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What Does The Term 'Sets' Mean In Exercise?

Over the years two camps have evolved with regards to how many sets to perform: high intensity (or heavy duty), and the classical system. Most bodybuilders have tried the single-set, high-intensity system, but the classic multi-set system is still the most popular. In fact, as of this writing, no top bodybuilding champion has relied solely on the single-set system.

High-Intensity Low-Set Training

The high-intensity system of training originated from the writings and works of Dr. Arthur Jones. Dr. Jones invented the Nautilus line of exercise equipment. Nautilus was the first serious challenger to the old Universal multi-stations found in many high school and college gyms. Jones decided to market his equipment differently by claiming all one needed to do was to perform one set per muscle group on his eight to ten stations. 

Although Dr. Jones made millions selling Nautilus equipment in the ’70s and ’80s, this one-set-per-bodypart system didn’t resonate with serious bodybuilders. It would take 1976 Mr. Universe winner, Mike Mentzer, to sell the high-intensity training principle to the masses. Mentzer was one of the top bodybuilders in the world and highly intelligent. With his great physique and strong presentation skills, Mike easily reframed Jones’ ideas into his Heavy Duty system. 

It’s safe to say that Mike influenced millions with his writings right up until his untimely death in 2001. Although he did use multiple sets for most of his training, six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates was extremely influenced by Mentzer’s writings. Dorian rarely did more than 6 to 8 sets for his largest muscle groups (as opposed to the 12 to 20 sets favored by most other top bodybuilders).

Advocates of this system argue that all it takes to fully stimulate a muscle is one or two all-out high-intensity sets. Spending hours in the gym doing endless subpar sets is a waste of time. In fact it may lead to muscle loss as the human body can easily slip into a state of overtraining from such high-volume workouts. Dorian Yates probably put it best when he said: “Once a nail is driven into a wall, it’s useless to keep hitting it – you’ll only damage the wall!” The reality of high intensity or heavy duty is that few but the chemically enhanced or genetically blessed can handle such high-intensity training.

The Classical Or Multi-Set System Of Training 

The classical system of training is by far the most popular style of training and has built more great physiques than all the other training styles combined. Starting with 1 or 2 sets per exercise, you gradually add sets and exercises until you’re performing 3 to 5 sets of four or five exercises for the larger muscle groups. 

By the time most bodybuilders reach the advanced level of training, they are performing 20 to 25 sets for each of the large muscle groups such as the chest, back and thighs, and 12 to 15 for the smaller groups such as the biceps and triceps. Bodybuilders who follow the classical system (this includes former greats Arnold, Oliva, Columbu and Haney and current stars like Coleman, Priest, Cutler and Badell) report that they needed to add sets and exercises in order to keep improving. 

Some critics have declared that these top bodybuilding pros are genetically blessed and would grow no matter which way they trained. This could be true to a certain extent, but there’s no denying that the classical system has produced virtually every top pro and amateur bodybuilder of the last 60 to 70 years. 


So Is There a Best System?

By now you’re probably wondering where to start. Given the solid reputation of the classical system, we suggest you start there. There is more to muscle growth than enlarging muscle fibers. You have to increase blood supply by stimulating the growth of new blood vessels. Unfortunately, the one-set system does a poor job of this. 

It’s also not good for the joints because of the huge poundage that needs to be used (something Mentzer grudgingly admitted in later years). Don’t start out by doing 20 sets for each muscle group. For most beginners 2 or 3 sets of two exercises per muscle group is more than sufficient to adequately stimulate growth. Later in the book I’ll go into more detail about the various types of training programs. As time goes on you may want to experiment with the Heavy Duty style of training. 

Certainly if you’re on the ectomorphic side, you may find that fewer but higher intensity sets may yield better results. Also keep in mind that the classical system requires enormous amounts of energy and hence food, to be effective. Many bodybuilders find 15 to 20 sets or more per bodypart just too draining.

How Long Do I Rest Between Sets?

The general answer to this question is: rest long enough to recover from the previous set, but not long enough to cool down. This normally works out to 45 to 60 seconds between sets. Powerlifters often rest two minutes or more between sets. Those weight training for general conditioning often rest less than 20 seconds (doing so keeps the heart rate elevated and provides a cardiovascular component to the workout).

Types OF Sets

There are a few different and challenging methods for completing your sets. Let’s examine each in detail.

Straight Sets 

This is the oldest style of training and is performed in a direct straightforward manner. In the purest sense, the same weight is used for the same number of sets and reps – for example, 3 sets of 12 reps using 225 pounds on the barbell bench press. The straight-set pattern is probably the most common training technique, and most of the advanced training techniques evolved from straight sets. 

Pyramid Sets

If straight sets are the most common style of training, pyramid sets are a close second. Instead of using the same weight for the same number of sets and reps, the weight is increased with each successive set, while the number of reps is decreased. The top, or peak, of the pyramid is reached with the heaviest weight and fewest number of reps. The weight is then reduced and the number of reps increased. Essentially, you work your way up one side of the pyramid and down the other. 

Generally speaking, you perform the lighter sets for 15 to 20 reps, while the heaviest sets usually fall in the 6- to 8-rep range. One advantage of pyramid sets is that they allow the muscles to warm up fully before lifting the heaviest weight. This helps prevent injuries. It’s also probably more effective. Think of muscles as engines – they work most efficiently after a good warmup.

Half Pyramids - Ascending and Descending Sets

You could also modify the full pyramid and do only one side. For example, you could slowly work your way up in weight and down in reps, finishing with the heaviest weight. Such sets are called ascending sets. Even more popular are descending sets. In this case, the heaviest weights are lifted first, and each successive set gets lighter.

Bodybuilders usually prefer descending sets, as this allows them to lift heavier weights during the workout – ascending sets often tire the muscles out before the maximum weight is reached. While the debate continues as to whether or not reaching the maximum weight is absolutely necessary for growth, most bodybuilders still prefer to “max out.” If descending sets have a disadvantage it’s that they increase the risk of injury. As we pointed out earlier, your muscles should be thoroughly warmed up before lifting heavy weights. 

The first set would be the heaviest set performed, meaning that the muscles would be cold while lifting the heavy weight. Since this is extremely dangerous, most bodybuilders perform a few very light, high-rep sets – just enough to get the blood flowing to the muscle. They don’t count these sets because they are so light – they just call them warmup sets.

Robert Kennedy: Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, The Complete A-Z Book On Muscle Building. 2008
Nick Evans: Bodybuilding Anatomy. 2012
Arnold Schwarzenegger: The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, 2013

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