Mix Up Your Sets and Take a Quantum Leap in Performance
Bored of your regular weight-training routine? Mix up your sets!
Many people who weight-train on a regular and consistent basis stick to a certain routine, and are reluctant to venture outside of their comfort zone. It’s easy to get comfortable with a routine, and follow it day-in and day-out, week after week. And this isn’t necessarily a bad idea! As a personal trainer, I design most of my clients’ programs following a similar set design: either straight sets or pyramid sets. And, for most people most of the time, this is totally satisfactory and effective. Also, if you are struggling with functional movements and balance issues–due to age, injury, postural compensations, etc–you should focus on improving functional fitness before introducing weights into their program (Infofit also offers posture, pain, and movement analysis).
Giant Sets, Super sets, Drop sets
However, it is essential that you remember the principle of progressive overload (you can click here for a more detailed explanation). Your muscles will eventually adapt to a given load, so if you’re not consistently challenging yourself, you’ll never achieve the “mad gainz” you so desire. Changing your sets–the amount of reps, their order, or volume–adheres to this principle. I am not suggesting that you overhaul your training regimen completely and commit wholly to a new program style; I would recommend adding some different types of sets when you’ve hit a plateau in your training or performance.
If you’re new to strength-training, this may all sound a little alien to you. To start, what’s a set, anyways? To summarize, the number of repetitions you perform in a row makes up one set. For example, if you perform twelve chest presses in a row with 50 pounds, that’s one set. If you perform that same twelve chest presses with 50 pounds two more times, that’s another two sets. So, 3 sets of 12. And since you didn’t vary your weights or the number of repetitions, you just completed a straight set. Comprendez-vous?
So, if a straight set is performing the same number of repetitions with the same weight, what’s a pyramid set? A pyramid set style may be the most popular set type, as it typically allows for a warm-up set, and, some argue, produces the greatest strength gains. Many people find themselves naturally following a pyramid formation in their training. An astounding amount of pyramid variations exist; that being said, your sets will always resemble, you guessed it, a pyramid! (or a reverse pyramid, even). Commonly, a pyramid set involves completing your first set at a weight as low as 50% of your max volume; from there, you progressively increase the weight, while also (usually) decreasing your number of repetitions (or reps, in gym speak). Experts are torn as to how much you should be increasing the weight of your load. But an ascending pyramid set generally looks like this:
Set 1 – light weight: 12-16 reps
Set 2 – light/medium weight: 10-12 reps
Set 3 – medium weight: 8-10 reps
Set 4 – heavy weight: 4-6 reps
Supersets, drop sets, and giant sets can be used in collaboration with your pyramid sets. I would caution, however, that these set-styles be used only occasionally–maybe once or twice a month. In each, you will be performing more work under less time and minimizing your rest time; and because you will be resting for less time, you may experience a greater cardiovascular benefit and a pretty intense calorie burn–which is super cool and a couple of the most persuasive reasons to incorporate supersets, giant sets, and drop sets into your training regime! But, if you’re not careful, they can also lead pretty quickly to burn-out; and it’s pretty difficult to achieve mad gains when you’re sick and exhausted. So, practice in moderation!
I like supersets for their efficiency (greater burn in less time); they’re also good for when the gym is so busy, you’re scared to abandon your equipment. Supersets mean that you can stay close to your equipment, and prevent anyone else from using it for at least five minutes! Great, right?
A superset is when you perform 2 or 3 exercises back to back; the exercises can work the same body part, antagonistic muscles (such as biceps and triceps), or completely dissimilar muscle groups. They save time because in the period that you might otherwise use to rest, you can perform a set with a different muscle group. For example, you might perform ten shoulder presses, and then immediately perform ten lat pulldowns. And then do it again. Rinse, repeat. Or, you can combine one lower body exercise with an upper body exercise: for example, you might perform one set of reverse lunges, and then a set of bicep curls, etc.
Giant sets are when you perform 3 or 4 exercises of the same muscle group, or opposing muscle groups (like hamstrings and quadriceps) back-to-back with minimal rest between sets (rest for longer between giant sets for 1-2 minutes). For example, if you were working out your shoulders, you might perform an overhead press, a lateral raise, a rear lateral raise, and finish with front raises. Or, if you wanted to hit your back and chest, you might perform your lat pulldowns, seated row, push-ups, and chest press. Commonly, these exercises are performed to exhaustion, but opinion is divided when it comes to the benefits of training to failure, so if you’re not comfortable lifting until you literally drop the weight, just perform your regular rep count.
You might also call drop sets “failure sets”, and can easily be incorporated into more traditional training regimens–such as straight or pyramid sets. Typically, only one set of a given workout is a drop set. So, if you’re performing straight sets, complete your first set as you would normally, and then, in the final set, is when you ‘drop’. And ‘drop’ means, literally, to drop the weights because your limbs are about to fall off (not literally, hopefully). A drop set with bicep curls, for example, might look like this: you perform 2 straight sets of 10 repetitions of 40 pounds, and in your third set, you curl until you can’t lift the weight anymore, and then you immediately drop the weight to 35 pounds, lift until failure, and then drop the weight again and lift, until your arms are as limp and useless as wet noodles. You’ll definitely be feeling this one tomorrow!
So, will you be incorporating some of these sets into your next workout? Remember, these high-intensity sets should be performed rarely. If you want to learn more about designing your own programs, and maximizing your gains and your performance check out some of Infofit’s course offerings! We will take you through the science of muscle hypertrophy and strength, and help you to leverage your love of exercise and fitness into a super cool and rewarding career as a fitness professional!
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, and Infofit fitness blog writer.