I am a big fan of the five-sets-of-five system. For example, your bench press progression might go something like 135, 175, 195, 205 and 215, with only the last set done all out once in a while. I’ve had coaches who advocate three set of 10 argue that their athletes actually end up doing more total work than when they do five sets of five. I disagree.
Let’s say you do bench presses for three sets of 10—135, 155 and 175. Your workload would be 4,650 pounds; however, if you did five sets of five with 135, 175, 195, 205 and 215, your yield would be 4,825 pounds—and more important, your intensity would be a great deal higher.
Making the attachments handle 215 rather than 175 translates to a huge difference in terms of functional strength. In addition, the lower reps allow you to pay closer attention to the various form points of the bench press.
I also want to discuss another program that was very much in vogue for a while, and many strength coaches thought it was great since they could move their athletes through the routine in a very short period of time—two sets to exhaustion. Of course, those of us who have been around for a long time know that it wasn’t an original idea. It was basically the same concept that Arthur Jones used to market his Nautilus machines and build an empire with his Nautilus Gyms. It was perfect for the fitness crowd—get in and out in as little as 30 minutes. The owners loved it too—no weights to pick up and no muscleheads hanging around for several hours taking up space.
The problem was, it was bogus, and the current attempts to make it a viable type of routine for athletes to get stronger on is also bogus. You don’t get strong by pushing your body to exhaustion. If that’s all it took, I would simply have athletes do a set of squats until they collapsed; however, that wouldn’t make them better football players or help them excel at other sports. What sport requires participants to push themselves to total exhaustion in one or two short bursts and then be finished? The only one that comes close is the sprints in track, but in truth the runners are not totally exhausted.
Hockey players are usually on the ice for just over a minute, and it’s usually about the same for lacrosse athletes. Basketball keeps the players in motion for a bit longer, but with all the time-outs and fouls and resetting the clock, they get plenty of breaks. Baseball? Certainly not. Even football finds the athletes in motion for only short spurts, and then they can rest and get set for the next exertion.
Proponents of the two-sets-to-exhaustion idea contend that it helps build a more solid aerobic base. I don’t believe that for a minute. Athletes who can recover after doing a heavy lift and come back to do another with even more weight on the bar are in a much better position to be able to sustain through a long, tough game than those who just do a few sets to the absolute limit.
It certainly doesn’t have any place in a beginner’s program either. All it really does is teach you to hate weight training. Who in his or her right mind wants to be completely spent after every set? No one I know. Sure, I want the athletes to be tired when they finish a session, but a good tired—one that makes them eager to come back for the next workout and try it again.
A final comment: The go-to-exhaustion concept does not build functional strength that transfers to the playing field, the tennis court, the wrestling mat or the basketball court. Two sets to exhaustion simply doesn’t stress the attachments enough. It’s a shortcut that appears valid but simply isn’t.
What about higher reps? There is a place for those, and I’ll discuss that next month.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com.