In this article I want to explain the basic words and terms used in weight-lifting language. Although they are very common and generally known, people who are just starting bodybuilding and didn’t have any experience with this sport before may become confused or frustrated trying to understand at once completely new vocabulary.
What is repetition (rep)
Repetition or rep is one complete movement of certain exercise in a full range of motion (ROM). For example: to bench press you have to lower barbell down until it touches your chest and then press it up to the fully extended arms. When you accomplish this it means that you’ve performed 1 repetition. If you repeat this action 10 times then you’ve done 10 reps.
Generally in bodybuilding we train between 20-1 repetitions in a single set however ideal repetition range for stimulating muscle growth is around 12 to 6.
What is set
One set of an exercise is a series of repetitions done one after another without rest until the desired number of reps is accomplished or until trainee has no more strength or energy to perform exercise any more with the correct technique or full range of motion – in other words until failure.
Let’s say you want to do 10 barbell curls. You’ve done 9 but the last repetition was too heavy for you and you failed. That means that you’ve done one set of 9 reps. If you do this exercise one more time, after rest (around 1 minute) it will mean that you’ve done 2 sets of barbell curls.
Usually we perform 3 to 4 sets of one exercise. The optimal number of sets during muscle mass building training for one muscle group is between 6 and 9 for intermediate lifters. Beginners shouldn’t do as many though and advanced or professional bodybuilders perform much more than that.
What is Repetition Maximum (RM)
One repetition maximum or 1RM is maximum amount of weight we can perform only once and no more than once with the correct technique and full range of motion. Basically it is our personal record (PR).
To establish your repetition maximum (1RM) or personal record (PR) load the barbell with relatively heavy weight and do one repetition. Take a rest and perform another rep with slightly heavier weight. Keep on increasing the load until you fail. The weight in the last accomplished repetition with the full range of motion and correct technique is your 1RM. If you lifted 100kg or 220lb once and couldn’t further increase the weight it means that your one repetition maximum is 100 kg (1RM = 100kg).
Don’t try to establish your personal records unless you have already couple months of training experience and of course always get somebody to stand behind you and help you to lift the weight when you fail so you’ll not injure or kill yourself. This person is called a spotter.
Analogically 3RM stands for three repetitions max; 5RM is maximum weight you can lift five times and so on.
What is intensity or load
Intensity or load is simply the amount of weight we use during certain exercise. It’s usually described as a percent of our maximum rep. So if the intensity of the training is going to be 50% of 1RM it means that we should train with the 50% weight of our one repetition maximum. If our 1RM is 100kg we’ll be using 50kg during the training session.
Training intensity during muscle mass building cycle is generally around 65%-85% of 1RM which is the weight which allow us to do between 12 and 6 repetitions.
To build strength we use heavier weights – 85%-100% of 1RM. Because training intensity is so high we are not able to perform more than 1-5 repetitions in a single set.
Beginners are the exception and can notice significant gains in strength and size with using light weights – around 50% of their max which allow them to perform 15 to 20 repetitions in a single set.
What is training volume
Volume is the amount of reps, sets, weight and exercises of the training session. When we are talking about high volume workout it means than many sets and exercises are being performed during it. Low volume training on the other hand indicates that number of sets is relatively small.
You can count your training volume if you want however it’s rarely used these days and it’s not really necessary:
Volume = 3 x 10 x 30kg = 900kg
If you have to increase the training volume it means you should do more sets, reps or add more exercises to your workout. Decrease means opposite.
The key to successful long term muscle growth is constant progress by increasing the weight and volume over weeks, months and years which in practice looks like that:
- Newcomer – 1-3 sets per muscle group (1 exercise) – 50% of 1RM,
- Beginner – 3-6 sets per muscle group (1-2 exercises) – 50%-65% of 1RM,
- Intermediate – 6-9 sets (2-3 exercises) – 65%-85% of 1RM,
- Advanced – 9-16 sets (3-4 exercises) – 65%-85% of 1RM,
- Professional bodybuilder – 16-20 sets or more for each muscle group in 5 or more exercises – 65%-85% of1RM
Although intensity in most cases is the same (65%-85% of 1RM) the weight will be going up because we’ll be getting stronger. Our muscles wouldn’t get bigger without adding more weight over time (progressive overload).
It could be tempting to increase training volume quickly and start doing 4 exercises for each body part after only 1 or 2 months of regular training and this is one of the most common mistakes of inexperienced lifters. It leads to burning out, very often overtraining or actual decrease of muscle size and lack of results which is very frustrating and demotivating. Without visual results along with bad mood caused by training too hard too early trainee usually quits.
My advice would be to not change anything in your training as long as you notice growth. Don’t add any more sets or exercises unless your progress slows down. In other words – be the beginner as long as you can. If your muscles grow with full body workout keep on doing it – don’t change it intosplit. Don’t increase the volume just because you train longer, increase it when you notice that your muscles need more stimulation to grow.