Sets, Reps and Training Tempos – What Do They Mean?

If you are training are your own either at home or at a public gym, you are probably familiar with sets and reps. You hear it often referred to as 3 sets of 10 repetitions. And, as trainers we often will use the same language with our clients. We will often give instructions as to how may repetitions we are going to do. But, just what are reps and sets. What do they mean other than a bunch of numbers, and is there a purpose to changing the rep scheme? All good questions and this article will attempt to explain the science behind the jargon.

In any weight training program and any exercise program for that matter, you are looking to make changes. Maybe tone up muscles, maybe bulk up or gain muscle mass, or just the opposite and you may want to shed some pounds. For any of these to happen successfully, you must create a scenerio in which physiological changes will occur. Now, we go on for for chapters about all the physiology around muscle gain or weight loss, but for the purpose of this we are only discussing reps and their part of the puzzle.

Each workout, we are looking for a physiological reponse to occur within the muscles. For that to happen, the workout program must be designed with specific goals in mind. Within those goals, exercises must then be selected and grouped accordingly. Once the exercises are selected, then a decision needs to be made regarding sets, reps and training tempo for each exercise.

Repetitions are the number of times you complete a particular movement and a set is a group of repetitions. For example if you are performing squats for 3 sets of 10; you would then complete the squat movement 10 times, rest briefly and repeat that 3 times for a total of 30 repetitions. Often exercises will be grouped together in a circuit format, but that is a topic for a whole other article.

Getting back to reps. Why do we pick the numbers we pick. Why do we sometimes do 6, 10, 12, 15 or more reps. Well, believe it or not there is a scientific and logical reason for the numbers selected and this number will vary depending on the phase of training you may be in, your goals or sometimes the particular exercise or muscle group will dictate the number for us.

When a new client starts training at VWP, we have a very specific protocol that we will follow. And this protocol doesn’t vary that much. In the early stages of weight training, and especially if someone does not have a history of lifting weights, there are physiological changes that we need to make happen in order to progress clients toward their goals safely and injury free. We are looking, in these early stages, to develop stabilization strength and neuromuscular efficiency. Just what do these terms mean:

Stabilization strength – the ability of the stabilizing muscles (rotator cuff, core muscles such as transverse abdominis, obliques, pelvic floor, spinal muscles) to provide dynamic joint stabilization and postural equilibrium during function activities.

In plain English, that means we need the smaller muscles that surround and provide stability to the joints to be strong so that we can reduce stress on the joints during movements, create efficient and safe movements and also prevent injury.

Neuromuscular efficiency – the ability of the neuromuscular system to allow agonists, antagoinists, stabilizers and nuetralizers to work synergistically to produce force (concentric), reduce force (eccentric) and dynamically stabilize (isometric) the entire kinetic chain in all three planes of motion.

Boy, that was a mouthful. But, what does it mean. It means that the body must learn to recruit the correct muscles at the right time and in the right order to produce any type of movement and it must do this while moving forward, backwards, to the side or rotating.

So, what does all that have to do with reps and sets you ask? In the early stages of training, we are looking for a specific physiological response and that is to increase stabilizing strength. This is best accomplished with a higher repetition range and a specific training tempo. When we mean higher repetitions we are talking 12-15 reps. Reps higher than that will not acheive the results we are looking for.

But, along with the rep number in the early stages we are also concerned about training tempo. The tempo goes hand in hand with developing stabilizing strength. Training tempo refers to the amount of time it takes to perform one repetition. Often, clients will hear trainers at VWP, mention a 321 tempo. Those numbers refer to the seconds it takes to lower and raise the weight or perform a movement. The numbers are always written in the same order – eccentric, isometic, concentric. What that looks like is – if you were performing a squat with a 321 tempo – you would squat down to the count of 3 (slow down or eccentric portion), hold for 2 seconds at the bottom of the movement (isometric portion) and rise up for the count of 1 (concentric portion).

The training tempos are critical in the early stages of weight training because one of the things we need to teach the muscles is how to control weight. The muscle needs to learn how to “decelerate” movement and it also must learn how to change direction and move in the opposite direction – all without injury.

So if we return to our bodyweight squat, we are lowering slowly (3 count) to allow the muscles to learn to control the downward momentum. We then pause briefly at the bottom of this movement. This is once again to allow the muscle to learn to stop and change direction. Returning to the starting point is not usually a problem when it comes to injury. Most injuries occur because the muscles can’t control the downward force and then has to move quickly in an opposite direction.

It is for these reasons that in the early stages of weight training, the weights are light or bodyweight only. The body must learn to control movement before an external load is added.

So, next time you are working out and especially if you work out alone, pay attention to the reps, sets and especially the training tempos. There is a method to our madness.


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    One Response to “Sets, Reps and Training Tempos – What Do They Mean?”


    I just started working out and trying to gain muscle mass and your blog will be usefull.


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