Sets and reps are mentioned everywhere and are fundemental to the structure of weight training routines. Yet, for beginners the terms may not be understood, so we explain their exact meaning in this article.
“Reps” is the shortened term used for “repetitions”.
In weight lifting terms, a repetition is one full completion of the exercise movement. The exercise movement usually involves a concentric (or “positive”) phase in which the target muscle shortens as it contracts, which is then followed by the eccentric (negative) phase when the muscle lengthens.
Let’s take an example with someone performing the barbell curl:
The exercise begins with the arms out-stretched to the side of the torso, body erect and the barbell grasped at thigh height. The barbell is curled upwards so the arms become fully flexed and the barbell is at shoulder height. The movement so far has been the concentric phase of the repetition. The movement is then reversed in a controlled manner, so the barbell returns to its original position. This segment of the exercise, when the barbell is descending and the arm flexor muscles are lengthening is the eccentric phase of the repetition. The whole movement, composed of the concentric and eccentric phases, is one rep.
There are various other terms you may come across which include “reps” in their title:
“Cheat reps” – the use of body movements to aid the completion of the repetition(s). This is an advanced training technique, used when the muscles are being pushed beyond their limits.
“Partial reps” – a repetition which is performed through a limited range of motion. Partial reps are usually performed when full repetitions can no longer be performed due to fatigue. Alternatively, they can be used to stimulate the muscle through a favourable range of motion (ROM).
“Negative reps” – only the eccentric phase of the repetition is performed for negative repetitions, hence its name. The concentric phase is skipped (how it is skipped is dependent on the exercise – but with a barbell curl a training partner may lift the weight for you). The eccentric contraction can usually handle greater loads and causes increased fibre damage and therefore potential for growth.
“Forced reps” – this describes repetitions which are aided by a training partner when the trainer is unable to complete the repetitions. This technique is similar to cheat reps.
A collection of reps is known as a “set”. Sets tend to be made up of continuous repetitions of a given exercise, followed by a rest period before another set is completed or the trainer moves onto another exercise.
For example, if a trainer wishes to perform three sets of ten repetitions they would perform ten back-to-back repetitions and then rest (typically for two to three minutes in bodybuilding workouts). This is repeated three times so three sets have been completed.
There are various other terms you may come across which include “sets” in their title:
“Drop sets” – to perform a drop set the trainer performs a set of repetitions until they are close to failure (i.e. cannot perform any more repetitions). Without any rest time, the weight is then reduced and another set is performed. This is continued for a chosen number of set, although it is usually limited to three.
“Tri sets” – three sets of different exercises are performed back-to-back without any rest, but they all target the same muscle group. An example would be a set of dumbbell flies followed by a set of barbell bench press followed by chest dips.
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