How to Structure the Sets in Your Workouts
How you design your personal exercise program is completely up to you. There are different structures you should know about that you can use to help you meet your individual goals. In this article, we will go over different options for structuring the sets you use in your weight training workouts, comparing and contrasting the reasons you might choose one system over another.
If you are a beginning weight lifter and the terms “sets” and “reps” are new to you, check out our in-depth article Sets and Reps first. If you’re feeling good about the basics, keep reading to discover new and effective ways to structure your weight training sets that may not have occurred to you.
As simple as it sounds: in the single-set weight training system, you’ll perform one set of an exercise, and then move on to the next exercise. You won’t repeat the exercises. The single-set system may be looked down upon by more advanced lifters who think it doesn’t stress the muscles enough for them to adapt. For advanced lifters, this may be true.
However, for beginners, the single-set weight training system may be the perfect way for them to ease into exercise without injuring the connective tissue or encouraging synergistic dominance (synergist muscles taking over the job of agonists, which leads to or exacerbates muscle imbalances).
If you choose the single-set system, perform your exercise routine at least 2-3 times per week to see gains in fitness.
The classic way that many weight lifters structure their routines: one set is performed, then after a rest period, another set of the same exercise is performed at least one more time. The increased volume of work done as a factor of sets, reps, and intensity in a multiple-set system leads to faster gains for those beyond the beginning stages of weight training.
The Pyramid Set
The pyramid weight training system changes the weight and repetitions used in successive sets. You can start with light weights/high reps and progress to heavier weights/lower reps, or you can reverse it and start with heavy weights/low reps and progress to lighter weights/higher reps.
Pyramid sets help you build muscular endurance and strength concurrently instead of focusing on one or the other. Your body becomes accustomed to a wider variety of weight levels, and training in this varied way can help break plateaus if you are generally a straight multiple-set person.
Make sure to keep your form consistent in your pyramid sets. It’s common for the form to drop off as you progress to heavier weights when your muscles beginning to tire, so keep an eye on that and don’t let it happen!
Supersetting refers to performing two exercises in rapid succession. Two main variations of the superset exist. In the “same muscle” variation, you will fatigue one muscle group by doing two different exercises for the same muscle group one right after the other. An example of the “same muscle” variation would be going from bench press straight into push ups to completely wipe out the chest muscles.
In the “agonist/antagonist” variation of the superset, you will perform an exercise for an agonist and then immediately perform an exercise for it antagonist. For example, you could superset the biceps with their antagonist the triceps by going from a bicep curl right into a tricep kickback. The advantage to the “agonist/antagonist” superset is that it minimizes recovery time while allowing large load to be placed on the agonist. In our example, when the biceps are recovering from the curls, the triceps are already being worked with the kickbacks.
Supersets don’t have to consist of only two stacked exercises; you can stack three (called a “tri-set”) or more (called a “giant set”) related exercises to further fatigue the muscles being worked.
Bodybuilders favor supersets because of their efficiency and effectiveness in both hypertrophy (muscle size) and endurance.
The drop-set system is also popular among bodybuilders due to this system’s effectiveness in encouraging hypertrophy and strength gains. Basically, a drop set allows you to push beyond the point in a set when you would normally stop.
A proper set in any set structure modality should end with failure. In a drop-set, you will perform one set with your desired weight to failure, then immediately reduce the load by a small amount (5-20%) and immediately perform another set for just a few reps.
The drop may be done once, twice, or even three times or more. A regular drop-set is one set to failure followed by one drop, while a “double-drop” is one set to failure followed by two subsequent drops, a “triple drop” refers to three drops…you get the idea.
Drop sets are considered an advanced weight lifting technique, and you should make sure you know what you’re doing before you attempt them, both to ensure your safety and to achieve maximum results.
Vertical Loading versus Horizontal Loading
So far, we’ve been talking in detail about how to structure sets themselves. Next, we’ll briefly go over two different options to consider when building the overarching structure of your workout routine.
Vertical loading refers to performing exercises for different body parts in sequence from head to toe. Vertical loading is done circuit-style, moving through each muscle group in sequence with minimal rest.
This is an efficient way to structure multiple sets if you’re using the multiple-set system. You won’t have to spend as much time recovering between exercises since you will essentially be resting each muscle group once you go on to the next group. By the time you’ve worked your way through your vertically loaded routine, your muscles will be rested enough to repeat the whole process without having to take any “official” rest breaks.
Vertical loading works great for folks with limited time who don’t have hours to spend in the gym. Vertical loading also encourages weight loss since the heart rate remains consistently high throughout the sequence.
In contrast to vertical loading, a horizontally loaded workout requires that you complete all your sets for a given muscle group before moving on. For example, if you plan to hit your chest, shoulders, and triceps during once workout session, you would complete all your chest exercise sets (with adequate rest between sets, of course) before moving on to shoulders. The same would go for shoulders before moving on to triceps.
The downside to horizontal training is the mandatory rest time between sets. This isn’t great news for most exercisers who have limited time to spend at the gym, and besides, typically care more about weight loss and lean muscle gain. However, bodybuilders and serious athletes may favor horizontal loading. In a horizontally loaded workout, the focus is on development of maximal strength and/or power for each muscle group. These types of training require longer rest periods anyway.
I hope you have found this information on weight training set structure helpful. It’s important to note that everyone’s body is different, and what works wonders for one person may not work at all for someone else.
Try different weight training methods to see what works best for you. As you get to know your body through strength training, it will become clear what methods produce your personal best results. Hire a personal trainer specializing in strength training if you want to maximize your workouts with minimal trial and error.
As I conclude, I want to briefly mention the concept of weight training splits. Splits are an important part of any weight training system. You need to get your splits right if you want maximum gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance! Splits refer to working different body parts on different days, efficiently allowing ample time for recovery between workouts, which prevents injury and leads to maximal gains. Read our article on Weight Training Splits for an exploration of this important concept.