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Use indicator sets to customize your training for maximum personal record results.

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You freakin’ love training heavy. Nothing is more satisfying to you than loading the bar with weights that make it bend and feeling every muscle in your body squeeze all at once to lift it. The higher your numbers climb, the higher you feel—it’s better than any drug. You only wish you could crush it every workout like you do on your best days, but that would be too good to be true.

No matter how focused you are or how much protein you eat, every week or so you’ll have at least one workout that doesn’t meet your expectations. You feel groggy or just plain weak, and you walk out of the gym frustrated and wondering what happened. Recovery is a complex process, and if you’re already doing everything you can to maximize it, what else is there? Well, you may not be able to make every workout your best one, but you can customize your training so that you can make the most out of however you feel on a given day. You can turn bad workouts into good ones, and good lifts into new personal records. In effect, you never have to have a bad workout again.

Indicator Sets

As a strength coach, my job is to help athletes improve performance. One of the concepts we follow to do that is autoregulation— customizing workouts to allow the athlete to progress at his own pace based on variations in performance. You see, everyone who lifts has experienced the same pattern: some days you feel great in the gym and the weights are flying up. Other days, everything you touch feels like a ton of bricks.

You can’t always anticipate what kind of day you’ll have before you start your workout, and some guys will go in determined to lift heavy no matter what. That’s a mistake, because trying to bull through a heavy lift when your body isn’t up to it can cause injury. However, by learning to autoregulate your training, you can find out early on in the session what you’re capable of that day and then adjust accordingly.

Here’s how it works: After you’ve warmed up on your main lift for the workout (some variation of the squat, deadlift, or bench press), you’ll perform three sets with a certain percentage of your max lift. These are called “indicator sets.” The first two sets are conservative, and the last one is all out—perform as many reps as you can. Your performance on this final set determines the rest of your workout.

Calculate Your Indicator Sets

Determine the load to use by calculating 70% of your max. So if your best deadlift is 350 pounds, use 245 pounds. Complete two indicator sets of eight reps, and then a third in which eight is the minimum— go for as many as possible until your form breaks down.

70% X 350 LBS = 245 LBS*

*Use this weight on all three indicator sets.

Cluster Sets

After you’ve done that third indicator set to failure, you’ll perform cluster sets, as prescribed by my colleague Jamie Smith, a strength coach in Boston. Clusters are a variation of the rest-pause method: You take a heavy weight and do one rep, rest briefly and do another, and continue until you’ve done a “cluster” of reps. This approach allows you to lift a heavier weight for more total reps than you typically could, and it ensures that you’re fresh enough on each rep that your technique is at its sharpest.

The load you use on these clusters is determined by the all-out set you just did. For every rep you got above the prescribed number, you’ll add 2.5% to the load and do three to five single reps with 30 to 45 seconds rest in between them. (See formula below for a practical example.)

In other words, the more reps you do on the final indicator set, the heavier you can go on the cluster sets and the more challenging your workout will be. The reverse is also true, so if you’re not feeling up to hard training, you won’t get many reps on the last indicator set and therefore won’t have to go heavy on the clusters. Every workout can now be tailored to your capabilities at that exact moment. You now hold the keys to a lifetime of productive workouts.

Calculate Your Cluster Sets

Let the number of reps you performed on the final indicator set determine the weight you use for the cluster sets. For each rep you got above eight, add 2.5% to the percentage of your max. So if you performed 10 reps, the next weight you’ll load will be 263 pounds (75% of 350; because 2.5% x two extra reps = 5%).

75% X 350 LBS = 263 LBS*

*Use this weight on your cluster sets.  75% = New Max Percentage (70% + 5%)  350 = Best Deadlift Amount

Now (for week 1) do three to five sets of one rep, resting 30 to 45 seconds between each rep. On the other hand, if you could barely manage eight reps in your final indicator set, perform three to five sets of one with the same load (70%).

Progression

Each week, the percentage of your max and the number of reps you perform will change.

Week 1

3 sets, 8 reps with 70%, then 3–5 sets of 1

Week 2

3 sets, 5 reps with 75%, then 3–5 sets of 1

Week 3

3 sets, 3 reps with 80%, then 3 sets of 1

Week 4

3 sets, 1 rep with 85%, then 2 sets of 1

Workout Instructions

Exercises marked with a letter (“A” and “B”) are alternated. Perform one set of A, rest, then one set of B, rest, and then repeat for the prescribed sets. Perform the main lifts according to the indicator set and cluster set formulas above.

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Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

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