Let's say you had to sit down and design yourself a new training program. How would you go about it? Like most people, you'd probably start by figuring out a training split, planning which muscle groups you'll work on what days. Next, you'd likely select the various exercises that will comprise your routine, if you're truly ambitious, you might even determine what weight and repetition range you plan to use for each exercise.
While these are all important considerations, they fail to account for one of the most significant - and frequently overlooked - aspects of program design: How to arrange your sets. Set manipulation can have as profound an effect on the ultimate success of your bodybuilding program as what exercises you do or how much weight you lift. Whether you want to get bigger, stronger, leaner or all of the above, much of it depends on proper set constructions.
The Science Behind Sets
A set can be defined as the total number of repetitions performed before a rest interval is taken. While this might explain what a set is, it doesn't mention that sets can be done in a seemingly endless number of ways. Such tremendous variation poses some rather interesting questions: How many sets should you do per bodypart? Should you stick with straight sets or are supersets more effective? Is a certain sequence better for building strength? How about size or endurance? How long should you stick with a particular regimen? Should it change from workout to workout, or do you need to stay with it for a while to see any appreciable gains? Valid questions all.
The fact is, the number, type and even the way you arrange your sets completely depends on your individual goals and level of training experience. The better your understanding of exactly how these factors affect your workouts, the better your results will be. Let's take a closer look at some of the more popular set construction arrangements.
Here I'm referring to that time-honored approach of doing a set, then resting a couple of minutes before performing another set of the same exercise. While it may not be the most exciting way to train, using straight sets can bring about increases in strength, growth and muscular endurance, depending on how you do them.
1) Constant Weight
Doing straight sets with a constant weight is the best approach for novice lifters with little or no training experience. These individuals often waste their time by experimenting with all sorts of set-and-repetition schemes.
Minna Lessig, 1997 NPC Nationals Fitness champion, says, "The biggest mistake I see beginners make is that they do too many sets with weights they can't handle," If you haphazardly keep switching from one training style to another before your body has a chance to adapt, you'll become frustrated by your lack of progress and end up quitting. Keeping the load constant teaches your nervous system to become more efficient at recruiting the muscle fibers they need to lift the weight, helping you to develop the necessary strength base from which to progress later on.
This same nervous-system adaptation also makes using sets of a constant weight very effective for improving strength in more advanced lifters. Strength-sport athletes like powerlifters who want to improve maximal strength will typically work with heavy loads (usually 85% 100% of one-rep max). When the load is altered each set, as for example in a pyramid system, too much variation is introduced, which can actually confuse the nervous system, resulting in diminished performance. Not to mention that starting light and working your way up can leave you too fatigued to handle heavier loads later on. Using a constant weight helps you avoid this scenario and greater improvements in strength.
2) Varied Weight Pyramid (light to heavy):
Although not the best choice to build maximal strength, pyramiding can definitely help you pack on some size. The wide variety of weight and rep ranges enables you to recruit the largest number of muscle fibers possible. Using heavy weights at a constant load will recruit primarily your fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones you need for heavy, explosive lifting. That's great for powerlifters and similar athletes, but bodybuilders also need to recruit their lower-threshold muscle fibers to help ensure complete development.
Another benefit of pyramids is that they cause a great deal of muscle fatigue. Though some may view this as a negative, the high concentrations of metabolic waste products (like lactic acid and ammonia) that pyramids generate can serve as a potent stimulus for muscle growth. This holds especially true for bodybuilders whose generally shorter rest intervals between sets contribute to the accumulation of these substances.
Many top pros, including the reigning three-time Ms. Olympia Kim Chizevskv, adopt this approach for another reason as well. "I like to pyramid up, especially on compound exercises like incline presses and squats, so I'm thoroughly warmed up and ready for my heavier sets," she says.
Reverse Pyramid (heavy to light):
With this version, you start with your heaviest loads, then drop the weight while increasing the number of repetitions in each set. The benefit here is that you can handle your heaviest loads when your muscles are fresh, making it a better strength stimulus than the regular pyramid. Former pro bodybuilder Lee Labrada was a proponent of this type of training, believing that if you gave your all on your first set, you'd be just a hair weaker on successive sets if your rest intervals never quite allowed complete recuperation.
Some research has compared pyramid and reverse-pyramid schemes, and the latter have been shown to bring about greater increases in strength. The only downside is that starting with your heaviest loads can increase your chances of injury if you fail to warm up properly.
Double Pyramid (light to heavy to light):
If you're looking for a really tough workout, consider the double pyramid. With this variation, you start with lighter weights and high reps, work your way up to your heaviest loads, then come back down. As you can imagine produces an incredible amount of fatigue, making quite appealing to bodybuilders. Yet the tremendous range of weight and reps makes it a choice for developing strength and power, other athletes should steer clear.
To perform consecutive sets of exercises for different muscle groups
This type of superset consists of performing exercises for opposing muscle groups, for example, biceps curls followed immediately by triceps extensions. Besides being time-efficient, supersetting in this fashion dramatically increases your workout intensity as you move quickly from one exercise to another. In addition, working opposing muscle groups promotes muscular balance, which in turn improves joint stability and reduces your chances of injury.
Lastly some research indicates that you can actually handle more weight with supersets of agonist/antagonist muscle groups as opposed to straight sets. It seems that by previously stimulating the opposing muscle group, you can generate a more forceful contraction on the second exercise.' For example, you can handle more weight on the bench press if you precede it by a set of bent-over rows. This might avoid the typical decrease in strength that comes with performing straight sets.
Supersets With Non-related Muscle Groups:
Supersetting two exercises for non-related bodyparts (like leg presses and lat pull-downs) has distinct advantages as well. The great benefit here is that you're constantly moving from one exercise to another, increasing the caloric cost of the workout, which can favorably affect your body composition. Another benefit is that because you're alternating between upper- and lower-body exercises, one muscle group can recover while the other is being trained. The end result is that you can still handle decent weights despite the fact that you're never really stopping to rest. All in all, this is a great choice for beginners or anyone looking to improve his or her overall conditioning level.
2) Compound Sets
Another way to group sets is to perform two or more consecutive exercises for the same muscle group. The big plus here is that you can stimulate a greater number of muscle fibers than you could doing a single exercise. Think about it: just because you push to failure on a set of bench presses doesn't mean your chest is totally fried. By immediately doing another exercise, like flyes, you force your chest to work from a different angle, thus increasing fiber stimulation.
|No. of Sets
||1-3 total sets per bodypart of compound exercises
||3-4 for compound movements 2-3 for isolation exercises
||Varies. Higher (5-6 per exercise) for low-rep strength work at constant loads and all types of pyramid training. When adding high-intensity techniques like drop sets and negatives, fewer sets (2-4) are necessary.
|Type at Sets
||• Straight sets with constant load
Supersets (nonrelated muscle groups)
|• Pyramid up
• Supersets (agonist/antagonist)
|Straight sets with constant load (85%-100% of 1RM for building maximal strength preceded by a good warm-up).
• Reverse pyramid and double pyramid for general bodybuilding purposes.
• Supersets for increased caloric expenditure.
• Compound sets.
|4-6 weeks of each type
||Switch every 2-4 weeks
||Switch as often as every week.
Training Strategies that Actually Work
Bodypart Twice A Week