Always a day late and a dollar short 😉
Just like everything in life, the fitness world can be kind of confusing and complicated at times. It’s hard enough to know where to start. We may have to muster up the courage and the money to hire a personal trainer. We may have to spend hours scouring the internet for a program to follow because we don’t want to pay for a trainer. Or maybe we reach out to a friend who seems to know what she’s doing and ask her to write out a program for us.
We get a gym membership. We get clothes to workout in and shoes to run in. We get the protein powder and a variety of brightly-coloured powders the nice guy at the supplement store tells us we need as well. On that very first fateful day we suit up and, program in hand, head to the gym. While warming up on the treadmill we take the first look at our program. “Seated leg extension superset seated hamstring curl.” “Compound set: Overhead triceps extension to triceps kickback.” “Leg press drop set to failure”
When I first started out in the gym I barely new what a triceps extension was, let alone what it meant to compound set it with something else. Drop sets and pyramid sets? Forget it. I was discouraged because I felt I needed something more challenging than printable workout pages that suggested I use 5lb dumbbells, but these programs I was coming across on the internet with all this crazy terminology was totally off-putting.
For a lot of people, the whole “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” doesn’t happen when it comes to fitness. It’s hard working out on your own when you’re not really sure what you’re doing. You’re already uneasy, wondering if others are looking at you noticing that you’re doing something wrong. And then this little piece of paper in front of you mocks you with all these terms that mean nothing to you.
Instead of pulling out your trusty iPhone and Googling what a tri-set or compound set is, you’re likely to just move on or head back to the cardio equipment you’re comfortable with. By the time you get home your enthusiasm for the program has waivered and instead of figuring out what these things are you say “fuck it” and move onto the next one. At least that’s what I did anyway.
I wasn’t always gung-ho about the gym. This time two years ago I was more than happy sticking to the safety of my group fitness classes and elliptical machines. Step into the weight room? Nooo thank you. But a little over a year ago I decided to conquer my fear and learn what the hell these different exercises were and what a pyramid set was and since then I’ve never looked back.
And so lovely readers, today I’d like to share a little knowledge with you so that you may walk tall and proud into the weight room, look at your program, and then pound out your reps and sets with ease and confidence.
We’ll start with the easy one: a basic straight set. This is as basic as it comes people. If you’re to do 3 sets of 10 reps, you’re going to do 10 reps before resting and then performing another 10 reps. That’s it. As this is the most commonly used type of set most programs won’t specify “basic straight set”, they’ll just tell you the number of sets and how many reps you’re doing in each.
Another fairly common set that appears in intermediate and even some beginner programs is a superset. With a superset you will perform all of the prescribed reps of one exercise and then all of the prescribed reps of the second exercise listed, with no rest in between. For example, if your program says “3 x 10 squats SS push-ups” you will perform 10 squats and then immediately move onto 10 push-ups. THEN you rest, before repeating two more times. Make sense?
A compound set is just a specific type of superset; whereas a superset can be any two exercises performed consecutively, a compound set involves two exercises that work the same muscle group. For example, you could combine walking lunges with seated leg extensions, or a flat bench chest press with incline chest flyes. When doing a compound set you want to perform the more taxing of the exercises first to make sure you get the most out of each. Chest flyes isolate the muscles of the chest (pectoralis major to be exact!) and therefore often require us to use a lighter weight, whereas chest presses utilize more muscles and allow us to push heavier weight. If you’re trying to increase your strength or build muscle, you don’t want to fatigue your muscles using the lighter weight before moving onto the heavy stuff! Unless you’re using the pre-exhaust technique, but that’s a whole other story for another day 😉
A tri-set is an extension of supersets and compound sets. Instead of doing two consecutive exercises you do…..you guessed it…three! These exercises can work the same muscles or different ones.
Now we start to get into the slightly, but ONLY slightly, more complicated sets. During a drop set you will perform reps to failure (ie. until you can’t go no’ mo’) or close to failure, after which point you will drop your current weight, pick up a lighter weight, and keep on goin’! You can either stop once you reach failure with the new weight, or you can pick up an even lighter weight and continue. This is a great way to fatigue your muscles at the end of a workout.
Pyramid sets can be done in a couple of different ways. You can perform a higher number of reps with a relatively light weight, then pick up a heavier weight and perform less reps, and then repeat. As the weight goes up, the reps go down. Like a pyramid! 😀 Or you can do what is referred to as a reverse pyramid and begin with heavy weights and low reps. After doing 6-8 reps you’ll pick up a lighter weight and perform 8-10. When you’re done that pick up a lighter weight and perform 10-12. Kinda sorta make sense? You want to rest as little as possible during this.
Sometimes I like to do a giant pyramid set near the end of a workout, usually with an exercise I hate just so I can get it done and over with 🙂 I’ll perform 15 reps with a relatively light weight, then 12 with a heavier weight, then 10, then 8. Then I’ll decrease the weight and go right back into 10 reps, and then 12, and then finish with 15. Phew. That one is definitely a killer!
Now you may be wondering what the point of all this complicated-ness is, and believe me at first I was too. There’s a few different reasons why incorporating these training methods into your program is beneficial. To begin with, because you’re continuously moving your heart rate stays elevated which burns more calories and provides cardiovascular benefits. If you’re looking to burn fat and build muscle this is a good thing! Not only that, supersets and compound sets are time-efficient. As you are completing more exercises without rest in between you spend less time on your workout. Shorter gym sesh and a higher calorie burn? Yes please!
Compound sets, drop sets, and pyramid sets are also great for stimulating muscle growth. Ladies, don’t be afraid of this. I know many of you are just looking to “tone” and don’t want to get “big” or “bulky”. Incorporating higher-rep sets of these types are going to give you that toned look you desire; after all, muscle tone is just that….muscle!
The reason compound sets, drop sets, and pyramid sets are better than basic straight sets at stimulating growth requires a little understanding of the science behind lifting. During a basic straight set your muscles are recruiting certain types of muscle fibers to complete the reps. These fibers become fatigued by the end of your set, but when you drop the current weight and pick up a lighter weight and continue your muscles need to find a way to keep moving. So they recruit deeper muscle fibers that would have otherwise been left out of the fun. More and more fibers will get called to action as you work through the continuous sets. Growth is stimulated in these deeper fibers, resulting in greater gains that you would get from a basic straight set. MASS GAINZ!!
Now an important word about incorporating these training methods into your program. The more complicated sets like drop sets and pyramid sets, and even supersets to an extent, can be quite taxing on the body. You’re increasing your time under tension; that is, the amount of time your muscles work against a resistance, whether it be a weight, your body, or gravity. Weight training causes a whoooole lotta shit to go down in your central nervous system (CNS), and shorter rest breaks with increased time under tension puts your CNS into overdrive.
Start off by incorporating one or two supersets, compound sets, or trisets into your workout, and one drop set or pyramid. See how this treats you for a couple of weeks before amping up the intensity. Your body will respond to a slight increase in intensity, so no point fully overloading it all at once; spread out the love and you’ll continuously get a favourable response.
Here’s a full-body workout you can try that incorporates the above training methods. If you’re just starting out this may be tough, but you can use lighter weights and take longer rest breaks if you’re feeling adventurous and want to give it a shot. Looking to make it more difficult? Rest less and pick up those heavy ‘bells. Perform all sets of one exercise before moving onto the next, and for the final drop set start with a lighter weight at 15 reps and increase it as the reps decrease. Use the same weight for both 15s, 12s, and 10s. Give this a shot and let me know how it goes!
Have you ever tried incorporating these training methods into your programs? What did you think? Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve to UP the intensity of your lifting sessions? I’d love to hear 🙂