There’s a pretty common problem out there that ruins far too many well-designed workouts - a problem known in coaching circles as ‘garbage sets’. A set qualifies as ‘garbage’ if fails to meet a minimum threshold of intensity relative to the assigned reps.
So here’s an example - say your workouts calls for 5x5 back squats. If you progress with 205, 225, 245, 275 and 275 pounds, how many sets did you actually perform? The answer is two. Only two sets actually count.
When I say ‘count’, what I mean is that only the last two sets actually provided substantial stimulus for you to actually get stronger. The first three sets are simply too light to make any real difference. If you can successfully complete a set of 5 at 275, a set of 205 is effectively worthless. What good does a set of 5 do if you’re using a weight where you could complete 15+ reps?
The problem doesn’t stop there, however. Any well designed workout needs to account for the total volume of work performed, in that a certain minimum number of repetitions are necessary to actually push you forward. A successfully executed session of 5x5 would result in 25 repetitions - enough work to make some progress. But repetitions at an insignificant load, or ‘garbage sets’, don’t count towards the necessary total. So in our above example, really only 10 reps would be ‘counted’ towards the workout volume. Any workout that fails to reach these necessary minimums is wholly ineffective, so not only do garbage sets mean fewer useful sets, they can bury an entire workout..
You can consider a bare minimum standard for a set to qualify as non-garbage would be to be within 10% of the rep-maximum. .So if 275 is your 5RM, then anything more than 25-30 pounds off of this number just doesn’t cut it when it comes to gaining strength. Or if you prefer, just ask yourself if you could do another 2 or so reps once the set is finished. If so, it’s worth your while to make an adjustment.
Now if you know that you’re going to be working around 275, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t complete any repetitions at 205. Of course you should, it just means that those reps constitute part of your warmup, not the workout itself. So if you’ve been blurring the line between warmup and workout, draw a clearer line at when your session actually starts and see if the gains don’t start coming more quickly.