Ask Greg: Issue 73
Greg Everett

Mike Asks: Greg, Aimee, I’ve got a question. What’s the difference, if any, when conducting strength training and the sets and rep scheme is either 5 sets of 3 reps or 3 sets of 5 reps. Conditions: the lifter is new (linear progression/novice) and performing sets across, the total reps would be the same in either scheme, the only difference is the set volume.

Understanding that novice lifters will more than likely not have a true 1rm, but I'd think you'd want to get them as close as possible each session to their 1rm for that day, but still creating reps/vol. So my thought is to put them in a 5 sets of 3 reps scheme with the intent of creating less intensity per set and a little more volume for the session. Examples:

1) Back Squat 3 sets X 5reps @ 100# (total set vol. 500#, total vol. 1500#); or 2) Back Squat 5 sets X 3 reps @ 105# (total set vol. 315#, total vol. 1575#)

I could be totally off here, either way I'd still appreciate your thoughts or observations, especially if this can be applied to o-lifting programming.

Greg Says:
The basic difference for anyone will be that 5 sets of 3 reps will allow heavier weights to be used with the same volume—5-10% or so—although that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be heavier.

With a novice lifter, just about anything works, and especially with young lifters, higher reps often work better. With a new lifter who is still a bit dodgy with his or her movement, staying with somewhat lighter weights is a good idea, so more reps can be used to get enough work in to actually get a training effect.

Max numbers for new lifters are not important, and they’re changing so dramatically and frequently, they would be of little use if you had them anyway. That early stage of training is really the time to be more intuitive and make decisions on how the lifter is feeling day to day rather than attempting to devise some clever plan and stick to it. For example, the program I use when new lifters come to Catalyst has no weight prescriptions; just exercises, sets and reps, and even those are flexible. Obviously I have an idea of what I want the athlete to be doing in terms of effort level, but there’s really no way of predicting what weights will be necessary, possible and effective, especially in the classic lifts, and I definitely have to change the volume for some people to minimize or prevent joint pain, etc. while they’re adapting to the training.

Regarding getting the lifter close to his/her 1RM each session, not really. Depending on how the athlete is conditioned, you may be doing 5 sets of 3 with anywhere from 75-90% of 1RM (and more is totally possible with certain training). If you mean getting them as close to a maximal effort for each set, or for the total sets, then that’s more likely, but also not necessarily true. It’s usually a good idea to start any cycle/program well within the lifter’s present abilities so there’s space to gain momentum. For example, if a lifter could grind out 5x3 with 85% on day one of the program, it might be smart to start him at 75-80% and take 2-4 weeks to build up to and then move past that level.

It also depends largely on what other training is accompanying the squatting. If your focus during a given cycle or time in the cycle is heavy classic lifts, or maybe heavy pulling, you won’t be able to squat the athlete as heavy, or more likely, with as much volume. In that case, you may be doing 5 sets of 3 with a weight that would otherwise be more appropriate for 5x5.

Tony Asks: Is there going to be an alternative to Crossfit? Perhaps a confederation of gyms that employ similar methods but reject the unscientific basis, random workouts, and ridiculous claims of the Glassman cult? Thank you for your time.

Greg Says: Tough question to answer for a number of reasons. First, I want to clarify that I love the CF community in general and the majority of the people within it; it has put me in touch with a lot of great people, and it’s driving exposure to weightlifting, which undeniably helps support my business. That being said, I obviously have significant objections to many of the current philosophies, actions and attitudes of the organization’s leadership and those affiliates and individuals who subscribe, support and/or endorse those things. Fortunately I’m better now at not allowing them to interfere with my day to day operations and mood.

I think there already exist informal networks of gyms, coaches and trainers who share similar philosophies and methods. It would be great to have something more organized for the sake of individuals finding coaches and gyms of which they could expect certain levels of professionalism, experience and ability. The problem as I see it is that there is so much variation among such gyms that it would be difficult if not impossible to establish criteria or standards that would be of any utility. Add to that the fact that small, independent gyms are just that: independent. Few if any would want to be obligated to follow any kind of rules, adhere to any kind of plan, etc that originated outside of their own business. And if the confederation is loose enough to prevent those kinds of objections, I don’t see it being very useful.

James Fitzgerald is doing about as close to what you’re describing that I know of with his coaching certification and affiliation and associate coach system. A good indicator of the program’s quality is the following question and answer from the certification page:

Q: I’ve been coaching a long time, can I bypass one of the levels?

A: No.

The CrossFit concept will eventually be ubiquitous like Pilates or yoga with complete decentralization, and at that point it will be possible for someone else to step in and reorganize those individuals who are most serious about training into a more refined, focused and professional system than exists now.

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