By Nicole
The set, the number of continuous repetitions of an exercise you perform before stopping. It’s one of the most basic components of weight training. When you see “squat: 3 x 12” you know you will be squatting for three sets of 12 repetitions. Sets add structure to workouts. Sets tell you how much work to do.

But how you perform those sets is just as important as the number of sets you are doing. Do you go all out for your first set when you’re fresh? Should you coast through the first few, saving your energy for the crucial last one?

Here are three of the most basic types of sets and how much effort you should be expending to get the maximum benefits. Use each set scheme periodically to give your muscles different types of stimuli and keep your workouts fresh.

After a couple of sets with light weight to get the muscles and joints warm, you dive right into your working sets. If your workout is 4 x 10 (4 sets, 10 reps), then you do all four sets with the same weight for 10 reps. You should be able to barely get 10 reps (with good form) for all four sets. If your muscles start to fatigue, like say, by the 3rd set, you may need to reduce the weight to get your full 10 reps without breaking proper form. On the flip side, if you’re able to get more than 10, then you should increase the weight.

As the name suggests, you add weight to each set while decreasing the number of reps, until you reach your designated target weight and rep range. This is a great way to warmup and recruit more muscle fibers, as the load increases with each set. For example, if the workout is 4 sets of 6-12 reps, your first set is with a weight that you can do for 12 reps. The next set, you increase the weight so you can get only 10 reps. For the third set, you increase the weight so that you can get only 8 reps. For your final set, you increase the weight again so you can get only 6 reps.

The important thing about pyramid sets is that you are using a weight that is heavy enough so that you are working really hard to complete the last 2-3 reps of each set. You’re not doing a true pyramid set scheme if the weights are so light that you are essentially doing a succession of warmup sets until you reach your last set.

After a proper warmup, you jump right into your heaviest set. Then each successive set, you decrease the weight while increasing the reps. For example, let’s say your workout is 4 sets of 6-12 reps. Set 1 would be a weight you can do for 6 reps, set 2 you decrease the weight so you can get 8 reps, set 3 you lighten the load so you can get 10 reps, and finally, you decrease the weight again so you can do 12 reps.

As with pyramid sets, it’s important to use a weight that is heavy enough to make you work for each target rep range. It is very important to warmup thoroughly prior to your first set, as it will be with your heaviest weight.


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One of the biggest names in the fitness industry, Nicole Wilkins is a world-record holding four-time Figure Olympia Champion and 2012 IFPA Personal Trainer of the Year. Nicole earned her BA in Wellness, Health Promotion and Injury Prevention at Oakland University. The owner and founder of nPower Nutrition, Nicole has helped thousands of people start living a healthier lifestyle and reach their fitness goals.

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