Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Do Your 3s, Ladies

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | December 08, 2020

bre at  the bottom of a squat

Even to this day, after this has been discussed many times, I regularly see videos of women grinding through and failing sets of 5 on the squat in the first couple of months of the Novice Linear Progression. Advice to gain weight or go to one-pound or even half-pound jumps is thrown at you by the uninformed, yet well-intentioned. While things like taking smaller jumps or putting on 5 pounds of bodyweight may sound like great ideas, they don’t take into account the actual problem, and therefore are unnecessary and inadequate solutions.

Let’s discuss the situation first. For a full, technical, and accurate explanation of what’s going on, make sure to read Rippetoe’s article and watch our podcast on the subject.

As a highly simplified explanation, when compared to your male-lifter counterpart, your ability to call motor units into contraction during a given timeframe is lower than a dude’s. So in the 3-5 seconds it takes to do a heavy squat rep, fewer motor units fire for you than for the guy. Motor units are a bunch of muscle fibers attached to a nerve. How many of those units turn on in a muscle contraction determine how much force you will be producing. More motor units turning on in less time means more force being produced faster.

In practice, what this means is that while a guy will have 85-95% of his motor units firing on his heaviest squat, you’ll have 70-80% firing on your heaviest squat. Don’t worry about the actual percentages, I don’t know what they are precisely and neither does anyone else, but the concept is the important point: since you're not firing as many motor units when you train, your sets of 5 after a certain point are more like sets of 8 or 10 for a guy. And any guy who’s spent time in the gym trying to get strong will tell you that sets of 8-10 don’t do a damn thing after the first few weeks to get you stronger.

So now the real problem starts to become obvious: you're not failing reps because of a lack of recovery; you're failing reps because you are not applying enough stress during a heavy set. For you, sets of 5 are not producing enough force production stress to further disrupt homeostasis, given that you are less efficient at producing stress from a neuromuscular standpoint. You cannot recruit enough motor units into contraction during a set of 5 to add up to a significant-enough stress to cause an adaptation, because a set of 5 – for you – does not cause enough motor units to come into contraction. Even though it's “heavy” for you, it's not heavy enough for your neuromuscular system to make you adapt more than you already have.

The solution is simple, and has been discussed in Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd edition, articles, videos, and programmed by SSCs for as long as I can remember. All you have to do is switch to triples. Everyone starts their Novice Linear Progression using 3 sets of 5, but after a while when things start to get heavy, most women will need to switch to 5 sets of 3. The volume stays the same, but switching to 3s allows for the weight on the bar to go up – the need to produce more force by calling more motor units into contraction – and thus continue to disrupt homeostasis.

Due to the reduced neuromuscular efficiency when compared to a male lifter, you need to train heavier relative to your maximal strength, and triples allow you to do that. Please read that sentence again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with switching to sets of 3 and delaying the switch will lead to an abrupt and premature end to your linear progression. Most women who I’ve worked with go on to continue making 5 lbs jumps using triples for another 8-12 weeks.

Move to 5 sets of 3 on your program when it starts to get heavy. Don’t be a neurotic mess and try to figure out the precise moment at which you should be switching. Just do it when the bar speed is slowing down a month and a half to three months into your LP. You should not be failing a rep in the first three months of your program, so go to 3s before you do. There are no bonus points for staying on sets of 5 for longer than necessary and doing silly things like resets or changing programs without first having switched to 3s.

So do your 3s, Ladies. Take 3 to 5 minutes rest in between sets because you won’t need as much rest as we boys do, and enjoy the PRs 3 times a week for another 2 or 3 months as you become stronger than every male friend, family member, and coworker in your life.

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