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Weight Training 

Sets & Reps: The Building Blocks of a Great Workout
by Michael J. Merlino, ACE, BSMI (CPFT, RES), Cooper Institute
Owner, Merlino Fitness, MerlinoFitness.com


In my last weight training article, we discussed how designing your schedule is the key to sticking to a program that works for you. Before we get into what types of routines and various exercises, I thought it was important to talk about sets and reps and what you really need to build muscle. As a trainer, the majority of questions I get revolve around sets and reps. How many sets should I do? Are two sets enough or do I need to do more to get improved results? Will more reps give me more muscle tone? There are a few books on the best sellers list that are basically preaching body builder weight training and nutrition programs to the average Jane and Joe. Beginner weight trainers or those with previous injuries may not be able to perform many of the exercises described in these books.

Some may have enough free time to spend hours in the gym but the cold reality is that most of us don't and would much rather be doing something else. The good news is that the latest research points towards the fact that most of us don't need tons of reps or sets of each exercise to get good results with a strength training program. In fact the majority of the benefit can be gained by 2 sets of each exercise or even a 1 set routine if you are really pressed for time. Some activity is better than none at all. A two set routine is probably the most realistic for most people. Let's go over some ground rules and weight training techniques with reps and sets to keep your workouts intense and within an hour.

Weight Training Ground Rules
Before we cover sets and reps there are some weight training rules that will get you better results over night! I cover these in more detail on my article entitled "Getting The Most Out Of Weight Training".

  • Keep your movements slow! - Stick to a 4-2 count using a 2 count when flexing the muscle and a slow four count when stretching the muscle back out. Don't get caught up in the numbers! When in doubt slow it don't to make sure you are working your muscles through the range of motion.

  • Flex or squeeze the muscle every rep! - I tell my clients to forget about the fact that they are lifting, moving, pushing or pulling a weight. Your mission in the gym is flexing or contracting muscle. That's what builds quality muscle mass!

  • Work each set to failure! - I like to choose a weight that works my clients within a rep range of 12 -17 reps to failure per set. Failure meaning to the point which there is no way you can perform another rep unless you break form. Once again don't get caught up in a numbers. If your goal was 15 and you have the energy left to knock out 5 more reps then push yourself to 20 and re-adjust the weight later. Remember failure is a good thing! Don't believe all this stuff you may be reading about how you must perform 20 plus reps to build lean muscle. You build muscle working it to failure and you look leaner by burning fat with cardiovascular exercise so you can see the muscle underneath the fat.

Set Training Techniques
Variety is the spice of life and it's no different with weight training. Varying your set routine will allow your body to grow and challenge it in different ways so you continue to build muscle and stay lean. Here are a few set techniques that work well.

  • How Many Sets Are Needed? - I like a 2 set routine because you get about 85% of the benefit of doing 3, reduce you risk of injury and keep your workout brisk and no longer than an hour. If you have time for 3, knock yourself out or do three sets on the areas where you are weaker or want to build more muscle. Sometimes I will save the 3 sets for exercise that are what I call the power moves that work big muscles like bench press for chest, military press for shoulders, lat pull downs for back and leg press or squats for legs. Really pressed for time? Then do a one set speed routine 2-3 times a week and still build muscle. When you can commit to more bump it up to a 2 set routine.

  • Drop Sets - A drop set is a set where you complete as many reps as you can to failure, stop and drop the weight a few pounds (usually 10 - 15%) and continue performing reps with the new weight until you fail a second time. Don't expect to get more than half the amount of reps that you performed with the first weight amount. This technique is great if you are at a sticking point on weight and want a way to bridge or progress to a higher weight.

  • Super Sets - A super set is performing two sets back to back without rest with two different exercises. This could be for the same muscle group or different muscle groups. For example performing a dumbbell chest press and following it without rest with a dumbbell bicep curl. Then repeating this cycle for a second set. I call this "passive rest". While one muscle is working the other is resting but movement is continious. This is a great technique to save time in the gym, keep your heart rate up to burn some additional calories and keep your workout brisk. It is much easier to super set with dumbbells. If the gym is not crowded you may be able to pull it off with machines or a mix of machines and dumbbells.
  • Giant Sets - A super set is performing two sets back to back without rest with three or more different exercises. This could be for the same muscle group or different muscle groups. For example performing a dumbbell chest press, a dumbbell bicep curl, and a side shoulder dumbell raise consecutively without rest. Then repeating this cycle for a second set. Giants are pretty intense, so progress from super sets before attempting to add giants to your routine.
  • Split Positive/Negatives Sets - Did you know that most of the soreness you feel from weight training is created by the negative phase (when the muscle is stretching out) and not the positive phase (when you are flexing or performing work)? In fact most of your muscle breakdown comes from the negative which is why slowing down on the negative phase is so important. With this set variation I do the first set with a regular 2-4 count with the positive and negative phase. The second set I do a negative set by focusing on a slower negative count and quicker positive count. If you have a spotter, have them assist you with weight on the positive and hold the negative for a real slow count. Don't be surprised if you experience additional muscle soreness when adding these.

Rep Training Techniques
Not much to this really except to mention that there is much confusion about how many reps need to be performed for certain goals. In my opinion it doesn't really matter how many reps are performed if they are not quality and not performed to failure. Again muscle tone is created by building muscle and more importantly, losing body fat by doing cardiovascular exercise. Focus on doing what it takes to build muscle and burning fat by getting frequent cardio work in. Here are a few tips and variations you can try:

  • Recommended Rep Range - I stick with a 12-17 rep range with most of my clients depending on what phase of training they are in. Beginner weight trainers should stick with 12 repititions for a few weeks and progress to 15. Then a rep range from 12-17 while increasing the weight as needed should work well. Those of you who have been lifting for awhile can stick with 12-17 and vary reps based on energy level and whether you have recently bumped up to a new weight.

  • Vary Reps - Try varying your rep amounts every few weeks to hit a new strength plateau. If you have been only doing 12 reps try lightening the load and do 15-17 for a few weeks. If you have been going high on the reps, increase your weight and hit the low range of 12 for a few weeks. I make a practice of rotating high and low reps on various body parts throughout one single workout. The idea here is to freak your body out once you are past the beginner stage so it never truly gets to comfortable with what you are doing.

  • Reps Don't Necessarily Dictate Muscle Type - There has been a lot written on how high reps will cut you up and low reps will bulk you up. For this reason I see women terrified of lifting less than 20 reps for fear that they will build too much mass. Nutrition, hormones and genetics have more to do with how much mass you build than how many reps you perform. Men build more muscle mass than women because they have 20-30 times the amount of muscle building hormones like testosterone. I see many men who should be lightening the load once in a while and actually working muscle with less weight instead of loading up weight and doing less than 10 reps per set.

  • Experiment - I know you would like to have a rep formula specifically for you but I have found that most people need to stick to what works well for them. Experiment and try different rep ranges and see how your body reacts... then stick to what works well for you.

Mind Over Muscle
If your life is like most Americans or mine, you are one busy person. Work, school, family, friends and other responsibilities are shrinking the quality time left to invest in yourself. I call "quality" weight training the missing link in most people's fitness plan. Using intense reps and sets can truly transform your shape. So take it seriously when you do set aside that hour to lift weights. Keep it slow, enjoy it and really focus on every rep, set and each individual muscle your are working. Sometimes I close my eyes on the second set of each exercise and really focus on my speed of movement and flexing my muscle to the point where it feels like they are jumping out of my skin. Your first priority should be keeping it slow and practicing good form and technique. Your last priority is how much weight is on the stack. Now put on your game face and and go lift some weights today!

Michael Merlino is a Certified Professional Fitness Trainer and owner of Merlino Fitness and MerlinoFitness.com. He trains his clients at the Houston Downtown YMCA and his private fitness studio. Michael can be reached at 713.523.2577 or e-mail him at michael@merlinofitness.com. Click on one of the links below for more information on Michael and his fitness services.

View Michael's Bio
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Pulldowns are a great exercise for the back muscles but avoid pulling the bar behind the head. Pull the bar down in front of the body toward the collar bone and with the bar just below your chin. Pulling the bar behind the head puts undue stress on the shoulders and rotator cuff.
Running
Avoiding Shin Splints
Do you have lower leg pain or shin splints from running? Running on hard surfaces, worn out running shoes and weak calf muscles could be the culprit. Try running on soft trails, buying a new pair of running shoes or adding calf exercises to your weight training routine.
Walking
The Talk Test
A great way to make sure you are staying in your aerobic fat-burning range is the talk test. If you cannot comfortably carry on a conversation with your walking partner you probably need to bring down the intensity to assure yourself that you are burning fat.
Fat Burning
Your Anaerobic Threshold
A great way to make sure you are burning fat during cardio sessions is knowing your anaerobic threshold or where your heart rate zone needs to be to burn fat stores. Find a gym or fitness center that offers anaerobic/VO2 testing. Merlino Fitness offers anaerobic threshold testing every month. Check out the link below for more details.
Merlino Fitness Metabolic Testing
Nutrition
Keys to Weight Loss
If you are trying to drop weight make sure you incorporate the following to get you on your way. Drink lots of water, don't skip meals (especially breakfast), do not eat late night meals or snacks after 7 or 8 pm and build as much activity into your everyday life as you can. Michael also recommends joining weight watchers to anyone trying to lose weight and keep it off long term.
Nutritional Supplements
Stay Away From Ephedra!
The weight loss/energy supplement is in the news again. Supplement companies that market this controversial supplement claim it is safe although many have died from this dangerous supplement. Make sure you check the labels of your nutritional supplements as many are laced with ephedra, also known as ephedrine or ma huang (the actual herbal).
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