Stuck in the same old "3 sets of 15 reps" rut? With weight training it can be very useful to switch up the way you compose your workouts with different types of sets. Whether your goal is endurance, hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) or strength, here’s an overview of sets to help serve as some inspiration to push you further towards your fitness goals.
Simple and straightforward, with the sets and the repetitions remaining the same. A very common one is for instance 3 sets with 15 repetitions, targeting endurance levels. There is no change in the weight lifted for straight sets. Straight sets are great at the start of a workout, and especially for focusing on more challenging exercises like the squat, bench press and pull-ups.
Pros: Great for beginners. Absolute beginners can even start with 1 or 2 sets per exercise while their body adapts to weightlifting, before progressing to 3 sets.
Cons: Intermediate and more advanced weightlifters may not find straight sets challenging enough for less challenging exercises. Their bodies will have adapted to the training and the muscles may need to be pushed further to pack on both strength and size.
Strictly speaking in terms of definition, supersets mean pairing two exercises that work opposite muscle groups, performed back-to-back with no rest in between. An example would be a barbell bench press followed by a bent over barbell row. However, I see the term supersets being used fast and loose these days, sometimes applied to any two exercises performed back-to-back with no rest in between.
Pros: Great for working out opposing muscle groups, for saving time and for upping the intensity of a workout, meaning you burn more fat and calories. If you pair noncompeting muscle groups, you will save extra time as one muscle group recovers while the other one works.
Cons: Beginners might find them challenging without rest periods in between the two different exercises, and depending on the exercises chosen you could find yourself hogging a lot of gym space and equipment.
Similar to the above, however compound sets consist of two exercises targeting the same muscle group. An example is a dumbbell bench press followed by a dumbbell bench fly, targeting different areas of the pectoral muscles.
Pros: Saves time,will increase the intensity of your workout significantly, and can ensure you work out different parts of the same muscle group in one go.
Cons: Challenging for beginners, and again, sometimes tough to complete in a busy gym environment depending on the equipment and weights needed.
Three different exercises performed one after another, without any rest in between.
Pros: Save time and increase the amount of calories burned, as well as elevating your metabolism post-workout due to the intensity.
Cons: Trisets will usually always mean hogging a great deal of space and equipment, so best for when the gym is quiet or at home. Beginners will usually find them very challenging.
As above, but including four or more (!) different exercises performed after one or another.
Circuit sets tie in with giant sets in a way, and usually consist of six or more exercises that are completed one after another without rest.
Pros: Great for a total-body, time-efficient workout.
Cons: Also not one for a really busy gym, unless you just use body weight and aim for more cardio-based exercises.
Drop sets are my favourite for building muscle! They consist of several sets of one exercise performed without rest, using a lighter weight for each successive set. I’ve also seen these referred to as descending sets or strip sets.
Pros: Drop sets will really push your muscles to complete fatigue, encouraging growth.
Cons: Each set requires you to push yourself to failure to yield the maximum muscle-building results. This can be very challenging, so drop sets may not be one for beginners or when you’re having a bit of an off day.
Ascending, which means increasing the weight of the exercise you’re doing for each set (with rest periods in between). Usually this also means decreasing the amount of repetitions per set
Descending, opposite to the above: decreasing the weight of the exercise you’re doing for each set, usually while increasing the amount of repetitions per set
Full: starting as an ascending pyramid before going into a descending one. I have trained with this method using the following sets and reps, as an example:
1st set: 15 reps at 20 kg
2nd set: 12 reps at 22.5 kg
3rd set: 10 reps at 25 kg
4th set: 8 reps at 27.5 kg
5th set: 6 reps at 30 kg
6th set: 8 reps at 27.5 kg
7th set: 10 reps at 25 kg
8th set: 12 reps at 22.5 kg
9th set: 15 reps at 20 kg
^This method targeted hypertrophy (increase in muscle size), strength and endurance all in one go! I call this the 9:1 workout - more on this for another blog post!
Pros: Can be used to target muscle size, strength, conditioning or fat loss, all depending on the method, weight and exercises chosen. For strength, choosing
Cons: Can be time-consuming, and not one for the beginners!
Amount of reps
The repetition amount will vary greatly between each type of set training and your fitness goals. Generally speaking, it’s good to keep the following, super simplified rep, set and rest ranges in mind when selecting exercises and types of sets to go for:
Endurance: 12-20 reps. Anything from 2 to 4 sets. Rest between 30 to 60 seconds max in between each set.
Hypertrophy (muscle size): 8-12 reps. 3 to 6 sets. 60 to 90 seconds rest in between each set.
Strength: 1-5 reps. 1 to 5 sets. 2-3 minutes rest in between each set.