Top Set/ Down Set Training—Pros and Cons of Relying on Intensity

Top Set/ Down Set Training—Pros and Cons of Relying on Intensity

Unlike some of my typical monologue-esque essays, this one will be short and to the point! (You can let out that sigh of relief—My feelings won’t be hurt)

This topic was actually sparked by an interesting conversation I had the other day with a client of mine about the effectiveness of the Top Set/Down Set loading scheme, especially as it pertains to women.

For reference, TS/DS training is really just a specific way to balance intensity and volume that falls under the broader category of what’s known as High-Intensity Training.

The basic idea is to work up to a max-effort top set—which will be the driver of neurological and strength progression—either through load increases and/or rep increases, week-to-week. This set is typically going to be in the 3-8 rep range (depending on goal) and taken to 0-2RIR (depending on exercise variation, week of the progression, and intent).

There will also be a slightly lighter back-down set (or sets) involved—which will add volume and drive muscular endurance/work capacity. ⁣Generally, this will be a 10-20% decrease in load from the top set (depending on the top set rep range, exercise variation, goal, etc) and also taken to 0-2RIR (depending on the number of back-down sets, variation, trainee volume tolerance, muscle being trained, intent, etc).

Even just a cursory glance shows how many variables there are at play here. And that is what can get really confusing for many coaches, much less the athletes looking towards them for guidance. There are a lot of ways to get TS/DS wrong.

But the problem is that when you miss with this style of training, the consequences can be disastrous—from undertraining to overtraining to massively increased risk for injury. And we don’t want that.

So let’s go over how TS/DS should AND shouldn’t be effectively used…

But first, we need to rewind a bit.

History and Origins

Tracing its roots back to the golden era of bodybuilding, the High-Intensity Training (HIT) approach, which includes the TS/DS method, has a pretty storied history spanning over 50 years.

The journey began with the legendary Mike Mentzer, who championed the Heavy Duty training system in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His system emphasized brief, intense workouts with few exercises and low volume but a high level of intensity. The torch was then passed to Dorian Yates, a six-time Mr. Olympia, who popularized the Blood-and-Guts training method in the 1990s. Yates' approach similarly focused on a combination of max loads, high intensity, and strict form in order to expedite hypertrophy.

Over the years, HIT has experienced ebbs and flows in popularity. While it may have had moments of relative obscurity (early ‘00s), it has never truly disappeared from the fitness scene. This is thanks to the consistent emergence of new proponents who have adapted and refined these principles, keeping them alive and flourishing in pockets of the bodybuilding and strength training communities.

The TS/DS method, as presented here, is yet another incarnation of the HIT approach that has evolved over the decades. Recently, this style of training has come into favor within select communities that prioritize intensity and effort above all else. And these groups aren’t new…They’ve been around since the 60s/70s in some form or fashion.

What is new, however, is the arrival onto the scene of a counter-community. The recent polarization between intensity and volume has been exacerbated by the vocal, public, and, at times, hostile disagreements between those who believe that intensity is the primary driver of hypertrophy, versus those who believe it is volume. Those who follow me or have read any of my previous writings should know that my opinions fall firmly in the middle—and as such, I believe that TS/DS can be used effectively if, and only if, concessions are made in application.

Pros of TS/DS Training

Alright, now let’s speed run this!

We can start with situations where it may be applicable to use TS/DS:⁣

  • Low volume training blocks ⁣
  • When used on compound movements with high degrees of stability and load tolerance (e.g. Leg Press)⁣
  • High-level intermediate or Advanced athletes⁣
  • In addition to the above, athletes with sufficient prerequisite absolute strength⁣
  • Athletes who can sustain technical rigidity and mind-muscle connection while training close to failure⁣

Cons of TS/DS Training

Conversely, here are some situations where I would HIGHLY recommend against using TS/DS:⁣

  • Periods of high volume⁣ (compared to systemic maximal recoverable volume tolerance)
  • For isolation exercises or movements limited by stability (e.g. barbell curls, walking lunges, etc) ⁣
  • Beginners⁣ and most intermediates
  • Athletes that don’t meet the requisite strength threshold (i.e. If a woman can only squat 100lbs x5 then the stimulus generated by TS/DS training will be minimal even if taken to failure with perfect form)⁣
  • If training close to failure is limited by technical breakdown or target muscles aren’t being taxed fully at those intensities⁣

Practical Application

The absolute BIGGEST issue I see with TS/DS is the inability for some trainees to generate the necessary intensities. This isn’t a slight for those of you who might fall in this bucket, but the reality is that some people just can’t/don’t/won’t push hard enough to create a sufficient stimulus with this style of training. If this is you, or your client, you absolutely NEED to identify it early rather than bang your head against the wall repeatedly while making no progress and needlessly opening up the chance of injury. And luckily, the underlying principles of TS/DS can still be reworked even for this group! You just will need to bump up the volume of back-down sets in order to account for the intensity deficit.

I’ll even go as far to say that the MAJORITY of people cannot consistently train hard enough to make TS/DS training work optimally (in its original form). What is needed are the concessions that I alluded to at the beginning.

So what does this look like in practice?

Whereas, Dorian might take his deadlifts to technical failure and hit 700x5 and 550x10 for his single top and down set—Someone who is more “normal” in terms of muscularity, strength, and temperment will need to titrate the volume up to account for the fact that they’re, well, not Dorian Yates.

A theoretical example for our theoretically average Jane would be to work up to a max set of 6-8 on hip thrusts (let’s say she hit 300x6), and then reduce the weight by 15% (to 255lbs) and perform 3x1RIR (let’s say she was able to get 11, 9, and 8 reps, respectively).

Here, we have the Top Set driving strength adaptations and leading the charge on progressive overload, as well as the additional volume from the Down Sets driving the bulk of hypertrophy. ⁣


Wrapping Up

And that’s really all there is to it!

TS/DS is only one, of many, ways to approach the ever-important balancing act of intensity and volume.

It may not be the Holy Grail of training (like some proponents would lead you to believe).

But it surely can be effective when used in the right circumstances—accounting for its deficencies laid out above and with underlying acknowledgment to the principles that drive it.

And let's face it, we’re all meatheads at heart…

Who doesn’t enjoy a little max-effort degeneracy on a Saturday afternoon with your gym fam?

Just make sure to return to this article if, and when, that devil on your shoulder ever starts to override your rational decision making.

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