Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets: How To Use Them?

top sets vs straight sets vs working sets

When it comes to prescribing sets and reps for your workout, you can do so in different ways. 

Three examples are through top sets, straight sets, or working sets

But what are they and how do you use them?

Top sets tend to be a single set of reps that are the highest in intensity and performed first in the workout. Working sets are performed after top sets and tend to be lower in difficulty compared to the top sets. Straight sets are sets that are uniform in sets, reps, and load.

Understanding how to implement top sets, straight sets, and working sets will allow you to program any type of workout based on your goal.  

In this article, I’ll cover:

  • Exactly what these three types of sets are
  • When they are used
  • How to implement them into your training.

Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets: Definitions & Purpose

Top Sets

top sets often refer to the set or sets for a given exercise that involves the highest amount of load used

A top set or top sets often refer to the set or sets for a given exercise that involves the highest amount of load used or the highest level of effort used. 

They can be a given rep range for a percentage, RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion i.e. how difficult a set is), or even as an AMRAP where you do as many reps as possible.

The purpose of top sets is often to give you exposure to a certain peak level of intensity of load for a given exercise. This is normally for the purpose of training specifically for maximal strength such as in powerlifting. Bodybuilders or general gym goers may also incorporate top sets too to maximize their intensity.

I’ll provide many examples of top sets below, but a top set can be as simple as starting the workout with 1 heavy set of 3 reps at 87-90% of your 1 rep max.  

This can be used to gauge performance and physical readiness for that day or week to see how your fitness and fatigue levels are. Top sets can often be used in conjunction with working sets, which will be explained later on below, or ramping pyramid sets.

Straight Sets

straight sets refer to a collection of sets with a uniform number of reps and weight for all the sets

Straight sets refer to a collection of sets with a uniform number of reps and weight for all the sets. 

Straight sets are performed with regular rest time intervals between sets. Straight sets do not incorporate sets of other rep ranges or loads. 

Again, more examples will be given below, but a simple straight set can be performed with any exercise with 5 sets of 5 reps at a fixed load.  

The purpose of straight sets is to give you a simple exposure of a fixed intensity of load. Straight sets can be used to train for strength, hypertrophy, or power depending on the rep ranges used. 

Working Sets

working sets or back-off sets refer to a collection of sets where most of the workout’s volume is done

Working sets or back-off sets refer to a collection of sets where most of the workout’s volume is done – hence the name working sets. 

They are normally performed in conjunction with top sets. After the one high-intensity set (the top set), you would drop some of the load from the barbell and perform many sets of (usually) the same rep range as the top set.  These are your working sets.  

The purpose of working sets is to provide you with the bulk of the training stimulus after the performance of a top set. The working sets are always set at a lower intensity of load. 

You can learn more about working sets, or ‘back off sets’, in my article Back Off Sets: How To Use Them The Right Way

Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.

When Should Top Sets, Straight Sets, & Working Sets Be Used?

Top Sets

Top sets are commonly used at the very start of an exercise with warm-up sets preceding it. For powerlifters, they are often performed with a much lower rep range and higher intensity. This top set can be a prescribed percentage or RPE.

They can also be used as the last set if the training program prescribes ramp-up sets, where the subsequent sets rise in load one after the other.

For example:

  • 1×5 @ 75%
  • 1×5 @ 80%
  • 1×5 @ 85% Top Set

Top sets can also be used in the middle of the sets if the sets are a full pyramid in nature. This means that there are some sets that ramp up in load towards the top set, followed by sets that ramp down in load to finish off.

For example:

  • 1×5 @ 75%
  • 1×5 @ 80%
  • 1×5 @ 85% Top Set
  • 1×5 @ 80%
  • 1×5 @ 75%

Straight Sets

Straight sets are used when there is no need for complexity. For powerlifters, straight sets are normally used for accessory exercises or big lifts that are meant to be performed on a lighter day.

For bodybuilders or general gym-goers, they are often used for smaller exercises or smaller muscle groups. They are also often used for training core.

Working Sets

Working sets are commonly used after the performance of a top set. It can sometimes be prescribed as a fixed load based on a previous 1RM, or it can be a percentage of the top set that is performed previously.

Related Article: Prilepin’s Chart For Powerlifting: How To Use It Effectively

Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets: Pros & Cons

top sets vs straight sets vs working sets pros & cons

Top Sets Pros

  • Can give you exposure to a higher intensity of load
  • Can help you adjust around days where you are more tired
  • Can give you an idea of where your strength is that day
  • Can give you something to look forward to

Top Sets Cons

  • Can be more time consuming to work up to because it requires more warm-up sets 
  • Can be fatiguing to perform
  • Require the discipline of good technique, so it’s not for beginner lifters 

Straight Sets Pros

  • Can be simple to perform
  • Can be more time-efficient to train with
  • More appropriate for novice to intermediate lifters

Straight Sets Cons

  • Does not give you exposure to higher intensity
  • Can be hard to progress straight sets weekly
  • Does not allow you to see your max strength for the day

Working Sets Pros

  • Can be adjusted based on a top set performance
  • Provides manageable training stimulus 
  • Can improve exercise technique with a lighter intensity

Working Sets Cons

  • Requires working up to a top set
  • Training may get very hard and very easy depending on the top set

Related Articles: Cluster Sets: What Are They? How To Use Them? and Bench Press Pyramid – What Is It, How To Do It, and Common Mistakes

Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets: Examples

Top Sets & Working Sets

Example with Percentages

Back Squats

  • Top Set: 1x5x85%
  • Working Set: 4x5x80%

Example with Fixed Load

Barbell Curl

  • Top Set: 1x10x 20kg
  • Working Set: 2x10x 15kg

Example with RPE

Bench Press

  • Top Set: 1×1 at RPE 8
  • Working Set: 5×3 @ 80% of 1×1 at RPE 8

Straight Sets

Example with Percentages

Front Squat

  • Straight Sets: 4x4x75%

Example with Fixed Load

Barbell Row

  • Straight Sets: 4x8x 60kg

Example with RPE

Overhead Press

  • Straight Sets: 4×6 RPE 5

Related Article: 5×5 vs 3×10: Which Set & Rep Scheme Is Better?

Putting It All Together: How To Use Top Sets vs Straight Sets vs Working Sets

how to use top sets vs straight sets vs working sets

Top Sets

Top sets can be prescribed differently depending on what you are trying to achieve. You can use a percentage based prescription or an RPE based prescription.

For Strength

For the purpose of strength, a top set should ideally:

  • Be 1 set
  • Be between 1 to 5 reps
  • Be around 83% to 93% of 1RM
  • Be no more than RPE 8 or 9

For Muscle Mass

For the purpose of muscle mass, a top set should ideally:

  • Be 1 set
  • Be between 6 to 8 reps
  • Be around 75 to 85% of 1RM
  • Be no more than RPE 9

Straight Sets

For Strength

For the purpose of strength, straight sets should ideally:

  • Be between 3 to 6 sets
  • Be between 3 to 6 reps
  • Be around 80% to 85% of 1RM
  • Be no more than RPE 7
  • A more advanced lifter might go for higher percentage
  • A more novice to intermediate lifter might go for lower percentage

For Muscle Mass

For the purpose of muscle mass, a straight-set should ideally:

  • Be between 3 to 6 sets
  • Be between 6 to 15 reps
  • Be around 50 to 80% of 1RM
  • Be up to RPE 9

Working Sets

For Strength

For the purpose of strength, a working set should ideally:

  • Be between 2 to 6 sets
  • Be between 3 to 6 reps
  • Be around 75% to 85% of 1RM
  • Be no more than RPE 7
  • A more advanced lifter might go for higher percentage
  • A more novice to intermediate lifter might go for lower percentage

For Muscle Mass

For the purpose of muscle mass, a working set should ideally:

  • Be between 2 to 6 sets
  • Be between 6 to 15 reps
  • Be around 50 to 80% of 1RM
  • Be up to RPE 8

Who Should Use Top Sets and Working Sets

Top sets and working sets are not necessarily appropriate for everyone. People who should consider using them are:

  • Experienced bodybuilders
  • Experienced strength and power based athletes
  • Intermediate to advanced powerlifters
  • Powerlifters who are in a strength phase of training

Who Should Use Straight Sets

Straight sets are simpler and can be used by more people. People who should consider using straight sets are:

  • General gym goers
  • Strength and conditioning for sports
  • Novice powerlifters
  • Powerlifters who are in a technique phase of training
  • Novice athletes
  • Bodybuilders

Conclusion

There is no black and white better method of programming sets. There is always a time and place for programming using straight sets or top and working sets. As you gain more experience in your training, you will eventually use both methods. So long as you program appropriate intensities, you can be successful in your progress using both sets. A level of discipline is needed if you are to implement top sets with RPE.


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com