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Sets, Reps & Rest Variations

Everybody who initiates into a fitness routine is doing so with a specific goal in mind. For many people, this goal is associated with improving the way that they look and feel. Whether you are new to working out or the gym is your main stomping grounds, the things that you do within the gym will dictate your success. Any well structured exercise routine should always, regardless of the end goal, incorporate resistance training to ensure that strength, muscle and joint stability are being developed to improve body composition, improve health markers and reduce the risks of all cause mortality. Your exercise routine will consist of some combination of sets, reps and rest periods.

A rep is defined as the single execution of a movement that is often repeated in concession to create a set. A set can consist of one rep or several, but the collection of reps performed defines the set. Your rest periods are a little more self explanatory, this is simply how long you rest in between sets to allow for recovery. Depending on your end goal, there are many different sets, reps, and rest variations that could be utilized to maximize your potential. In this article, I will discuss some of the more common variations for each exercise parameter and when implementing them may benefit you.

Set Variations

Straight sets

Without knowing any difference, it is common that if you are to get involved with resistance training and you begin to exercise that you are most likely to begin with performing a straight set. A straight set is where you perform your desired amount of reps for once exercise, then you stop and rest before you then proceed back to performing another set. This is a good place for a beginner to start because it allows them to focus on the exercise at hand to execute properly.

The amount of fatigue that may accumulate in a single set of one exercise is likely not going to be excessive, so a beginner can perform the set, have a short rest period, and then feel good to be able to perform another set without worries of overdoing it. A straight set can vary in the amount of reps within the set however, so this will impact the required rest needed between sets. This will be discussed later within this article.

Super sets

Supersets are a relatively common term within the gym setting. This term is defined as a set where two exercises are performed one after the other with little to no rest periods in between. These exercises are commonly non-competing muscle groups, or a lower and an upper body exercise, but depending on someone’s goals and exercise experience, could be two exercises of the same muscle group to really stress the worked muscles.

This variation can be beneficial particularly when using non-competing muscle groups as it allows you to benefit from getting twice the amount of work done within one set than you could perform doing only straight sets. This can also help improve muscle-endurance and exercise stamina, as now you must work for twice as long. This can benefit someone working towards weight loss. Using competing muscle group exercises during a superset may benefit someone who is trying to build muscle as their goal more.

Giant set / Circuit

A giant set or a circuit are defined as a series of 3 or more exercises that are all performed in sequence with little to no rest in between. This set variation is commonly used during a “Burn” or a “Conditioning” phase within a workout routine to help burn body fat, increase metabolism, and improve cardiorespiratory abilities. This is commonly performed with 3+ exercises being performed at moderate to high rep ranges or even for time with minimal rest. These exercises could each target a different muscle/movement pattern or they could all target a specific area to help build muscle, endurance and stability to the target area or supporting areas. The intensity of these exercises can vary greatly when it comes to the weight being used.

It is more common to see this set variation being performed with a light to moderate weight selection and often at a quicker tempo with shorter rest periods. For someone trying to build strength, this would be a very different stimulus and a variation like this would still benefit them, but it may look more like 3-4 exercises performed at 65-75% of 1 rep max for 6-10 reps, instead of 4-6 exercises performed for 12-20 reps. Because a strength training individual normally rests 3-5+ minutes, allowing a short 20-30 second rest between exercises in the set may be necessary to allow proper execution for the next exercise. There are many ways that implementing a variation like this into a strength training program could dramatically enhance their abilities but commonly this is not where this person would spend their time with training.

Drop set

As you get more comfortable in your training routine and you have established good movement patterns, and strength; trying a technique such as drop sets may help you to break past plateaus and progress further when trying to build muscle and strength. This variation is often performed on the last 1-2 sets of an exercise. Say you are performing bicep curls and you have been able to work up to 10 reps per set where the 10th rep is getting tough. On a set you are going to perform a drop set, you would perform 10 reps at that weight, drop the weight, select a lesser weight and perform as many as you could at that weight, and so forth.

Typically 1-2 drops in the weight are used but again, depending on your exercise experience and goals, several drops could be utilized here to take the muscle group to total mechanical failure and get as much muscle fiber recruitment possible as you finish up your set. This is not a variation that you would use on every exercise of your workout or even in every single workout. This variation is something that should be used sparingly during phases of your routine to help get past plateaus you may experience.

Lower Cross Syndrome

Pause set

A pause set is a technique that begins to get a little more advanced. In theory, this is a set that utilizes the same weight throughout, but instead of having one failure point, you will extend the set by adding short 15-20 second rests and then performing as many additional reps as you can to then accumulate greater exercise volume. For example, if you were able to do 10 reps of an exercise before you could not lift the weight again, you would take a 15-20 second rest allowing the weight to rest, then perform another set where maybe you only accumulate 4 reps, then rest again, and perform another 2 reps.

By allowing those short intra-set pauses you have now performed 16 reps at the same working weight you were only previously able to perform 10 reps at. This is most used for people trying to build more muscle and strength. Again, this is not something you would use every exercise, or every workout. These advanced variations are meant to be applied strategically to help achieve a training objective.

Cluster set

A cluster set closely resembles a pause set, but the main difference is that a pause set reaches several failure points, where as a cluster set breaks the set up into smaller clusters that allow for more set-volume to be reached at a constant weight. There are two ways to go about performing a cluster set. The first would be to select a weight that you can perform 10 reps for (or whatever range you are working within), you will then perform 3 clusters of 4 reps each with a 15-20 second rest in between. This would allow you to accumulate 12 reps with the same weight as you previously could only perform 10. The amount of those clusters could vary.

If you felt you were able to continue adding clusters of 4 then this would be a great way to build up volume, but at a certain point there is probably more value in just using more weight. The second way this could be done is by picking a weight and performing as many reps as you possibly can (with good form) at that weight. Rest the 15-20 seconds as you normally would, then perform 2-3 clusters performing only half the amount of reps you performed in the first cluster. This is guaranteed to pump the blood to the muscles as you are not allowing enough time for your muscle to flush exercise induced bi-products away from the muscle which causes for a strong muscle pump that will assist in growth and strength development.

Pyramid set

This is a technique that influences reps with each consecutive set so there is an inverse relationship between reps lifted and weight being lifted. As the weight is lower, the reps will be higher and with each progressive set, the weight gets heavier and the reps get lower. As always, picking what rep ranges to use for this will be influenced by your exercise experience and goals. This technique can also be done in reverse where you begin with the heavier sets, so you are doing your heavy work prior to accumulating too much exercise fatigue. You ideally work up/down the pyramid and then back again. When doing a reverse pyramid, each of the back-off sets you will likely need to decrease by 7-10% of where you were as fatigue needs to be considered to ensure for can remain proper and avoid injuries.

Rep Variations

Fast

When it comes to rep speed, there should always be a reason behind the intention. If you are just lifting the weights fast so you can get more done and feel as if you have lifted more weight, you are likely not benefiting from this rep speed the most effectively. A fast rep should be associated with greater power production to help increase strength. Think of an Olympic lifter, fast and very explosive. The weight should also be heavy enough to provide adequate stress for the muscles to generate force with.

Moving a weight fast because it is too light will not yield these benefits. Another reason a fast rep variation may be utilized is when training smaller isolated muscle groups near the end of a workout simply to feel a “pump” and fill the worked muscles with blood. In this case, the muscle has already been sufficiently taxed and even a light weight may feel heavy to the lifter, but the intensity of these faster paced reps will yield great muscle building signals for the body. No matter how this is being applied, speed does not override control and technique, keep it clean and avoid momentum.

Slow

Slow controlled reps are an effective way of signalling strength and muscle growth. By increasing the time under tension, you body is forced to maintain good form and develops a much stronger connection to the intended muscles. You can slow down the concentric phase (shortening of the muscle) and, or the eccentric phase (shortening of the muscle). Incorporating these slowed tempos into a workout is guaranteed to shock the body into adapting to this intense stimulus.

Slowing down the eccentric phase is likely where one would start when experimenting with slowing down the tempo as this can have substantial ability to trigger more anabolic hormone production and this phase is able to sustain upwards of 40% greater load/tension then the concentric phase. This being said, slowing down the concentric phase is a variable that would not make up the bulk of a workout or even be used all that often – but the resulting effects of a slowed down 5-10 second, smooth concentric will guaranteed to rock your senses.

Full Range of Motion

For all intensive purposes, unless there is a physiological reason why you cannot perform a full range movement, this is how you should be exercising all the time to yield the greatest benefits unless there is a specific reason not to. If there is injury, joint, ligament or other structural abnormalities that prevent a full range motion being completed then working within a pain-free range of motion that is available to you is best, while working on the underlying cause of your decreased range of motion with the intention of regaining a full range. If a partial range is only ever trained, this opens the door to getting injured when the range that is not being training suddenly needs to present strength in a real-life scenario.

Partial Rep

Having an understanding that a full range of motion should always be the main intention when it comes to exercise, there is also some application for partial reps. A partial rep variation could be used in conjunction with a full rep, so instead of performing a single rep, you may perform 1 ½ reps. For example, if performing a squat, you would sit back into your normal full range squat, but instead of coming all the way back to the top, you would come to the half way position, pause, return to the bottom and then make your way back to the top.

This type of a rep will put a much greater emphasis on the quads and the glutes and help to strengthen the bottom half of a squat, where most people tend to be the weakest. This type of rep can be used to bring up sticking points in a movement and break through strength plateaus or as a burn-out during a higher volume, muscle-building routine. Utilizing this variable in conjunction with rep speeds can really challenge the body and causes quite the muscle burn effect.

21’s

As popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger as his top secret for growing his arms, this technique involves a sequence of partial and full reps to stress every aspect of the muscle through a full range of motion. This can be used for other muscle groups other than the arms by following this rep scheme. To start, perform 7 repetitions that are only the bottom half of the range of motion, then proceed to lift the weight all the way to the top and perform 7 repetitions from the top down the mid range, then lower all the way down to the bottom and perform 7 full range repetitions to total 21 reps.

This often requires using a weight that is substantially lighter, depending on your strength this may be anywhere between 40-50% of a normal 12 -15 rep max. This technique can also work quite well for push ups, bench press, squats, lunges and a variety of other exercises.

Low (1-8) range

A low rep range is most associated with developing strength and power. At these lower rep ranges, normally a weight that reflects 75-100% are being used. A tried and tested method for developing strength for many years is the common 5 sets by 5 repetitions approach. Generally, this type of programming is built around heavy compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, barbell rows and barbell overhead presses.

Moderate (8-12) range

A moderate rep range is most associate with building muscle. This rep range is typically reflected by a weight that is roughly 70-80% on maximum strength. While lifting in this rep range, generally a wider range of exercises may be used to help develop muscle growth, overcome imbalances or develop stronger and more stable joint support.

High (15-20+) range

A high rep range may be used by someone who is working on improving muscular endurance, stamina, rehabbing an injury, or just de-loading after a more intense exercise phase of programming. This rep range is likely to reflect a weight that is 50-65% of overall strength. This may be commonly utilized in a full body exercise routine that incorporates supersets or circuits. This is also a good place to start for elderly or those who are very new to exercise and need to reinforce confidence by ensuring proper mechanics are being used.

Rep Variations

Rest periods can vary from person to person just based on personal preference and chosen workout intensity. However, there are certain rest period parameters to consider when optimizing your performance and being efficient is important. A short rest period would be most likely associated with a higher rep range or programming that is targeted towards cardiorespiratory, stamina and muscular endurance styles of training as in endurance athletes, those with compromised or family history of cardiovascular or respiratory disorders, or those looking to lose weight.

Depending on the desired outcome, this rest period may fall in the 20 to 60 seconds between sets range. A moderate rest period would span between 45 to 90 seconds. This rest period would be used by those who are working in a moderate rep range and are working towards building muscle and strength. A long rest period is going to be most likely associated with strength training in the low rep ranges and can vary significantly based on the individual and what level of intensity and workload is at for the day. These rest periods can span between 2 to more than 5 minutes in between sets.
In conclusion, there is really an endless world of possibilities when it comes to selecting different workout variables to help you progress with your fitness goals. Being able to understand what some of these variables are and how to apply them can hopefully give you the right idea when trying to add to your routine. Every single one of the above-mentioned techniques is ALWAYS going to yield the greatest results when performed properly, with appropriate ranges of motion, control and structured programming.

Just randomly throwing all these variables into a workout will not be effective and could ultimately lead to an injury. If you are uncertain if something is right for you, it is always advised to verify with your physician to ensure the program you are looking to initiate is a good fit for you or talk to a certified professional who can clearly walk you through a new technique you wish to use. These variations can be super effective and a super fun way to spark something new in your routine. Apply safely and enjoy!
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