Why “Sets Across”? (aka, Almost everything you thought you never wanted to know about lifting a barbell…)

Most of you are aware that CFC employs a heavy emphasis on barbell work on a weekly basis, not only in mixed modality workouts, but also with specific standard barbell movements. I firmly believe that a well rounded fitness model includes a strength training component executed on a regular basis. It lends to better structural soundness, improved muscle and connective tissue composition, and overall increases in fitness. We have seen the results proven time and time again on a myriad of fronts with all of our clients.

In order to create change in an organism, athlete in this case, stress must be introduced, worked through, retracted and then time must go by in which the organism recovers from the stress and builds up a resistance to that previous level of stress. In other words, the previous level of stress will not affect any further change once the athlete is fully recovered. Now more stress has to be introduced and subsequently overcome. This is what we refer to as “adaptation” (Hans Selyes theory of stress and adaptation in living organisms).

Failure to understand this principle as applied to fitness and weight training is the primary reason many people fail to progress in the gym over the long term. They stay at the same weights/reps/sets/time/etc., over and over and there is no forward progression.

At CFC all of our coaches understand this law of adaptation and we implement it in our programming through all of the aforementioned variables we can control. When it comes to barbell work we control it, via the client, by a slight progressive increase in loading at each session and by using “sets across”.

While this article isn’t about loading, it must be understood that a “linear increase strength program” is meant to carry on for weeks or months by making SMALL jumps in weight each time a movement is revisited. We start our clients out at about 70-75% 1RM for their lift and work forward from there. This gives them plenty of time to increase the load and stress before they start to stall out and we have to re-adjust the loading or rep/set schemes.  We use alternate percentages to compute new 1RM’s according to their current level and make adjustments if needed later on.

It has been seen that the pressed based movement can only sustain about 2.5-5 Lbs total increases from session to session. The muscle groups are much smaller and act much more independently than the hip/knee driven movements. This is the reason we have 1.25 Lb fractional weight plates at CFC. The hip/knee driven movements can be increased by 5-10 Lbs total from session to session due to the greater contribution of large muscle groups and systemic effect/adaptation of the lifts on the body. What further governs these increases is the frequency of the lifts and the recovery in between. In cases where there is less recovery/more frequency changes will be made to lower the weight increases and/or reps, sets, and intensity schemes will be changed.

For weight training, the total volume of the work sets is important. This is the weight multiplied by the total number of reps. Each session will require a slight increase in volume. By implementing “Sets across” we tend to see a better and more consistent increase of volume from session to session. This leads to a better and more consistent adaptation process in the long run.

It has been my experience that novice lifters allowed to work a 5 set scheme with incremental increased loads on each set will fail before they reach the final set and final reps. They usually don’t understand loading and will overdo it, thereby blowing their wad on the 3rd or 4th set. Suddenly we are stuck with having to strip the bar to a lower weight to finish the work sets and mentally they are now defeated and even a lighter weight becomes a challenge. In totaling up the numbers, we often see a decrease in total volume for the workout as compared to the last session.

If we keep people working “sets across” we can make a small one time jump at the start and keep the overall volume higher than last time and have less chance of failure or mental breakdown. It is mentally easier to realize that you did 135 Lbs last week and got through it, so this week at 137.5 Lbs will be fine. Stress was still introduced and the athlete gets more out of it in the end. If the athlete is going to stall or fail on the lift, it usually isn’t until the last rep or two of the last set. We don’t often see this, they grind through it, but if they do fail I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it since the volume increase is still higher.

Notice I said “novice lifters” earlier when I mentioned incremental loading being a problem. I have seen many intermediate and advanced lifters use an incremental loading process with their sets/reps and be successful at it. However, they still use their session to session volume as a guide and reference point and know exactly how much to increase each set in a judicious manner that will still allow them to top last sessions volume and move forward. You really have to know what you are doing, how your body reacts, and everything else that goes along with being a student of the game of moving really heavy stuff that doesn’t want to be moved. All that being said, I personally still stick to sets across as I tend to have better results from it.

In most CrossFit gyms, the typical client is still relatively new to the weight game and being placed in a predetermined path to follow will yield more benefits for them over the long haul. At CFC we tend to keep in mind the average ability of the clientele and program accordingly, so everyone is on the same page. If we were to let people do their own thing, I can assure you we’d be stuck in a lot of ruts as many people will over estimate their ability levels and tank way too soon.

No matter how you cut it, a “Sets Across” program still works and in the long run, that’s all that matters!

Stronger, Fitter, Faster, Healthier!