By Andrew McGunagle
Most of the people I train want to get bigger, stronger, and leaner, but they don’t have much time. At most, they make it to the gym for a few workouts each week, and they don’t have hours to spare doing endless sets of a variety of exercises. However, like nearly everyone else in the gym, my clients want results, and they want them fast.
When I first began training busy professionals, I quickly realized standard strength training progressions don’t always fit the bill. Life can get in the way and what initially looked pretty on paper can quickly turn into meaningless numbers and frustrating sessions. Additionally, attempting to force progress while these stressed trainees are only a few steps down the road toward technical mastery of the basic lifts guarantees I won’t be their strength Sherpa for long.
I needed to make lifting heavy barbells easy, flexible, and fun, so I began to employ simple auto-regulation strategies that don’t demand any knowledge of RPEs. Rather than using a plethora of intensiveness ratings that would take time for my clients to grasp and intensity percentages that wouldn’t account for fluctuations in their strength and readiness, I began to make ample use of “top” sets, “AMRAP” sets, and “back-off” sets.
“Top” sets entail working up to the most weight you can lift for the designated number of reps. At times, I’ll tell my clients I want them to work up to a conservative top set, which means they’ll be leaving a few pounds on the table and a bit of energy in the tank. These top sets allow us to establish a variety of rep PRs, which helps me gauge progress and helps them stay engaged and excited about their training as these numbers creep up.
“AMRAP” sets involve doing As Many Reps As Possible with a particular weight. In my system, that weight will often be slightly below a top set done in one of the preceding weeks, which allows us to build a base of volume underneath a weight that was limiting. AMRAP sets can certainly be challenging, but they can often pay off with new rep PRs, giving me more measures of progress and my clients a greater sense of accomplishment and momentum.
“Back-off” sets require you to decrease the weight by a particular percentage after your top set or AMRAP set. These sets are meant to increase the volume of the session, which furthers neural adaptations and promotes hypertrophy processes. I’ll often drop a rep off of what we did for the top set for the back-off sets, which limits fatigue and allows us to get more high-quality volume in overall.
The beauty of all these tools is they allow for fluctuations in my clients’ state – we still get good work done on low-energy days, and we can really push it on days they feel invincible. This strategy enables my clients to rack up a number of personal victories throughout the training process, which keeps motivation and enjoyment high and often makes it easier to stick with nutrition habits we’re focusing on.
The following training cycle is an example of how I often arrange all of these strategies. You can run this cycle for 3 lifts during 3 main sessions each week, 2 lifts during 2 main sessions per week, 1 lift during 2 main sessions per week, or 1 lift during 1 main session each week. It’s easy, flexible, and fun, and the results of my clients make me confident you’ll see the fruits of your labors in the final few sessions.
The Simple Strength for Busy People Training Cycle:
- Session 1: Work up to a somewhat conservative top set of 3 reps, then back off 10% and do 5 sets of 2 reps
- Session 2: Do AMRAP with -10% Session 1’s top set of 3, then back off 5% and do 5 sets of 3 reps.
- Session 3: Work up to a top set of 5 reps, back off 10% and do 2 sets of 4 reps.
- Session 4: Do AMRAP with -5% Session 3’s top set of 5, then back off 5% and do 2 sets of 5 reps.
- Session 5: Work up to a somewhat conservative top set of 2 reps, back off 10% and do 6 sets of 1 rep.
- Session 6: Do AMRAP with -10% Session 5’s top set of 2, then back off 5% and do 6 sets of 2 reps.
- Session 7: Work up to a top set of 4 reps, back off 10% and do 2 sets of 3 reps.
- Session 8: Do AMRAP with -5% Session 7’s top set of 4, then back off 5% and do 2 sets of 4 reps.
- Session 9: Work up to an all-out top set of 1 rep, hit a PR, and then celebrate.
- Session 10: Focus on movement and recovery.
Thanks for reading!