Whether you want to increase the effectiveness of your current weight training program or if you are new to weight training and looking to put together a program with a specific goal in mind, you’ll need to manipulate loads, repetitions and sets.
Loads and Repetitions
Repetitions (or reps) are the number of times you repeat an exercise. In relation to reps, the amount of weight you lift (load) should fatigue your muscles within your planned number of repetitions. For example, if you plan to perform 15 repetitions, your muscles should start to fatigue somewhere between 12 and 15 repetitions. In other words, 12 should feel like you can't make it to 15 but light enough for you to get there. Use this as a guideline when selecting loads for all exercises.
In general, when you lift weights with high loads and low reps (i.e. 4 to 6) you’ll experience maximum gains in muscle size and strength, which is ideal for those who are trying to gain weight or “bulk” up. Slightly reducing your loads and increasing your reps (i.e. 6 to 12) will result in moderate strength gains with enhanced muscle tone. Lifting weights with very light loads and a higher number of reps (13 to 20+) will result in improvements in muscular endurance which is great if: 1) you’re looking to improve your ability to perform day to day tasks as efficiently and effectively as possible, 2) you’re older or have a fear of getting injured while lifting weights, and/or 3) you’re looking to improve your exercise performance (i.e. long distance running). In addition, when coupled with cardiovascular exercise, performing a higher number of reps can greatly enhance weight loss. Consider your specific weight training goals and then choose the number of repetitions that works best for you.
When lifting weights, irrespective of your number of repetitions, it is generally safe to stick with what is called a 2-1-4 tempo, where 2 represents the lifting portion of the exercise or the exertion phase (2 seconds), 1 represents a pause (1 second), and the 4 represents the lowering portion of the exercise (4 seconds). Also, during any repetition, it is important to avoid faulty habits like swinging your body too far forward or backward while lifting, swinging your weights, or failing to follow-through with each rep. These are bad habits that can easily lead to muscle imbalances, poor posture, and injury so its best to avoid them.
A set is a group of repetitions performed in sequence without rest. As with repetitions, you can manipulate sets to achieve your specific weight training goals. When it comes to sets, you can either perform a single set for each muscle group or multiple sets. It is important to understand that you will experience health and fitness gains with as little as 1 set of each exercise, however, you can always maximize your results by performing 2 to 5 sets.
Multiple set training is great for progressively overloading your muscles in order to promote: 1) maximum strength gains, 2) muscle tone, 3) increases in metabolism, and 4) cardiovascular benefits. With this type of training, your rest time between sets can range anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, depending on your goals. For example, if you’re training for endurance you may only need 30 seconds to 1 minute of rest time between sets while individuals training for maximum strength gains may require up to 5 minutes of rest.
Three of the easiest ways to implement multiple sets during weight training involve performing: 1) pyramid sets, 2) supersets, and/or 3) circuit sets.
Pyramid sets involve using either a light to heavy or heavy to light progression for each exercise in terms of load. For example, you may perform a chest exercise with 10-pound dumbbells for the first set, 12 pounds for a second set, and then 15 pounds for a third set or vice versa.
Supersets are a little different in that they involve performing two to three different exercises back to back with minimal to no rest between the sets. As an example, you may perform a chest exercise and then move on to a back exercise without resting and then repeat the sequence.
Both pyramid sets and supersets are great if your weight training goals involve increases in muscular strength and tone. You can also combine pyramid sets with supersets. For example, you may perform a chest exercise and then move on to a back exercise (superset) after which you repeat the sequence while increasing your loads (pyramid set using a light to heavy progression).
Finally, circuit sets involve going through a series of exercises (about 8 to 10) with relatively brief rest time between sets (about 30 seconds). Performing circuit sets is great for working both your muscles and cardiovascular system simultaneously. In addition, circuit sets are an effective approach to weight loss as there is a ‘cardio effect’ when it comes to burning calories due to the limited rest periods involved (click here to learn more about circuit sets).
Again, you’ll experience significant benefits with weight training whether you choose to perform single or multiple sets. It’s all about choosing the right exercises that target all your major muscle groups and the right loads to fatigue your muscles with your planned number of repetitions.
One last thing. In order to see continuous improvements throughout your weight training, you'll need to constantly increase your loads as they become easier to lift. For example, if your planned number of repetitions for a certain exercise is 10 and you are able to perform 2 or more reps over 10 during 2 consecutive workouts, you'll need to add more load to that exercise during your next session. This is a practice that you should continue to implement as you progress through your weight training program, indefinitely.
With all this said, if you are still unclear about the best ways to manipulate loads, repetitions and sets during weight training you should consult with a qualified health or fitness professional. Otherwise you're now ready to put together your training logs and start planning your own weight training program with your specific goals, schedule, exercises and equipment in mind.
Disclaimer: The information provided is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a physician for advice.
Before starting an exercise training program you should first make sure that exercise is safe for you. If you are under the age of 55 years and generally in good health, it is probably safe for you to exercise. However, if you are over 55 years of age and/or have any health problems, be sure to consult with your physician before starting an exercise training program.