Sets & Reps:
The Building Blocks of a Great Workout
by Michael J. Merlino, ACE, BSMI (CPFT, RES),
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click on one of the links below for more information on Michael
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