A typical gym session might begin with 5-10 minutes of low-intensity cardio to raise our internal body temperature. This is often followed by general-to-specific prehab work in order to get our soon-to-be primary muscles/joints ready for action. There will be ebbs and flows of priming, intensifying, and volumizing sets layered into the workout as we bounce from exercise to exercise until finally wrapping things up with a strategic cooldown consisting of static stretching, mobility work, and maybe even a bit more of that cardio.
Yet despite all of this dynamism, the only additive activity in our programming should be Working Sets.
They’re the ones we track and the ones that we will aim to progress week-to-week. They’re the ones that will create the bulk of the fatigue. They’re the ones that actually move the needle.
How we get to these working sets may not seem like a big deal, but there are optimal and suboptimal ways of doing so...
Let’s say your program calls for: Barbell Back Squats- 2x10-12 (1RIR) with 225lbs…You wouldn’t just walk into the rack, load up 225lb, and start squatting without warming up, would you? Actually, maybe don’t answer that.
That being said, how should you go about getting up to that working weight?
First and foremost, we have to distinguish between a Feeder set and a Warm-Up set.
A Warm-Up set is meant to get blood moving into the target muscles and lubricate the joints. They will consist of more submaximal repetitions (i.e. practice) with the trade-off of being more fatiguing. An example of Warm-Ups using the Squat scenario above could look like:
Feeder sets, on the other hand, are designed to wake up the nervous system and become more in tune to the movement you’ll be performing. The total volume/workload will be much less as the goal is to conserve as much energy as possible while setting ourselves up to optimize performance.
Feeders are subservient to Working sets, whereas Warm-Ups are treacherous—they attempt to leach the volume and energy for themselves.
Let's start with the most common error that I see with Feeder sets: too much volume.
Utilizing lots of feeder sets with lots of reps seems like you’re just being diligent, right? In theory, wouldn’t you be more warmed up for the movement, and therefore more primed and more in tune with execution?
Well, not quite…In this case, too much of a good thing is a bad thing (or at least a counterproductive thing). Using too many feeder sets with high reps builds fatigue, and decreases strength/endurance for your working sets. And it makes total sense when you think about it—lots of reps with increasingly heavier weights means you will be tapped by the time that you get to those all-important Working sets.
The other side of the equation would be to keep your volume as low as possible. We won’t be wasting unnecessary energy by suppressing our Feeders which seems like great news!
That may be true, but you’re also not effectively priming your muscles or nervous system for the impending heavy loads and intensities. As a result, too little volume in our Feeders can lead to injury and malperformance. The less “ready” you are for a big movement, the more likely you are to make an error in execution.
Nailing Feeder sets can feel like advanced calculus when first introduced, but precision isn’t nearly as important as the general strategy. I have found that an effective way to go about feeders for Working sets of 10-12 reps is as follows:
- No load added - 10-15 reps (warm up)
- 30% of working weight - 10 reps
- 50% of working weight - 6-8 reps
- 75% of working weight - 4-6 reps
- 85-90% of working weight - 1-2 reps (getting primed under heavy load)
For the aforementioned Barbell Back Squats- 2x10-12(1RIR) with 225lbs, it could look like this:
- 225x11, 225x10
All of these recommendations will vary slightly based on exercise selection and relative load.
You will not need a ton of Feeders for an isolation movement like bicep curls or glute kickbacks - one or two Warm-Ups with light load might be the better option in these cases.
But for our heavy/compound movements, it's important to make sure that you are ready to tackle your Working sets, and Feeders are the most reliable way to maximize performance.