This is something I first heard about from Martin Berkhan and it’s something I’ve always agreed with for the most part in that the heaviest set is what matters most. The basic premise here is quite simple. If you have 3 work sets for an exercise, instead of building up to that top set acquiring fatigue along the way, you save yourself for that top set to give it your full undivided attention. The rest just adds volume.
I’ve been tinkering with different ways to make this more streamlined for the masses. A lot of people, and by that I mean 80% of the people asking questions of forums like bb.com are completely lost and need a lot of hand holding with their programming. So what I decided to try is a different take on the classic 5/3/1 method made popular by Jim Wendler. Instead of doing that normal ramp up to a top set, I’m just doing my normal warm-ups and acclimation sets leading up to that top set which marks set #1. So on a 3 x 5 day, that top set is 85% of whatever my reduced training max is for this block. What I do is my own warm-ups saving myself for that first (top) set and go for as many reps as possible stopping right at failure. Since my goal is hypertrophy, I’m not treating these reps like it’s a Westside speed day. Instead, since it’s a reduced weight, I’m holding true 3 second eccentrics for every single rep and whatever I get, I get. This morning I closegrip benched 230 lbs for 10 reps which in the past would’ve been a warm-up for me because I never paid too much attention to tempo. So while I could’ve blasted up 15+ reps with ease, I held the Rx and barely made 10 reps.
After that first (top) set, you have one of two choices. If you decide to superset a pulling movement immediately afterwards as I do, you do them back to back resting 120 seconds before your second set which in this case would be 75% of your TM. If you’re only doing that one exercise without supersets, try cutting your rest periods down to 90 seconds. I’ve tried both and both work extremely well. After your second set, repeat the process resting as needed while stripping the plates off until you’re at 65% where once again you’d stop 1 rep shy of failure.
This is why I love the combo of the two. There’s no guesswork involved since you know your work weights at all times, progression is built in, and you’ll always start with the heaviest set first which in some small way creates post tetanic facilitation which Poliquin first introduced during his 1-6 Principle. This isn’t quite like that by any stretch as a heavy single vs. going to failure are night and day but I’ll tell you from experience thus far that each subsequent set feels a hell of a lot easier each time.
Here’s the breakdown of what I’ve been doing:
Normal Warm-ups / Acclimation Sets
Week One: 85% x Max, 75% x Max, 65% x Max (rest 90 sec if no supersetting / 120 seconds if combined with a superset)
Week Two: 90% x Max, 80% x Max, 70% x Max (rest 90 sec if no supersetting / 120 seconds if combined with a superset)
Week Three: 95% x Max, 85% x Max, 75% x Max (rest 90 sec if no supersetting / 120 seconds if combined with a superset)
Week Four: 70% x 3, 80% x 3, 90% x 3
Add 5-10 lbs to training max and repeat
If you are going for hypertrophy, I strongly encourage you to drop your training max down slightly lower than the standard 90% of your 1 RM and focus all of your efforts on execution, quality, and tempo. If you install 3-4 second TRUE eccentrics per rep, adhere to that! All that amounts to is a lot more time under tension starting with the heaviest load first. No one reading this can tell me with a straight face that really hammering the heaviest set with everything you got using true 3-4 sec eccentrics to 1 rep shy of failure won’t pack more mass on your frame vs. doing the same old same old build up to your top set (which gets you fatigued = less reps + execution takes a dive) and hoping your back-off sets make up for it. No, this all goes back to my DC training mindset where you always treat the heaviest set of the day with the “all or nothing” mentality. The second and third sets just add more quality volume, WHICH might I add is still heavier than doing something like the BBB variation Jim came up with for the volume crowd using what? 45-50% over 4-5 sets? Compare that to going balls out for three of your heaviest sets. Just saying!
If you feel that you still need more volume even after taking three heavy sets almost to complete failure, then have at it. Pick a weak point in your physique and use an exercise that will fix it. What I like to do is do incline barbell pressing RPT 5/3/1 style (3 sets 1 rep shy of failure) then pick one exercise that’ll work on a weak point I have which in this case with my back sucking shit will be a flat pressing machine which comes with another type of tempo Rx (3111) which stands for 3 second negative, 1 second DEEP stretch, 1 second contraction, 1 second hold squeeze, rinse, repeat. Trust me, you start manipulating these parameters and you’ll see results in spades.
I do maintain a journal here where you can see what I’m doing as I work through. There’s quite a lot of ways to take this too. If you can hit 10 reps on that top (first) set using strict 3 second eccentrics (vs the controlled chaos 99% of the gym rats do), you could rest pause each set and literally call it a day. So using a rest pause volume based protocol it would look like this (using the 5′s as the example):
85% x Max, rest 20, Max, rest 20, Max, rest 3 minutes
75% x Max, rest 20, Max, rest 20, Max, rest 3 minutes
65% x Max, rest 20, Max, rest 20, Max, DONE!
Just the tip of the iceberg, but I wanted to touch upon what I’m doing which has been really producing a lot of results for me and my trainees personally. Of course, as a half-assed disclaimer, things would be much different for squats and deadlifts. Rest periods would be elongated depending on personal conditioning, and there would be no rest pausing protocols either. In the case for squats, I could forsee doing the last set first (85%) to 1 rep shy of failure, then either doing the 75% set to NTF (or) skipping that second set and instead trying to take the 65% set up past 15 gunning for 20+ as your widowmaker.
Many, many ways of doing this if you’re looking to pack muscle on your frames!