Fitness Friday – Lifting Sets!

Welcome to the weekend!! We’re kicking it off my favourite way today – with Fitness Friday!

This week’s fitness discussion is all about weight lifting sets.

To begin, I must explain what a set is. Lifting is done in repetitions (aka “reps”). One repetition would be the concentric and eccentric parts of the movement. Confused? Basically it’s the muscle contraction, or up & down motion of an exercise. So one rep would be squatting and coming back up, or curling a dumbbell to your side and bringing it back up. Real basic stuff here, but it’s always good to lay it all down in the beginning :)

The number of reps you do when lifting varies. People will go anywhere from 3 to 30. Typically, they are done consecutively, followed by a period of rest, or a change in exercise. One group of repetitions is called a set. So that’s what I mean when I say I did three sets of 15 reps of one certain exercise!

Okay, now onto the juicy stuff…


Straight sets

These are sets of the same exercise performed one after the other with a break in between, typically lasting 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

Example: Four sets of dumbbell chest presses, 6 reps each, 2 minutes rest in between each set.


Alternating sets

These are when you alternate 2-3 exercises with a rest period between each set. Typically, these are done with opposing muscles or synergistic muscles (aka two muscle groups that help each other work).

Example: Three alternating sets each of bicep curls and tricep extensions (opposing muscles) or three alternating sets of lat pulldowns and bicep curls (synergistic muscles)



Just like alternating sets, except with no rest in between. I love doing these to keep my heart rate up while pumping the iron ;) I recommend doing these with opposing muscles to begin with. So, doing a set push-ups then immediately moving into a set of pull-ups. This way, your chest gets to rest while you work your back on the pull-ups, and you can move through the sets more quickly without fatiguing.

Pyramid sets

Start a pyramid set with a lighter weight and perform more reps than you typically would (until the last few feel really hard). Rest, then grab a heavier weight, performing 3-5 fewer reps than before. Rest, grab an even heavier weight (watch your form) and perform even fewer reps. This should be really hard. Then reverse it, go for the lighter (or lightest, if you’re only doing four sets) and try to do the same number of reps you did with the same weight earlier. It’s going to be a helluva lot harder, and that’s a good thing ;) You can also reverse the order, starting with the heaviest, going lighter, then moving back up.

The purpose of a pyramid set is that it gets into all your muscle layers and hits some of those muscle fibres that wouldn’t be targeted with just the usual weight/rep combo. Definitely an advanced option, but a fun way to switch it up!


Drop sets

The same idea as pyramid sets, except this time you start with the heaviest weight, performing as many reps as you can. Then move down 3-10 lbs, lift until failure, then move down one more time, adding more reps. Even though the weight is getting lighter, it will feel considerably harder. Again, this is a sure-fire way to exhaust your muscles, which is the goal when trying to build muscle. (remember – muscle isn’t “sculpted,” it’s built!)

Example: 6 reps of bicep curls with 15 lb dumbbells, 10 reps with 10 lb dumbbells, 15 reps with 5 lb dumbbells.

Extra notes: I do not recommend doing drop or pyramid sets for one muscle group more than twice in one workout. Nor do I recommend doing them more than once a week. Their purpose is to shock the muscle and stimulate more muscle tears, but you need to allow those extra tears time to rebuild in order for these methods to be effective. I also recommend doing pyramid and drop sets on plated machines instead of hogging three sets of dumbbells ;)


Circuits are so the “in thing” right now. My clients love them, and it’s easy to tell why. They’re great for people with short attention spans, who are impatient, or bore easily. They’re also fabulous for keeping your heart pumping, meaning you’re blasting a few extra calories during your strength routine.

A lot of people would classify a circuit as one set of three or more exercises performed consecutively, then repeated all over again. However, I argue that a circuit is at least four exercises done one after the other, and even go up to 6-10 exercises. I don’t allow rest between each individual exercise, only when all of them have been performed consecutively can you rest before it’s time to start back at the top.

Example: 12 squats, 12 lunges, 12 push-ups, 12 dips, 1 min mountain climbers, 1 min plank. All done in a row, then repeated until you’re blue in the face :)



I am including this one not because I recommend you try it out, but because it’s at least worth knowing what the heck it is.

“1RM” stand for One Rep Max. You got it, it’s a set that consists of just one rep. This one rep is performed with a weight so heavy that you can only do it once. A lot of people use this as a way to measure their strength gains, as predictably your 1RM of an exercise will increase as you get stronger. But again, I do not recommend you try this one out on your own to find out. I’ve heard horror stories of people blowing out their knees trying to do a 1RM squat!!

As with most things fitness related, there are a ton of variations out there. I’m covering the basics because we don’t have all day ;) I always encourage further research on your own. Don’t be scared that you’ll get big and bulky by playing around with your reps and sets. Some days changing up my set variation is enough to get me excited and motivated in the weight room! (and erm, unable to lift my fork the next day :P )

Hit me up with any questions in the comments!

Posted on August 20, 2010, in Workouts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Great post! Very informative :) I love dropsets.. and I typically do straight sets, but sometimes throw in supersets for a change!

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I read recaps of bloggers’ workouts and I feel like such a moron because I have no idea what the lingo they are using means. I kind of want to write this out on a notepad and keep it nearby as a cheat sheet. Is that plagiarism? =)

    Nicole G

  3. Yay for this post! I have just started doing some pyramids and they are a nice change up.

  4. My first week back doing my RPM class that I love so much. In 56 minutes I rode 17.7km, burnt 606cal and spent about 40min at 170 I think ?? I need to get the manual out for my polar unit.

  5. Great post I’m just covering this on the course I’m doing so this was a little refresh revision thanks! x xx

  6. Great post! I really gotta get into weight training again… maybe I should hire you ;)


  7. Super informative post! That has really cleared up what things are for me as I was often hearing circuits or super sets and not fully understanding what they are and why you should do them a certain way. Thanks!

  8. yay love it (well i know this stuff already), but I love us trainers sharing info! :) awesome post!!!

  9. greensandjeans

    So much good information! I can’t wait to get back into more strength training post-marathon!

  10. Great post! There are a lot of guys at my gym that seem to like the whole “I’m hard because I do 1RM sets, then drop the weights to the ground and let out a massive ROOOARRR” workout routine. It drives me crazy!!
    PS. I will gladly make the trek to TO again for you and the other lovely ladies… especially if it involves Fresh!! :)

  11. Fantastic post, very informative. Drop set is what i normally do to get more pump.

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