Ever wondered what the terms set, failure or reps meant when you stared at an exercise program with a blank expression drawn across your face? You need not to scratch your head anymore. Now you can sit back with your arms crossed and nod your head in acknowledgment as we explain what each term means and what they represent.

The Basics

All workout logs center around a basic layout of Exercise, Sets, Reps and Rest. The exercise is listed first, then the number of sets and the number of reps in each set. Notes on rest period or the amount of weight to use may be added as well.

Basic Examples

  • Bench Press: 5x4, 45 secs
  • Bench Press: 5 sets of 4 reps, 45 seconds rest

These examples would be read as: "Perform 5 sets of Bench Press at 4 reps each. Rest for 45 seconds between each set."

  • Exercise: Each individual movement (e.g., a seated pulley row, barbell curl, or seated calf raise) that you perform in your bodybuilding workouts.
  • Set: Group of reps (lifting and lowering a weight) of an exercise after which you take a brief rest period. For example, if you complete 10 reps, set the weight down, complete eight more reps, set the weight down again, and repeat for six more reps, you have completed three sets of the exercise.
  • Repetition (rep): The number of times you lift and lower a weight in one set of an exercise. For example, if you lift and lower a weight 10 times before setting the weight down, you have completed 10 "reps" in one set.
  • Rest Interval: Pause between sets of an exercise, which allows muscles to recover partially before beginning next set.

Advanced Workouts

Advanced workouts will begin to use terms like:

  • Superset
  • Failure
  • 1 Rep Max
  • Drop Sets
  • Rest-Pause
  • Forced Reps
  • Negative Reps
  • Cheating Reps
  • Partial Reps
  • Pyramids
  • Trisets
  • Giant Sets
  • 21s

Superset Example

  • Superset: Bench Press: 5 sets of 4 reps / Dumbbell Flyes: 5 sets of 4 reps

Superset: Two exercises are performed consecutively without any rest.

Failure Example

  • Crunches: 5 sets to failure, 45 seconds rest

Failure: That point in an exercise at which you have so fully fatigued your working muscles that they can no longer complete an additional repetition of a movement with strict biomechanics. You should always take your post-warm-up sets at least to the point of momentary muscular failure, and frequently past that point.

1 Rep Max Example

  • Squat: 5 sets of 1 rep max, 45 seconds rest

1 Rep Max: The weight that allows a person to go to failure following just one rep.

Drop Sets Example 1

  • Deadlift: 5 drop sets of 25 total reps

Where 5 is the number of weight levels you will use, and the total reps cover the number of reps you want after all 5 sets are complete. Approximately you will have 5 reps per set, but with drop sets you can never be sure how many reps you will have for each weight value. Normally, for each weight value you go until failure before dropping to the next value.

Drop Sets Example 2

  • Deadlift: 5 drop sets to failure

5 is again the number of weight levels you will use, but in this example you will keep doing reps until you cannot successfully complete any more on your last weight value. See more information on failure above.

Drop Sets: Also known as strip sets, drop sets involve the immediate reduction of weight between sets with no rest. This will thoroughly burn out a muscle.

Rest-Pause Example

  • Deadlift: Rest-Pause set of 25 total reps

Rest-Pause: This is an advanced technique that allows you to get more reps with the same weight. Do a set to failure. Rest for 5 to 10 seconds then do a few more reps with the same weight. Do this once or a few times depending on your energy levels and how far you wish to push. With this technique you can take a weight you can only do for a certain number of reps and increase that amount.

Forced Reps Example

  • Bench Press: 5 sets to failure with Forced Reps, 45 seconds rest

Forced Reps: Forced reps are a frequently used method of extending a set past the point of failure to induce greater gains in muscle mass and quality. With forced reps, a training partner pulls upward on the bar just enough for you to grind out two or three reps past the failure threshold.

Negative Reps Example

  • Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 Negative Reps, 45 seconds rest

Negative Reps: This technique focuses on the negative portion of muscle contraction (the eccentric or lowering phase). One or two partners help you lift a weight up to 10-50% heavier than you would normally lift to finish point of movement. Then you slowly lower weight on your own.

Cheating Reps Example

  • Bench Press: 5 sets to failure with cheating reps, 45 seconds rest

Controlled Cheating: A method of pushing a muscle to keep working far past the point at which it would normally fail to continue contracting due to excessive fatigue buildup. In cheating you will use a controlled body swing, jerk, or otherwise poor exercise form once you have reached the failure point to take some of the pressure off the muscles and allow them to continue a set for two or three repetitions past failure.

Partial Reps Example

  • Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 partial reps, 45 seconds rest

Partial Reps: Performing an exercise without going through a complete range of motion either at the beginning or end of a rep.

Pyramids Example

  • Bench Press: Pyramid, 5 sets of 20,15,10,6,10 reps

Pyramids: Increasing the weight with each new set while decreasing the number of reps. The weight is then reduced and the reps increased.

Trisets Example

  • Triset: Bench Press: 5 sets of 4 reps / Incline Dumbbell Press: 5 sets of 4 reps / Dips: 5 sets of 4 reps

Trisets: Three exercises are performed consecutively without any rest.

Giant Sets Example

  • Giant Set: Bench Press: 5 sets of 4 reps / Incline Dumbbell Press: 5 sets of 4 reps / Dumbbell Flyes: 5 sets of 4 reps / Dips: 5 sets of 4 reps

Giant Sets: Four or more exercises are performed consecutively without any rest.

Note: Giant Sets are extremely intense. Great care should be taken when attempting to perform a giant set.

21s Example

  • Barbell Curl 21s: 1 set of 21 reps

21s: When performing 21s, 7 reps are performed in the lower half of the motion, then 7 reps are performed in the upper half, and the set is finshed with 7 complete reps.

About the Author

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer

Bodybuilding.com’s authors consist of accredited coaches, doctors, dietitians and athletes across the world.

View all articles by this author