‘Are you here for the AMRAP class?’ ‘Can you spot me?’ ‘How are your DOMS today?’ If you think walking into a gym in 2023 feels like landing in a foreign country without the Duolingo app, we see you.
There’s enough fitness lingo out there to fill a dictionary, and admitting you don’t know the term your PT just used 17 times can feel like admitting to your boss you don’t read her emails. But if there’s one piece of jargon that’s worth knowing, it’s the different types of sets, and specifically, how many sets to do per workout.
What is a set?
In a nutshell, sets are a way to cluster your reps, but the optimal way to structure them will depend on the goal you’re shooting for. Going for sets that don’t include rest periods, such as drop sets, will improve your endurance, while straight sets, with the longest recovery time, are best for building strength.
You’ll also need to consider your individual fitness level – the higher the training volume, the harder your workout will be. Supersets are good if you’re tight on time, but you’ll need to be able to move from one exercise to the next as quickly as possible. Granted, this can sound a bit much, but learn it now and you’ll be set for life.
Best for: Beginners, anyone in need of a form refresher, anyone looking to maximise strength.
Avoid if: You’re short on time.
How: Perform the same exercise for the same number of reps with the same weight (if you’re using one) for a number of sets, resting between each.
How many sets and reps to do: 3 x 12 lunges, with a 60-sec break between sets
Pros: If strength is your goal, straight sets give you the longest recovery time between sets, meaning you’re more likely to lift your heaviest. ‘They also allow you to focus on one exercise at a time, so you can concentrate on form and technique,’ says strength and conditioning coach Andy Vincent.
Cons: Time is not your friend. ‘Straight sets can take a long time to complete as you rest after every set and, by the end of your workout, you’ll probably only have managed three or four exercises,’ says Florence Wong, CrossFit coach and athlete.
Ideal exercises: Use straight sets to hone compound lifts – those that work more than one muscle group, such as squats. ‘These need more recovery time so you can execute them with good technique to maximise your gains,’ says Vincent.
Best for: Intermediate to advanced exercisers who want to improve power and hypertrophy, aka muscle growth.
Avoid if: You want maximal strength. Supersets can help you build muscle, but you’ll need longer rest time to hit those PBs.
How: Perform two sets of exercises back to back before resting. There are three main types: agonist (aka compound) supersets, involving two exercises targeting the same muscle group; antagonist supersets, using two exercises that target opposite muscle groups; and upper- and lower- body supersets, pairing an upper-body and lower-body move.
How many sets and reps to do: Agonist superset (1 set): 8 x single-arm row + 8 x meadows row. Antagonist superset (1 set): 8 x bicep curl + 8 x tricep press. Lower- and upper-body superset (1 set): 8 x bent-over row + 8 x lunge
Pros: Providing you pair your exercises correctly, supersets are a solid time-saving tactic. ‘You’ll do more exercises in one session than you would in a standard workout,’ says Vincent. And studies show that supersets don’t typically inhibit the quality of training, despite a lack of rest.
‘Antagonist supersets have even been shown to improve the performance of your lifts, as you train both sides of your joints, therefore making you stronger,’ adds Vincent.
Cons: You’ll only progress if you marry the right moves. ‘If you pair two moves that both require good grip strength, for example, your hands may give out before you place enough stimulus on the intended muscles,’ says Vincent.
Likewise, ‘if you team compound exercises such as deadlifts and military presses, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to increase your load over time – they’re taxing enough individually’. Not only do you run the risk of injury, less rest and more work can make a superset feel like cardio, which could hinder muscle growth as you lose energy to lift.
Ideal exercises: For every type, couple one harder exercise with one easier, says Vincent. Take an agonist superset. ‘Try a heavy compound exercise, such as a deadlift, with an isolation exercise, for example a Bulgarian split squat,’ he says.
Best for: Switching up your routine, intermediate to advanced exercisers keen to pack in maximum training volume per session, anyone looking to increase muscle hypertrophy.
Avoid if: You’re new to training or you’re unsure of your max load for each rep range.
How: There are three types: ascending, descending or full pyramid. With ascending pyramids, start with your heaviest weight and fewest reps, then reduce the weight and increase the reps. A descending pyramid involves starting with your lightest weight and maximum reps. A full pyramid starts with a descending pyramid, with the heaviest weight at the ‘peak’, and finishes on an ascending pyramid. Take 45 to 60 secs’ rest in between.
Pros: ‘Pyramid sets are mentally stimulating as you use a variety of rep ranges and weights,’ says Wong. And by kicking off with lighter weights and increasing the load, you gradually prime your muscles for heavier lifts. Studies have shown that the high intensity also increases the amount of muscle fibre tears which, when repaired, lead to muscle growth.
Cons: You’ll need to be familiar with the weight you can lift. ‘A lot of people go too heavy,’ shares Vincent. The result? They’re too tired to finish.
Ideal exercises: ‘Anything you can repeat for several reps with proper form,’ says Vincent. ‘Make sure you know your max load and rep range, so you hit your targets without overdoing it.’
How many sets and reps to do: Ascending: set 1: heavy weight, 6 reps. Set 2: medium weight, 8 reps. Set 3: light weight, 10 reps. Descending: set 1: light weight, 10 reps. Set 2: medium weight, 8 reps. Set 3: heavy weight, 6 reps
Best for: Breaking through plateaus, and advanced exercisers looking to improve power, hypertrophy and endurance.
Avoid if: You’re new to weightlifting or recovering from injury.
How: Perform a number of sets of the same exercise, gradually ‘dropping’ the effort within each, without resting. You might reduce the weight or the mechanical work required (think: switching from a unilateral exercise, such as a single-leg lunge, to the bilateral equivalent on both legs, for example, a squat). The goal? To reach fatigue by maximising reps.
How many sets and reps to do: Set 1: 8 x 30kg bench press. Set 2: 10 x 20kg bench press. Set 3: 12 (or to failure/exhaustion) x 10kg bench press. Move from one set to the next without resting
Pros: Muscle hypertrophy. ‘Your nervous system has to recruit the greatest amount of motor units (bundles of muscle fibres) with heavier weights,’ explains Luke Worthington, sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach.
‘But by moving from heavier to lighter weights, you recruit a bigger proportion of muscle fibres as you train both your fast-twitch muscle fibres, for power, and your slow-twitch fibres, for endurance.’
Cons: DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). ‘Training a muscle to failure can create high levels of DOMS, so the benefits could be mitigated by the inability to train in the following days,’ warns Worthington.
Ideal exercises: Anything that can be adapted to reduce the weight or intensity quickly. Wong recommends dumbbell, kettlebell and machine exercises.
Best for: Intermediate to advanced exercisers with adequate strength and cardio fitness, those looking to improve muscle power and hypertrophy.
Avoid if: You struggle with cardio – trisets can improve both strength and cardio, but you won’t reach your lifting potential until your cardio fitness peaks.
How: Perform three exercises back to back, resting only after each triset. They’re an advance on supersets, involving the same pairings (agonist, antagonist or lower- and upper-body), plus one additional exercise (‘a core, skill or isolation move’, says Vincent).
How many sets and reps to do: (1 set) 8 x chest press + 8 x dumbbell row + 45-sec side plank
Pros: Providing you’re fit enough to tolerate a third exercise without resting in between, trisets support both hypertrophy and cardio. ‘Adding one more exercise makes your whole session more demanding from a cardio perspective,’ says Vincent.
A 2017 study in the European Journal Of Applied Physiology found that, for the participants who took adequate rest days, trisets helped improve strength and cardio fitness (although this was a male-only study).
Cons: As with supersets, structuring your trisets intelligently is key to reaping rewards. They’re also tough. ‘Make sure you’re fuelled well and always take a rest day afterwards,’ says Vincent. Alternatively, you could also perform a single triset as a finisher to a workout.
Ideal exercises: ‘Make sure your third exercise isn’t going to affect your performance in the first two,’ says Vincent. ‘The goal should be progressive overload. The harder the exercises are, the more exhausted you’ll become and the less able you’ll be to increase load over time.’