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What is a Workout Set?

By Jessica Gore
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A workout set is the consecutive execution of a predetermined number of exercise repetitions. In resistance training, a repetition is defined as the completion of a single exercise or movement through a full range of motion. The number of sets used per exercise in a given workout is usually determined by individual goals and level of experience. Weight training beginners will usually experience significant results performing only one set per exercise during the first six to eight weeks of training. For more advanced lifters, additional sets may be required to promote muscle fatigue and encourage growth.

During the early weeks of training, a single workout set per exercise is normally recommended. Primarily, this is because the accelerated strength gains typically seen by beginners is the result of increased muscle fiber recruitment. In the inactive person, a percentage of muscle fibers in each muscle lie dormant. One set per exercise is normally enough to wake these dormant fibers, resulting in considerable increase in strength over a short training period. Performing more than one set per exercise can lead a newcomer to experience over-training, fatigue, or injury.

While the benefit of early muscle fiber recruitment is a great motivational factor for newcomers, its effects tend to wear off after about the first eight weeks of training. After this, adding extra sets per session is often recommended to see comparable results. Intermediate routines may include more than one workout set of a single exercise. Very advanced routines often incorporate a variety of supersets to increase intensity, or to target different angles of a muscle group.

There is some controversy among athletes, trainers, and exercise physiologists as to how much benefit multiple sets offer over a single workout set. Some experts contend that to adequately fatigue muscle fibers and stimulate growth, multiple sets or even supersets are necessary for the advanced athlete. Others maintain that a single set, performed at high intensity with excellent form, is a better strategy to increase size and strength.

For the average person, the best choice is generally the one that is most enjoyable. Some people enjoy dashing into the gym, performing a single workout set for each body part, and going on their way. Others live for working each muscle in isolation, using a variety of complex movements. Genetics, lifestyle, and personality all play a role in determining what combination works best, on an individual basis. In the end, whatever style motivates a person to continue regular exercise over the long term is usually the best option.

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Discussion Comments

By Mykol — On Aug 16, 2011

We have an adjustable weight machine in our basement that I use to try and stay in shape and toned up. I printed off a program that I follow and rotate throughout the week.

This always involves doing several different workout sets for different muscle groups. The hardest part for me is staying motivated, so I always have some music playing or an interesting TV show on while I am working on my repetitions.

There is such a good feeling when you are done, and I actually enjoy a little bit of muscle fatigue because then I know that I am accomplishing what I want.

Resistance training is a great way to keep in shape. The research shows that as we get older we lose our muscle tone, and using weights for workout sets can help keep your muscles strong and fit.

By myharley — On Aug 15, 2011

It has been years since I belonged to a gym and prefer to complete my workout at home since I live quite a few miles from the closest gym.

I use a workout video series with many different videos that combine aerobics and strength training. I always do better when I have someone else counting down the repetitions and instructing me what to do next.

What I like about this workout set is that there is a big variety and I never get bored. This also helps me work different areas of my body so I stay toned up all over.

I can always tell when I try out a video that I haven't done for awhile. My muscles will be sore for a few days after that workout.

By aLFredo — On Aug 14, 2011

@runner101 - My ideas from what I have read and heard about low weight high repetitions during weight lifting workout sets is that this increases your muscle endurance. While adding more weight and then decreasing your repetitions works on your power and strength, so it sounds like your trainers were on target.

And if you played a sport, you likely needed power and endurance. I bet you would enjoy weight lifting sets if you varied your training up a bit. I know it is easy just to do what you have already learned and done, but if you buy a subscription to most health magazines they will always give you new routines that can make your workouts more exciting.

By runner101 — On Aug 14, 2011

@icecream17 - I felt the same way about lifting weights. I do not know if it is because I was used to playing sports, but as I got older and switched to working out versus playing sports - I found it much easier to stay engaged in cardio exercises than trying to do weight lifting workout sets.

But I had a friend who was a former dancer who loved weight lifting, so it seems a very much "to each their own" type of thing; with the most important emphasis being on finding out what will keep you coming back to the gym.

When I was an athlete we were always trained to do either 2 sets of low weight high reps or 3 sets of higher weight with lower reps. I always wondered if these differences mattered in building muscle. The theory was that the lower weight higher reps would build less bulk.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 13, 2011

For women who are interested in weight training how many repetitions should one do in a workout set? Is it OK to workout with weights but not really feel too much strain?

For myself I find that if I lift too much weight I start to feel really uncomfortable. It isn't that I can't lift it, it more feels like it is awkward to do so. I don't want to be seen as some sort of crazy Amazon woman at the gym.

Most of the women I see at my gym stick to the smaller weights and I tend to replicate them. Do you have to lift heavy weights to see real results?

By wander — On Aug 13, 2011

A good guideline for lifting weights as a beginner is to find a weight that you can lift comfortably until you get right near the end of your set, whether that be 8, 10, or 12 repetitions. That struggle to get the last of your set out means that your muscles are working as hard as they should and you picked the correct weight.

One thing not to do when weight lifting is take on anything that gives you bad form or makes it impossible for you to finish your workout set. This means that the weight is far too heavy and you are at risk of hurting yourself. If you're unsure, go and ask a trainer at your gym and they can give you more pointers.

By BrickBack — On Aug 12, 2011

@Icecream17 - I used to lift weights but always found that I got injured a lot. I would always develop pain in the middle of my upper back which was probably related to bad form.

I rather do Pilates. I don’t injure my body and I do develop a lot of muscle tone as well as strength. I think that a lot of people are doing weight lifting sets incorrectly by either using weights that are too heavy or not using proper form that a change in exercise methods might be better.

There are other ways to get toned besides weight lifting. I also heard the Bikram yoga is also great for getting toned. It does require some repetitions because you are repeating the 25 poses but since the room is over 100 degrees your muscles are more relaxed and you are less likely to get injured.

I also heard that the results from this form of yoga are amazing as well. It is something I definitely want to try.

By icecream17 — On Aug 12, 2011

I wanted to add that I used to hate lifting weights and doing repetitive sets. I liked the results I got, but I found the exercise so boring. I decided to incorporate cardio exercises in between my weight lifting sets and it has motivated me to keep going.

I usually do three sets of a particular exercise like an arm curl and then I do a set of jumping rope. I normally do about 250 jumps per set. I do this until I complete 6 sets of jumping rope and I finish my weight training exercises.

I feel great afterwards and it isn’t so boring. I also know that changing your workout every four weeks or so allow you to burn more calories because it raises your metabolism.

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