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If I'm many months in to Starting Strength (which prescribes 3 sets of 5 at the work weight), but I can do 4 or 5 sets, would this be advisable?

I know I could just try it, and if I start stalling, it would mean I'm not getting enough recovery from the extra load, but if I don't stall, are there any downsides?

(I'm guessing this may be a more useful change to the program for an absolute beginner, who doesn't have to worry about too much volume at the low weights.)

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4 Answers 4

The question is whether you can recover from the extra load during the rest period. If you can recover from the extra work, then that's great! You want to do the maximum amount of work that is recoverable.

It is indeed a trial and error process to learn what you can recover from. I think developing that intuition is part of the sport of lifting, and it requires body insight. Also remember that your recovery potential changes based on what's going on in the rest of your life, particularly what you're eating and how you're sleeping.

Now, if you know in advance that you can recover from 4x5 repetitions of a certain weight, then you might consider increasing the weight until 3x5 is the maximum number of sets you can recover from. I think varying the reps, sets, and weight is good for training. I suggest trying to increase the weights first, and going to more reps or sets when that isn't working.

What is recoverable? Simply, will you be ready to lift more weight using the same protocol the next time you're scheduled to do so? E.G. for a Starting Strength routine, you have recovered from workout A if you can do more work during the next A-type workout. Keep in mind that if you lift 200 for 4 sets this time, then you haven't recovered until you can lift >200 for 4 sets next time (even though the program calls for 3 sets: you're tweaking the program when you add more sets, and there is nothing wrong with that, but you should compare apples to apples when you evaluate your recovery).

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I took away my upvote (but didn't downvote either) because of "I think varying the reps, sets, and weight is good for training. We need to keep the body guessing." Varying reps, sets, and weight may be good for training, but for very specific reasons, not "keeping the body guessing". –  Kate Jan 25 '13 at 3:06
    
It's your vote, do what you want with it. That's a Rip quote though. –  masonk Jan 25 '13 at 3:07
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As a complete beginner, there really isn't a huge reason not to. What it does is give you more practice, at the expense of energy. The time to back off and just do the 3x5 is when you feel run down before you start. This is how you adapt the load to what you can do right now.

When 3x5 gets you run down all the time, it's time to switch things up and go for slower increases.

That said, make sure the practice you are doing is good practice. You don't want to reinforce bad habits.

  • Get a form check (i.e. have a trainer make sure you are doing it correctly or use a forum)
  • Make sure your form is tight and repeatable. If your form changes slightly rep to rep, that's a bad thing. If you are loose in your set up, you are robbing yourself of power.
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After starting with StrongLifts (5x5), then moving to Starting Strength (3x5), I also found I wanted to do more.

It's common advice in the former two to just do the sets and go home, you don't have to kill yourself, be patient, strength will come, you'll stall soon enough... That didn't however ease the feeling of not making the most of a workout--I'd rather smell the roses in nature than in the gym.

I mucked around with doing an extra set or two with Starting Strength, but of course some of the same issues I had with StrongLifts came back, i.e.:

  1. Workouts taking too long, sometimes half an hour extra than straight 3x5.
  2. Exercises a bit too monotonous.
  3. Having a training partner, it felt like we were hogging the single power rack for an unreasonably long period.
  4. It was not concrete enough. I'd do an extra set and whether I'd do another set really was dependent on how much I wanted to rest.

I quickly moved to GreySkull LP (2x5, 1x5+) because it solved many small issues I had with Starting Strength and StrongLifts.

The 3rd workset in GreySkull LP being AMRAP was key to some of these issues:

  1. I felt fulfilled.
  2. Workouts increase by mere minutes, equipment is not dominated unreasonably.
  3. 3 work sets don't get monotonous
  4. The number of reps achieved is like being told you got 90% in an exam as opposed to just being told you passed. It's motivational.
  5. AMRAP tests my real limit, for I can do no more. It's concrete. Without AMRAP, whether I wanted to do a 4th, 5th or even more was dependent on how long I wanted to rest. I see definite progression with AMRAP.
  6. AMRAP gives me a great carrot during the exercise, knowing I double my weight increment if I can reach 10 reps. With Starting Strength the carrot really wasn't there during the exercise as doubling an increment was more hazy and based on if you feel you can handle it.
  7. Unlike an extra set or two, the AMRAP set allows me to estimate my 1 rep max and follow my progress on the strength standards chart. It was motivating hitting the Novice threshold for those exercises with muscle groups I know I was weak in. It was exciting working towards the intermediate level for the deadlifts and although advanced is still so far off to have that motivating pull, the squat intermediate is here any week if all goes well (touch metal) so I usually seem to have some exercise getting me up at 6am and out to the gym.

Making the workout exciting in these ways has been key to me getting my three workouts per week without fail since starting three months ago. Motivation leads to consistency. Consistency leads to greater progress than tweaks in programming.

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"It's far better to make slow, steady increases in all your lifts for months than it is to make fast, unsustainable increases for weeks; do the math and you'll see the point. There will be plenty of time later for more exercises and more elaborate programming, but as long as simple works, complex is neither necessary nor desirable." - Rippetoe

Personally, if you really think you have more in the tank, save it for the next workout after less rest. Always good to break new PRs.

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I'm not suggesting making larger increases between workouts, so I don't think the reference to "unsustainable increases" applies here. In the case I'm asking about, PRs are still being set every workout (going up by 2.5lbs per workout, for example). I'd be interested to hear why you think not adding additional volume to make sure I'm getting the necessary adaptation is not advised. –  Kate Feb 12 '13 at 17:15
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