The concept of Top Sets has been a well-established tool in the box of serious lifters for several decades. Before we get into the details of this training tool, I would like reiterate that this training method – compared to many others – is a simple and easy-to-understand one. I promise.
Top sets describe the approach of hitting one heavy set in a given exercise with the other sets used as back-off sets.
1st set: 1x5 @ 120kg
2nd set: 1x5 @ 105kg
3rd set: 1x5 @ 105kg
As we can see in the example above, the first set is the heavy set (i.e top set) of the workout, and set two and three are back-off sets at around 90% of the top set.
This can also be done in reverse, where the top set is hit last instead of first.
1st set: 1x5 @ 105kg
2nd set: 1x5 @ 105kg
3rd set: 1x5 @ 120kg
As we can see in this example, the first two sets are used as a “run-up” towards the heavy top set at the end.
Top sets are an excellent way to keep getting stronger without having to grind through several sets with the same weight.
This keeps training fresh, especially for the mind. Consistent failing and missing reps is one of the biggest killers for making progress (and probably for wanting to train). Top sets, in this case, are an excellent addition to anyone’s training program for consistent progress and breaking through plateaus.
It is important to note that top sets are not suited for beginners or people with relatively low strength levels.
In this case, top sets would (and will be) used as an excuse for not train hard enough or pushing beyond boundaries. For novices and relatively weak people, sets across (i.e. lifting the same weight in each set) is of paramount importance to create enough training stress to get stronger.
Below are several variables we need to look when planning for top sets:
The argument could be made that the heavier the absolute weight lifted (and thus the more muscle mass involved), the better it is to do the top set first. This has to do with a potential “freshness” of the body at the beginning of the workout. If you squat 150kg for sets of five, doing two sets at 130kg prior to that might already take a lot out of the body by which we would find it hard to complete the third set at 150kg. As such, upper body lifts might be better suited for doing the top set last, whereas lower body lifts (i.e. the squat) might be better suited for completing the top set first.
In our experience, we have found that the older the lifter, the better top sets work when performed at the end. We observe this everyday in our practice where older lifters seem to need more of a “warm-up” before they can excel at their final set.
The stronger you are, the more likely it is that you will have to perform the top set as your first set. If you bench press 130kg for sets of five, you better get your heavy set done first in the workout. Four sets at 120kg prior to that would tax the nervous system too much for you to be able to complete the last set at 130kg.
Percentage for back-off sets
As a rule of thumb, the percentage for back-off sets is best chosen at about 90% of the top set. So when you squat your top set with 100kg, your back-off sets should be performed at 90kg. This is a rough orientation and shouldn’t be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Back-off sets can be reduced in intensity from one set to the next. For example, you perform your top-set at 100% - then you do your first back-off set at 90%, and your second back-off set at 85%. The correct weight and percentage can only be figured out with trial and error. However, dropping the intensity too low would miss the point of getting stronger.
Overall, top sets are an excellent tool for any lifter who has passed the novice stage.
Try them out and let us know how they work for you.