Weight training fundamentals tend to be a real mystery for many people. This holds especially true when it comes to determining ‘how much resistance’ and ‘how many times’ for a given exercise. Whether you’re looking to increase the effectiveness of your current weight training program or if you’re a newbie trying to put together a routine that best suits your goals, you’ll need to learn the art of manipulating loads, repetitions, and sets.

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Loads and Repetitions

As implied by the name, repetitions (or reps) refers to the number of times you repeat an exercise. In relation to reps, the amount of weight you lift (load) should generally fatigue your muscles within your planned number of repetitions. For instance, if you plan to perform 15 reps, 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 any and all exercises.

When you lift weights with higher loads and lower reps (4-6) you’ll experience maximum gains in muscle size and strength. This is ideal if you’re trying to gain weight or “bulk” up. Slightly reducing your loads and increasing your reps (6-12) will result in moderate strength gains and more sculpted muscles. This is where I find that a lot of women want to be, although not always.

Related Article: How to Lift Weights Without Bulking Up

Now, lifting weights with very light loads and a higher number of reps (13-20+) will result in substantial improvements in muscular endurance.

This 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 or 3) you’re looking to improve your exercise performance (long-distance run or tennis game). In addition, when coupled with cardiovascular (cardio) exercise, performing a higher number of reps can greatly enhance weight loss.

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All things considered, determine your specific weight training goals and then choose the number of repetitions that works best for you.

Now, irrespective of your loads, it’s generally safe to stick with what’s called a 2-1-4 tempo when performing repetitions. This is where the 2 represents the lifting portion of an 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 as much as possible.

Training Sets

A set is a group of repetitions performed in sequence without rest. As with repetitions, you can strategically 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’ll experience health and fitness gains with as little as one set of each exercise. But, you can always maximize your results by performing a few more.

Multiple set training is great for progressively overloading your muscles in order to promote: 1) maximum strength gains, 2) better muscle definition, 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 a minute of rest time between sets while someone training for maximum strength gains may require as much as 5 minutes of rest due to the heavy lifts involved.

Three of the easiest ways to implement multiple sets during weight training involve performing: 1) pyramid sets, 2) supersets and/or 3) circuit sets, each of which I’ll explain in the following paragraphs.

Speaking in terms of load, pyramid sets involve using either a light-to-heavy or heavy-to-light progression for each exercise. As an example, you might 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.

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Supersets are a little different in that these involve performing 2-3 different exercises back-to-back with minimal-to-no rest between sets. For instance, you could 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 are centered on increasing muscle definition, size and/or strength. You can also combine pyramid sets with supersets. This would involve performing say a chest exercise and then moving 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 8-10) 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, doing so is an effective approach to weight loss as there’s an inherent ‘cardio-like’ effect when it comes to burning calories due to the limited rest periods involved.

Related Article: Circuit Training: Efficient and Research Proven Effective

Once 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 in addition to the right loads to fatigue your muscles within 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. So, if your planned number of repetitions for a certain exercise is 10 and you’re 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 being said, if you’re 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.

Related Article: How To Choose Your Weight Training Equipment and Exercises