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Weight Training Basics: Making Sense of Weight, Repetitions and Sets

Learn the fundamentals of weight, reps, sets and form before you pick up the dumbbells.

dumbbelll-for-weight-trainingAdding weight training into your workout isnt as difficult as it seems. Understanding the four basic principles of weight training is a good start, but what about all of this talk about weight, reps, sets and form?

Understanding Weight, Repetitions and Sets

There are four basic terms you need to understand, because you will hear them frequently in the context of weight training.

Once you understand them, youll finally be ready to hit the weights with confidence and purpose:

  1. Weight or Resistance
    This is the amount of weight that you lift or move during weight training. Choosing the right amount of weight is critical and it will vary based on your goals (that specificity thing again.) It will also have a direct impact on the amount of repetitions your perform. Repetitions and weight are tied so closely together, that its best to discuss them in relation to one another.
  2. Repetitions
    Repetitions indicate the number of times you move a given weight during a specific exercise. So if you are doing bicep curls with a dumbbell, and you curl the weight twelve times in a row, youve performed twelve repetitions (also called reps.)  Determining how many repetitions you should perform is really a function of your goals as well as the amount of weight you choose to use. In general, you will want to perform as many reps with good form as the particular muscle you are training will allow before you cannot perform another rep. Obviously, the amount of weight you choose has a direct impact on the amount of repetitions you perform. The higher the weight, the less reps youll be able to perform.
  3. Sets
    Sets are simply a grouping of repetitions for the same exercise seperated by a brief rest period. So lets say you performed 12 repetitions of dumbell bicep curls, rested for two minutes, and performed 12 more repetitions of the same exercise. You will have performed two sets. Simple, huh?
  4. Form
    Form means you perform a given exercise properly, with attention to the positioning of your body, your posture, the correct movement during the exercise and proper breathing techniques.  Practicing good form ensures that you thoroughly work the muscles through their intended range-of-motion and do so with minimal risk of injury.
Bringing It All Together: How Weight, Repetitions and Sets Work In Unison

The amount of weight, reps and sets you perform is directly-related to your weight training goals:

  • Increase Strength: If your goal is primarily to build strength, you will use a weight that is heavy enough to limit the total amount of reps that you perform to under six per set.
  • Increase Strength and Muscle Size:  If you want to build strength and muscle size, you will use a weight that causes you to be able to complete no more than 8-12 repetitions per set.
  • Endurance: If muscle endurance is your primary objective, you will likely use a weight that allows you to perform between twelve and twenty reps per set.

BEGINNER TIP: For people just beginning weight training, a good beginning weight, rep and set goal is to use a weight that allows you to complete no more than 15 reps for 2-3 total sets per exercise.

Why You Should Consider Starting Light

Its not unusual for muscle endurance to be the limiting factor for many beginning weight trainees, soemphasizing the middle- to top-end of the rep range is a good place to begin building your foundation.

Also, it encourages you to go a bit lighter to start with, which lessens the risk of injury that can accompany using heavier weights before your connective tissue has become stronger and is able to support the additional stress.

As it becomes easier to perform 15 reps with a given weight, start to increase the weight slightly during successive workouts to reach the same amount of reps, but with a more weight.

WEIGHT TRAINING TIP: After six weeks of higher reps, experiment with larger increases in weight, which will reduce your total reps down to the 8-12 rep range, if strength and size is your goal.

In terms of training in the low end of the rep range (the strength zone of 1-6 reps), I would discourage anyone who hasnt been performing regular weight training for at least twelve months from using a weight that only allows them to perform 1-6 reps. The amount of force that is being applied to the muscle and connective tissue with heavy lifts is considerably greater than with mid-rep or high-rep ranges.

HOW TO AVOID INJURY: The majority of weight training injuries come when people lift too much weight, too quickly and without proper attention to form. The more weight you use, the more likely it is that youll have to cheat to get the weight up. And cheating discourages good form.

How Many Sets Are Right for Me?

The number of total sets that a person should perform for a given exercise is an ongoing debate among fitness and conditioning trainers and researchers.

Traditionally, most trainers have recommended three sets per exercise. However, a number of studies have found that that for training durations of 4 to 25 weeks there is no significant difference in the increase in strength or size (hypertrophy) as a result of training with single versus multiple sets.

That said, the jury is clearly out on this subject. The best approach is to try different set volumes and see what gives you the best result.

Warm up To Prevent Injury

One final critical piece.

Prior to your weight training session, youll want to warm up with 10 minutes a light cardio. This will raise your core body temperature, increase blood flow to the muscle and discourage injury.

You may also want to consider performing a very light warm-up set of 15 reps for each exercise before moving on to your working sets.

This can help localize blood-flow to the muscle and give you a practice run with light resistance to check your form and get used to the motion of the exercise.

Next: Free Weights or Machines? Which is better?


Comments (3)

  1. StrongandFit (4 comments) says:

    Hmmm . . . Im not sure one single set is the way to go.  “One set to failure” was made popular by Arthur Jones and others, but I believe in higher volume.

  2. Mark (13 comments) says:

    I am glad I found this site it was very interesting and helpful.