Picking Set Three

Jun 22, 2022

This article was originally posted on the site in 2013, but we are posting it again as a StrengthCoach Classic to serve as a refresher and so newer members can see it.


Our staff meetings, and the conversations in those meetings, always lead to great article ideas. One thing that comes up a lot in our meetings is the idea of choosing weights for athletes.  It's sort of like the three bears. We don't want the weight selected to be too heavy or too light. We want it to be just right.

If the weight for the heaviest set is properly selected, the last rep looks like, well, the last rep. In a perfect world you know that the athlete could not get one more rep. With the perfectly selected load there is no need for a spotter and also no need to think “they could have done five more lbs”. We always talk about the process of picking what weight to do next as the intersection of the science of strength training and the art of coaching. To envision what I mean imagine you just watched an athlete complete their first work set out a planned three set workout.

Note:-For us set 1 is usually a warm-up set followed by two work sets.

After watching the first work set ( really set 2) you have three choices.

- You can have an athlete increase the weight ( rarely by more than five lbs if you are any good at selecting the first work set and often by 2.5 lbs. using 1 ¼ plates)

- You can have an athlete use the same weight on the next set.

- You can have the athlete decrease the weight. (If we decrease I will always go at least five lbs. I will rarely use the 1 ¼ plates in this case).

Hit it right and you are a genius. Hit it wrong and the athlete fails and is psychologically crushed.

When making the decision to go up, down or repeat we must keep the same vision in mind. The last rep should look like the last rep. I have often said that this is where experience as a lifter comes in and for this reason I want my coaches to train themselves. Experienced lifters instinctively know what that next set should be.  They can tell if you need to go up, go down or repeat.

Remember male athletes egos are often stronger than they are. They will always say “I can do more”. You have to select the next weight based not on their desire or ego but, on your experience. Female athletes can often be the opposite. Females may underestimate.

In the case of young males the answer will often be repeat or go down. For young females the answer might be the 2 ½  lb increase with 1 ¼ plates. In any case the most important lesson is that slow and steady wins the race.

Any time you think that you are being too conservative remind yourself that 5 lbs. per week for 10 weeks is fifty pounds. This will also remind you to not be greedy. Also remember on the flip side that 5lbs is ten percent of 50 lbs. 5 is to 50 as 30 is to 300. Think about that for a minute when you tell a young athlete to go up 10 lbs. Dont be afraid to buy and use 1 1/4 plates. A 2.5 lb jump can be huge for some athletes.

I think that choosing weights and creating a challenging environment for athletes may be one of the most important coaching skills a young coach can learn. Coaches need to develop a thought process that allows them to make the right decision to positively impact the long-term success of each athlete.