticed the opposite after experimenting with this on myself and with clients. This is evidenced in a recent study which found that a set of 3 with 90% 1RM improved the number of repetitions to failure on back off sets using 75% 1RM by about 1 repetition per set on the bench press (6). A similarly designed study also found improved volume performance following a set of 2 with 90% 1RM on the squat (7). With this research in mind, the impact of intermediate sets on weekly training volume, average intensity, and overall training stress should be considered within the context of the training cycle.
I hope this programming wrinkle helps improve training outcomes for you or your clients. Either way, I hope it gave you something to think about. If you have any questions, comments, or disagree with anything in this article, shoot me a message @josh.datadrivenstrength on Instagram. I’d love to discuss!
About the Author
Josh is a research assistant in Ohio State’s exercise science laboratory, and he’s currently pursuing a career in exercise science research. Josh recently joined the APLYFT team, and he coaches competitive/recreational powerlifters as well as anyone looking to enhance their physique. You can follow him @josh.datadrivenstrength on Instagram.
1) Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low-vs. high-load resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 31.12 (2017): 3508-3523.
2) Schoenfeld, Brad J., Dan Ogborn, and James W. Krieger. “Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of sports sciences 35.11 (2017): 1073-1082.
3) Loenneke, Jeremy P., et al. “Exercise-induced changes in muscle size do not contribute to exercise-induced changes in muscle strength.” Sports Medicine (2019): 1-5.
4) Taber, Christopher B., et al. “Exercise-induced myofibrillar hypertrophy is a contributory cause of gains in muscle strength.” Sports Medicine (2019): 1-5.
5) Zourdos, Michael C., et al. “Proximity to Failure and Total Repetitions Performed in a Set Influences Accuracy of Intraset Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion.” Journal of strength and conditioning research (2019).
6) Alves, Rafael R., et al. “Postactivation Potentiation Improves Performance in a Resistance Training Session in Trained Men.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2019).
7) de Freitas Conrado, M., et al. “Postactivation Potentiation Improves Acute Resistance Exercise Performance and Muscular Force in Trained Men.” Journal of strength and conditioning research (2018).