The world of strength training can be intimidating. From bodies that have muscles in places you didn't know could have muscles to the complex-sounding lingo, it can feel challenging and overwhelming to get started lifting weights. Luckily, we've got just what you need to better understand the language of strength training. To make sure we worked our glossary into tip-top shape, we asked trainers Adrian Aguilar and Torra Wolf for their input.
Ahead, all of your strength training terminology questions—what is a rep anyway?—answered.
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Strength Training Terms
Ordered from the most commonly used to the least, these are the words and phrases that you're likely to come in contact with in relation to strength training, and what they mean in this context.
Rep is an abbreviation of repetitions. The number of reps you do of an exercise is the number of times that you repeat it without rest. "This is the full range of motion that you will perform to complete an exercise," says Wolf. For example, "in a bicep curl, the full motion is when the elbow reaches full flexion until returned to the bottom again. Successful lifters will only count a rep if performed properly."
Now that you understand what reps are, sets are how you do them. Sets are a group of repetitions. "The amount of sets you perform... depends on your goals as well as the type of exercise," says Aguilar. You can either do a single exercise in a set or combine exercises. "It is important to know three by 10 squats means there are three sets of 10 reps," says Wolf. "So you would perform 10 squats, take the given rest, and repeat that three times."
There are numerous different types of sets. For example, supersets are groups of two exercises done in a repeated series, drop sets are when you begin with heavier weights and decrease weight after each set with rest in between, and reverse pyramid sets are when you start with a light weight and increase after each set.
Intervals are about time—specifically, the amount of time you spend working out, as well as the amount of time you spend resting in between sets or exercises. "Intervals are a good way of getting adequate rest in between sets, and being able to recover in order to perform the next set to the best of your ability," says Aguilar. An example of an interval period would be doing 45 seconds of push-ups, then resting for 15 seconds.
Like intervals, tempo is used in reference to time. It has the same meaning as in the non-workout world: a rhythm of how fast or slow something happens. For strength training, tempo refers to the amount of time you take to perform different aspects of a single exercise. Tempo "is the given time you set for the up and down phase," says Wolf. "This could be one to two for a bicep curl, meaning that I would want to take 1 second up and 2 seconds down. This allows for more control and tension on specific muscles."
If circuits make you think of a circle, you're on the right track. Circuits are a group of exercises that you perform in a repeated order. You cycle through each one, then return to the start to repeat. Wolf says that circuits are more specifically defined as "a group of three or more exercises brought together for the purpose of continual work and no break until all given sets are complete." For example, a "lower body circuit could include three sets of 10 leg press, 10 jump squats, five burpees, and 10 weighted calf raises," she adds.
Commonly known as circuit training, Aguilar tells us that circuit training's "benefits are endless, such as building up strength and endurance and improving your cardiovascular health."
You're probably most familiar with this word as it relates to a phase of giving birth. Just like contractions in labor involve muscles contracting, the same is true for strength training. Contractions are the act of muscles being engaged in an exercise. For example, "contracting your glutes on the up phase of a back squat allows for those muscles to do the work needed to stand," says Aguilar.
This is another term we use in everyday life. For example, if you've maxed out on chocolate, you don't want to eat any more—you might even say you can't eat any more. In strength training, maxing out means you're lifting the heaviest possible weight for an exercise. It's the full amount that you can lift, and denotes that you can't lift anything heavier.
How much endurance you have in an area relates to how much time and energy you're able to spend there. Strength training is no different; your endurance is the amount of weight you can lift, and how many times you can do it. Aguilar explains that strength endurance training is "a way to maximize your stamina, strength, and the number of sets and reps you can do until failure. This type of training involves lifting light to moderate weight while doing high repetitions."
If life is stable for you, things feel balanced and like they're going smoothly. In strength training, achieving stabilization during workout moves is the goal. It means that you are performing exercises with proper form and balance. Basically, the only parts of your body moving are the ones involved in the exercise, and you aren't wobbling around or landing off-center. "If your personal trainer sees issues with your form, then they might program stabilization exercises for you," says Aguilar. "These include single-leg balance, planks, or exercises on a stability ball, which will help improve your balance and form when lifting."
Looking for big gains? What you're actually seeking is hypertrophy, the act of an organ or tissue—in this case, your muscles—increasing in mass and size. To avoid hypertrophy, you wouldn't seek out heavy weights. But to achieve it, "hypertrophy requires you to lift at a challenging weight," says Aguilar. "It is because the benefits seen in hypertrophy are increased muscle size, with gains in strength and power. An ideal program has you doing two to three sets, with 12-15 reps each, while lifting a challenging weight."
Determining Your Reps and Sets
Your current fitness level and your goals determine how many reps and sets you should do of different weight lifting exercises. If you're a beginner, you'll want to begin with small weight increments, a low amount of reps, and a low amount of sets, to get into the swing of things. Once you are comfortable working with weights and you have achieved some strength, you can switch focus to what your goals are.
If your goal is to build muscle, Aguilar says, "you lift heavier while doing fewer reps," whereas if your goal is "to increase endurance, you do more reps while lifting less weight." It's commonly believed that lifting lighter weights with more repetitions will yield smaller, more toned muscles than lifting heavier weights with fewer repetitions.
Strength training is its own realm within the fitness world, and it has its own lexicon accordingly. Once you delve into strength training terms, you can see that most of them are simple words we use in everyday life, and their meanings in this specific context are typically the same as they are elsewhere. Whether you're looking to build endurance or induce hypertrophy, you're now empowered to get started.
Phillips SM. A brief review of critical processes in exercise-induced muscular hypertrophy. Sports Medicine. 2014;44(S1):71-77. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0152-3