What Are Reps, Sets, and a Full Range of Motion?

older weight lifter
Photo used with permission of photographer/weight trainer

I use a lot of terms that are common to weight training and weightlifting such as “sets” and “reps,” but the beginner at the gym, whether a young person or a senior citizen, may not be familiar with them. It’s important for us to have a common language when discussing fitness because it’s such a vital activity in our lives. Understanding this language will help us grasp not only the basics of our workouts, but the best techniques to use for each exercise.

Okay, so you’re at the gym and you are going to work on your chest using a Bench Press Machine (this is just an example, it could be any resistance exercise). I’ve said previously that for the person just starting out on weight training machines, select a weight that will let you do about 10 reps for 1 to 3 sets.

But what does that mean?

What is a Rep?

“Rep” stands for repetition. It is a single action required by the resistance training exercise you’re performing. In the case of the aforementioned Bench Press Machine, a single rep is, while gripping the machine’s handles at the starting position, moving your arms forward causing the weight to be lifted until your arms are completely extended, then retracting your arms slowly until the weight is almost at the starting position. On your final rep, you would completely lower the weight to the starting position and then you can release the handles.

Tip: Except for the final rep, you want to maintain some tension on your muscles, so you don’t lower the weight so far that the plates come to rest on the stack.

That’s all there is to it. If you perform 10 reps on the Bench Press Machine, that means you follow the same action I described for a rep 10 times.

What is a Set?

A set is a series of reps performed in a single sequence with no rest between reps. So in a set of 10 reps, you perform each rep 10 times and then rest. If you only intend to perform a single set, after you finish the 10th rep, rest the weights back on the stack, release the handles and you’re done with that exercise. If you intend to perform another set, rest for a certain period of time (typically 1 to 3 minutes or until you can catch your breath), and then start the next set of repetitive motions for the Machine Bench Press exercise.

Reps, Sets, and Failure

You’re probably wondering what the right weight is on a Bench Press Machine (or any other resistance training exercise) so that you can perform exactly 10 reps for 1, 2, or 3 sets. If you intend to start out with performing just 1 set of 10 reps of any weight training routine, you are going to have to go through some trial and error, picking a weight you think may be correct and then attempting the exercise. If you do 10 reps and can easily keep on going, then the weight is probably too light. If you can’t even move the handles or can only do just a few reps before failure, then the weight is too heavy. Keep experimenting until you hit upon the weight that lets you achieve your goal reaching failure at about the 10th rep for the 1st set.

What is Failure?

Woman doing squats
Photo credit: Breakingmuscle.com

In this context, failure isn’t a bad word, it’s just a fact of resistance training. No one can perform an infinite number of reps of any exercise without eventually getting tired and becoming unable to lift the weight one more time. In this case, you are attempting to find a weight that will let you perform up to 10 reps and at about the 10th rep, you become unable to perform one additional rep, at least not without “cheating” in some fashion.

Senior exercise guru Logan Franklin in his book Living the Fitness Lifestyle, questions the idea, and I think rightly so, of senior weight trainers lifting to failure:

Personally, training to failure on any kind of regular basis always seemed like a bad idea. I know there are exceptions to the rule. But I’ve tried it a few times and found that it soon takes its toll on my mind and body. I simply cannot sustain pushing myself to the absolute limit workout after workout. And I think most people are the same.

However, I was looking at an article in Men’s Health and the author described two different types of training to failure. One type is training to absolute failure, and the other type is training to technical failure.

He defined training to absolute failure as not being able to complete another rep, no matter what. While training to technical failure is that point when your body posture must change to complete the movement. In other words, when you have to cheat by leaning or swinging forward or back, or you can’t control the speed of the weight you are lifting. Now that makes a little more sense to me than going to absolute failure.

I’ll have to agree with Mr. Franklin here and say, especially for beginners, train to technical failure as opposed to absolute failure. Of course, if you’re just starting out in a weight training program, you may not be able to distinguish the difference. You just know that you don’t have one more push or pull in you and you need to stop.

That’s perfectly okay. Until you have some experience with resistance exercises and how your body responds under such conditions, it’s best to play things conservatively. Better to “underdo” it a little and come back to the gym for more, than to overdo things and not be able to or want to come back to the gym at all.

As you become more experienced over several weeks and then several months, and as you start to become stronger, you’ll find that it will become gradually easier to perform a higher number of reps over 3 sets.

Tip: At the beginning, start out with 1 set of 10 reps. As you grow stronger, add another set rather than increasing the weight. You can progressively increase the number of sets up to 3. By the way, 3 sets isn’t a magic number, but in the first several months of your gym experience, you shouldn’t have to consider the more intricate strategies of amount of weight and number of reps and sets.

bench press machine
Photo credit: Bodybuilding.com

Citing our Bench Press Machine exercise, let’s say you found a weight that lets you perform a maximum of 10 reps the 1st set, but only 7 or 8 reps the 2nd set, and 5 or 6 reps on the 3rd set. That’s expected and normal.

However, after three months (that’s just an approximation, your mileage may vary), you may find your can easily do 10 reps the 1st set, and up to or almost up to 10 reps for the 2nd and 3rd sets. If that’s the case, it’s probably time to increase the weight for that exercise.

This gets a lot more involved as time goes by, especially if you decide to switch up your exercise routine, including involving some free weight work, but for the very beginning, what I’m describing should be sufficient.

If you want to discover how complex sets and reps can become, go over this brief article on the topic. No, I don’t recommend you pursue Crossfit. This is just an example.

What is Full Range of Motion?

In any resistance training exercise, the proper execution of each move includes a specific action performed by the trainee including a range of motion from the starting position extending to a completion of the lift or pull, and then returning to the starting position.

Yeah, that’s a little abstract.

Let’s return to the Machine Bench Press exercise. Click the link. On the page that opens in a separate browser window or tab, you’ll see a video. Watch the video to see an example of how the exercise is properly performed, including the range of motion the person on the machine uses from the start to the finish of a rep.

You may think this is common sense, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people at the gym doing various weight training movements using only a partial range of motion. They usually push or pull at the start, extend or pull down part way, and then only approximately approach the starting position before starting the next rep.

It would be like doing jumping jacks by moving your arms up only to your ears and lowering them only to the level of your waist. As you can see in this video, that’s hardly a jumping jack at all.

Not performing a resistance exercise at the full range of motion is usually the result of using too much weight. I had that problem at first and my son David called me on it. Sure, a limited range of motion allows you to move more weight, but interestingly enough, that’s not how you make muscle gains. According to an article at BreakingMuscle.com:

The study was 12 weeks long, and during that time the participants did leg work 3 days per week. One group did their leg work from 0 to 50 degrees, where the other did the same work from 0 to 90 degrees. The work out was pretty rugged with various forms of squats and other leg exercises taking place on all 3 days.

After 12 weeks the strength and size of the muscle was greater in the group with the longer range of motion. Researchers also measured fat stores within the affected muscle and they were reduced more in the group with the longer range of motion.

Click the link I provided above to read more about this study and its results.

Another study reported by the same website examined full and partial range of motion (ROM) in weight training and concluded:

The data from this study suggest that muscle strength as well as muscle thickness can be improved with both full and partial ROM resistance training. However, based on the results from this particular study, full ROM training may yield greater overall strength gains.

seated shoulder press
Seated shoulder press

Experienced weight trainers and amateur and professional body builders will use partial range of motion moves and “cheats” to lift past failure, but their goals aren’t your goals as a senior weight trainer, especially one just starting out at the gym. Also, they are typically younger and can handle much heavier weights, more load stress on their joints, and more cardiovascular intensity in their workouts.

What you need to start out with is a solid set of basic principles on how to perform resistance exercises at the gym. In this case, go lighter and complete a full range of motion for each rep in your target number of reps and sets. The previously referenced studies support the idea that this method will indeed let you make lean muscle and strength gains which, as an older athlete, is what you’re shooting for.

Conclusion

Now you should have a grasp of the basics of performing resistance training in reps and sets using a full range of motion. In a previous blog post I outlined a beginning workout including which machines to use for a complete body workout. I inserted links to more information about each exercise which should present text instructions, photos, and videos on exactly how to perform each of these exercises.

Please know how to properly execute each machine lift or pull before you sit on your first machine. Not only will you avoid injury, but you’ll maximize your ability to make gains and achieve your goals at the gym. If in doubt, ask one of the gym staff to assist you and start out practicing the move at an extremely light weight, just to get a feel for the motion.

The nice thing about machines is that they control the direction of the move and support the weights in tracks, so you don’t have to worry about balancing the weight while your lifting like those folks who use barbells and dumbbells.

After all is said and done, have fun, be awesome, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment and achievement you’ll get at the end of each workout.

I don’t believe you have to be better than everybody else. I believe you have to be better than you ever thought you could be.

Ken Venturi

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