Before messing with tried-and-true training methods, it is my opinion that you should utilize the original method for quite some time. Once you understand it better, you can then start building off of it. When I first really got into strength and conditioning, I programmed what I knew, what I had used, and what I saw others that I came across using. For example, a football team I worked with used Wendler's 5/3/1 for an off-season training, with great results.  I didn’t know enough to mess with the program. We did our main lifts, did accessory exercises that were based mainly on the make up of the room, the equipment, and the amount of people we had in each session.

Since reading Dr. Mann’s book on APRE a few years ago, I have utilized this method with great results. As a side note, one of the reasons we really like it with our student-athletes is because we can get strength gains on a fairly low volume plan; you’re really doing two heavy sets. If muscle mass is needed, we can always adjust the schemes of our accessory work. What makes a lot of sense is when Dr. Mann talks about how he used this with women’s soccer. This demographic, in general, is not always thrilled about strength training until they see on-the-field results. But when you can show improvements in sports performance without major increases in muscle mass, it's even better.

After utilizing the three different schemes for the APRE method outlined in Dr. Mann’s book, we started playing around with some alternatives for the fourth set. In a way, this happened accidentally. Over the summer, we had a women’s basketball player who was stuck at a weight for three weeks in a row. We know this can happen, but this player was coming in on her own time and we were working with her one-on-one. Nothing can kill confidence like being in the weight room by yourself and not improving regularly in a big exercise (for a 20 year-old).

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I’ve liked cluster sets for a while and have utilized them sparingly, mostly because of the time it takes. But, in the summer with plenty of time, we would hit the third set for max reps and do cluster sets of one, two, or three reps depending on the APRE scheme and how many reps were hit in the third set. We kept the increases and decreases in weight the same, dependent on the third set. Within the next three weeks, the athlete busted through the plateau and was then able to reach her goal of benching her bodyweight.

man basketball player isolated silhouette

This sparked a bunch of conversation between my assistant and I. We discussed doing clusters for the fourth set, but realized that we are already crunched for time so it may not be the most efficient way to do it. We were able to try this out on our men’s basketball team and based on three weeks of work on the clusters, we were able to improve in the bench press on average by 1.5 reps and 2 reps for APRE 3 and 6, respectively.

When thinking about how to do this when school was in session and we were more crunched for time, we came up with the idea to pair the fourth set clusters with our explosive movements, either before or after the main exercise. Then with a few minutes of spotting and loading plates for others, we would be recovered enough to smoke another few reps. The three sets preceding these would be paired with accessory exercises, which usually ended up being pre-hab or mobility type stuff.

We did this for a semester with multiple teams. We got very similar results to what you would expect on the squat and bench in terms of improvement from the start of the semester to the end. What we felt was the best part of breaking up the fourth set was the quality of the reps. If you are trying to hit a new rep max on the third set, it's mentally and physically taxing to try to do the same again. We are also dealing with very low training ages and when they get fatigued, they break down in technique. We were able to mitigate that breakdown in technique quite a bit from what I had previously seen when going for two consecutive all-out sets. Our athletes also liked it. I am not one to put a whole lot of stock into every single thing the athletes like, but when they are saying they like the new style of doing things, they are hitting new maxes week after week, the reps for the fourth set are moving at a good speed, and technique is on point, I will keep what they like in mind.

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I want to reiterate this point: we improved at a similar rate as when I had done the APRE method as written.

What we also saw was a big sophomore class that had been through a similar program last fall improve at the same rate. Would they have continued to do so on the straight APRE method? Probably. But this new stimulus could have helped them. We want to keep in mind our demographic. Something is new or it is old. Small changes keep our athletes on their toes and kept them from feeling like they were doing the exact same things as last year. Small tweaks can go a long way. We didn’t make the changes just to make changes and we expected better results in absolute strength numbers. We didn’t see that, but the improvements I mentioned above are all reasons we wanted to give it a shot and why we will continue to make small tweaks in the upcoming semester for our fall sports. Hopefully more to come after next semester. We are open to all and any questions and comments.

Bobby Fisk is the Head Strength and Conditioning coach at NJIT. He can be reached at