Exercise Selection: Top Sets DO NOT Have To Be The Same As Back Downs
I recently talked about pacing top set progression on my YouTube channel, and it led me to thinking more about the current top set and back down approach many coaches utilize. And I think one overlooked aspect is the amount of different permutations of top set and back down approaches there can be. As a coach, one of the primary factors of individualization is figuring out the dose/response relationship and tailoring workload as best as possible to manage acute and systemic fatigue while still inducing enough stress to create adaptations. And in a fixed model where exercise selection for all sets on the day is the same (IE top set is competition squat and all back downs are competition squat), there are limitations to being able to truly tailor workload. Until really becoming more introspective on this topic, I didn’t realize how often I programmed differing top set to back down exercise selection. Examples being a pause squat top set to comp squat back downs, competition bench top set to larsen bench back downs, competition deadlift top set to pause deadlift back downs, or even bar changes mixed with variation changes such as competition pause squat top set to safety bar squat back downs. The possible combinations here are endless, but the key is having a targeted and intentional approach as to how you structure programming to manage and optimize workload.
If we take a note from a more old school approach to programming, often you would see multiple variations of a movement programmed within a day. Competition bench, followed by board press, followed by close grip floor press. Usually this model would be argued to target different “weak points” through different movements, but likely what was happening is much of what I see in my own programming. Different variations have different fatigue patterns that can allow for higher or more optimal workloads for an individual based on self limiting aspects of variation change or from the selective muscular fatigue difference between variations. I could get pretty long-winded here, and this likely would make for a good long form content YouTube video, but to spare your time I think the best way to describe what I mean is through the case study of @autumm_j.
Autumm tends to induce excessive spinal erector fatigue from low bar squatting. Leading into Nationals that was one of the biggest factors we continually were trying to manage within her training. That low back fatigue not only affected squat, but it then leaked into deadlift as well as caused pain at times when doing competition bench and arching. Where as safety bar squat caused Autumm very little issue, and she can handle a higher workload of SSB than she can low bar squatting. Usually further away from a meet, we prioritize SSB and do very little low bar squatting and have had really good success seeing a notable increase in strength once we come back to prioritizing low bar. The only issue is that as soon as we come back around to low bar squats, within a couple blocks that spinal erector fatigue starts to build and create discomfort to the point it affects strength. So over the last couple blocks we have experimented with a model of doing a low bar top set and SSB back downs on her secondary day. The downside to this is would Autumm get enough skill practice to feel “natural” in coming back around to a singular low bar top set a week? Fortunately the answer was yes. Moving forward, we are expanding that approach to both squat days, where on both her primary and secondary days she has a low bar top set followed by 3-4 back down sets of SSB. The hope is the 2 day frequency of low bar will help to further increase skill practice and familiarity with comp squatting, but by doing 80% of her total sets SSB each week, we can better manage spinal erector fatigue and continue to handle these same higher workload that we have seen during times of prioritizing SSB work.
Looking at my programming from a macro level, almost every single person I coach in some way has examples of how I differ top set and back down exercise selection on a given day to manage fatigue. Some are like Autumm, where it is selective fatigue to a particular muscle group that is getting too beat up. For others, it is simply a way to control acute and systemic fatigue through the weekly and block structure. But if there is one thing you take away from this, it is to be unconventional. We do not have to be bound to some fixed model of exercise selection, but rather can use the possibly endless combinations of variations to best suit an individual athlete’s needs.