How to Split Your Sets

Posted by Lora on Mon, Oct 17, 2022

“For elite athletes the strategy usually consists of going hard and splitting every set 2-3 reps before failure while keeping rest at minimum.”

How to split your sets in a workout is a consideration that puzzles CrossFitters everywhere. Despite the commonality of the issue, there is very little information on the topic and the scientific research around it is pretty non-existent. The problem is only perpetuated by the fact there are so very few coaches who have the experience and expertise to advise their athletes on how to break their sets in a given workout.

For elite athletes the strategy usually consists of going hard and splitting every set 2-3 reps before failure while keeping rest at minimum. However, that approach requires an extremely high level of skill and strength endurance to keep going at a high volume and intensity. But for the rest of us the situation is very different and requires a different approach. This is why we went out and we talked to some of the top coaches in the bizz to help us create a comprehensive and easy to use guide on how to split your reps in a workout.

How to find your max and average set size

To find your max and average set size you will have to conduct a test and record the results. For the test you will have to:

  • Do 5 sets of max reps of the exercise you want to test
  • You must take exactly 15 seconds rest in between the sets
  • Make sure you are as fresh and ready as possible
  • Hit every set with competition pace and effort
  • Every set should be to failure with nothing left in the tank

Below I cover an explanation of why the test should be conducted in this particular manner. If you want to just get on with the analysis of the results skip directly to “How to analyze your results section".

Why 5 sets?

In this case you do not only want to check how big the max set you would like to do is, but also how well you can maintain volume over time. Maybe your first set is really large but then you fatigue very fast and your following sets are just a fraction of the first one. The idea here is to collect more data points. You can also do 10 sets and that will give you an even more accurate representation of how well you can maintain a high number of repetitions per set over time.

Why exactly 15 seconds?

When trying to do a test where we aim to simulate the intensity of a real workout or even a competition, we would like to minimize the rest between the sets. If conditioned well 15 seconds should be enough to replenish some glycogen and ATP in the muscles and if not that would be a good way to achieve realistic competition level of fatigue. Also, 15 seconds is the average duration of 3 big breaths.

Why should you be as fresh as possible?

It is important to hit that test as rested as possible as you wouldn’t like to be fatigued from a workout. Part of the test is to figure out what your max set is and in order to properly do that you should be as well rested as possible. The best is to do it after a day of rest and after a light warm up.

Why hit it with games pace?

The idea of the test is to simulate the conditions of a workout and intensity and speed are some of the key features of a CrossFit workout. We often go too hot too soon and not the other way around, so despite the fact it is just a test, make sure you hit it with the intensity you would if you were fighting for a spot on the podium.

Why should every set be to failure?

Going all out in a CrossFit workout is almost never a good strategy, unless it is a sub 4 min workout OR you are Tia Toomey/Mat Fraser. However, this test is intended to figure out your maximum and average capacity of performing an exercise. This is why every set should be a max set and pushed absolutely to failure. IMPORTANT! Make sure you never compromise good technique when working to failure!!!

So in short. Warm up lightly. Then do a max set of the exercise, rest 15 seconds, repeat 5 times. Record your score.

How to analyze your results

When you have completed your test and recorded your scores, it is time to analyze your results. First, you take the best set, this is your max set. For most of us this would be the first one. Second, you will have to find your average set size by summing up your scores for each individual set and divide that number by 5. If you do not get a whole number, round up or down to a complete rep.

For example:

Pull ups test:
10 - 7 - 4 - 3 - 2
Max set: 10
Average: 5

Wall balls test:
25 - 19 - 10 - 7 - 5
Max set: 25
Average: 13.2 -> 13

Now check how many reps there are in each set within the workout and follow the formula below.

b / max set (where b is the workout set size)% of average set size (if total repetitions in wod are less than 5 times the max set)% of average set size (if total repetitions in wod are 5 or more times times the max set)

Using the sample tests above, let’s discuss a couple of scenarios. Let’s imagine you gotta do a workout that contains a single set of 21 pull ups. The set size (as well as total reps) is about 2 times bigger than the max set, therefore you should take 90% of your average set size. In this example the average set size is 5, so that would be to break down the sets in 5 reps (rounded up) and finish what you have left. In the case of the 21 pull ups the sets should be 5-5-5-5-1 or 5-5-5-6.

For the wall balls test results, let’s take one of the beloved benchmark workout Karen which consists of 150 wall balls for time. As both the set size (which in this case is 1) and the total volume of reps are more than 5 times the max wall balls set (25), we should take just a mere 40% of the average set size (13), which would be 5 reps. Here the strategy would be to do super fast sets of 5 reps with minimum rest.

Reference table:

Reference table

If you are the type of person who likes to be analytical and impartial about their performance, you can take a deep dive into your workouts with our app Atlon. You can review not only how you currently split your sets, but also access how a more deliberate strategy affects different facets of your performance, such as Effort, Consistency, round speed, average rep time and overall time for completion, amongst others. You can download Atlon for free from the app store.

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