Constructing Your Sets For Maximum Growth

Let’s talk about constructing your sets for maximum growth! Let’s say you had to sit down and design a new training program. How would you go about it? Like most people, you’d probably start by figuring out a training split. You would plan which muscle groups you’ll work on what days. Next, you’d likely select the various exercises that will make up your routine. If you’re really ambitious, you might even determine the weight and repetition range. And, you’d plan this for each exercise.

While these are all important considerations, they fail to account for one of the most significant – and frequently overlooked – aspects of program design. What is it? Constructing your sets, of course. Set manipulation can have a profound effect on the ultimate success of your bodybuilding program. It’s as important as what exercises you do or how much weight you lift. Do you want to get bigger, stronger, or leaner? Much of it depends on proper set construction.

The Science Behind Sets

A set is defined as the total number of repetitions performed before a rest interval is taken. This might explain what a set is. It doesn’t mention that sets can be done in a seemingly endless number of ways. Therefore, constructing your sets is not easy. Rather, the task raises several interesting questions.

For example: How many sets should you do per bodypart? Should you stick with straight sets or are supersets more effective? Is a certain sequence better for building strength? How about size or endurance? How long should you stick with a particular regimen? Should it change from workout to workout, or do you need to stay with it for a while to see any appreciable gains? Valid questions all.

The fact is, the number, type and the way you’re constructing your sets depends. On what, you might ask? Your individual goals and level of training experience. You need to understand exactly how these factors affect your workouts. If you do, the better your results will be. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more popular set construction arrangements.

Constructing Your Sets – Straight Sets

Here I’m referring to that time-honored approach of doing a set. This is followed by resting a couple of minutes. You then perform another set of the same exercise. This may not be the most exciting way to train. Yet, using straight sets can bring about increases in strength, growth and muscular endurance, depending on how you do them.

1) Constant Weight

Do straight sets with a constant weight. This is the best approach for novice lifters with little or no training experience. These individuals often waste their time by experimenting with all sorts of set-and-repetition schemes.

Do you haphazardly keep switching from one training style to another? You’re not allowing your body to adapt. What’s going to happen? You’ll become frustrated by your lack of progress and end up quitting. Keeping the load constant teaches your nervous system to become more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers. These are the fibers they need to lift the weight. This helps you to develop the necessary strength base from which to progress later on. You can see that constructing your sets this way builds strength.

This same nervous-system adaptation also makes using sets of a constant weight very effective for improving strength in more advanced lifters. Strength-sport athletes like powerlifters who want to improve maximal strength will typically work with heavy loads (usually 85% 100% of one-rep max). They will alter the load for each set. As, for example, in a pyramid system. However, if too much variation is introduced, it can actually confuse the nervous system. This leads to diminished performance. There’s one other problem with this approach. Starting light and working your way up can leave you too fatigued to handle heavier loads later on. Using a constant weight helps you avoid this scenario. This leads to greater improvements in strength.

2) Varied Weight Pyramid (light to heavy):

This is not the best choice to constructing your sets and build maximal strength. Still, pyramiding can definitely help you pack on some size. The wide variety of weight and rep ranges enables you to recruit the largest number of muscle fibers possible. Using heavy weights at a constant load will recruit primarily your fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are the ones you need for heavy, explosive lifting. That’s great for powerlifters and similar athletes. However, bodybuilders also need to recruit their lower-threshold muscle fibers to help ensure complete development.

Another benefit of pyramids is that they cause a great deal of muscle fatigue. Some may view this as a negative. The high concentrations of metabolic waste products (like lactic acid and ammonia) that pyramids generate can serve as a potent stimulus for muscle growth. This holds especially true for bodybuilders whose generally shorter rest intervals between sets contribute to the accumulation of these substances.

Many top pros adopt this approach for another reason as well. Many pros like to pyramid up, especially on compound exercises like incline presses and squats. That way, they are thoroughly warmed up and ready for heavier sets.

Constructing Your Set Using The Reverse Pyramid (heavy to light):

With this version, you do a couple of light warmup sets. Then, you go right to your heaviest loads. You then drop the weight while increasing the number of repetitions in each set. If you can’t add reps, you maintain the same number of reps. The benefit here is that you can handle your heaviest loads when your muscles are fresh. This means you will be stronger than when using the regular pyramid. Former pro bodybuilder Lee Labrada was a proponent of this type of training. He believed that you should give it your all on your first set. He felt you’d be just a hair weaker on successive sets if your rest intervals never quite allowed complete recuperation.

Some research has compared pyramid and reverse-pyramid schemes. The latter has been shown to bring about greater increases in strength. The only downside is that starting with your heaviest loads can increase your chances of injury if you fail to warm up properly.

Double Pyramid (light to heavy to light):

If you’re looking for a really tough workout, consider the double pyramid. With this variation, you start with lighter weights and high reps. You work your way up to your heaviest loads. Then you come back down. As you can imagine, constructing your sets this way produces an incredible amount of fatigue. That makes it quite appealing to bodybuilders. Yet the tremendous range of weight and reps makes it a choice for developing strength and power. Other athletes, however,  should steer clear.

Constructing Your Sets With Multiple Sets

1) Supersets

To perform consecutive sets of exercises for different muscle groups.


Agonist/Antagonist Supersets:

This type of superset consists of performing exercises for opposing muscle groups. For example, biceps curls followed immediately by triceps extensions. Besides being time-efficient, supersetting in this fashion dramatically increases your workout intensity. This is because you move quickly from one exercise to another. In addition, working opposing muscle groups promotes muscular balance. This in turn improves joint stability and reduces your chances of injury.

Lastly, some research indicates some interesting findings. You can actually handle more weight with supersets of agonist/antagonist muscle groups as opposed to straight sets. You’re previously stimulating the opposing muscle group. Therefore, you can generate a more forceful contraction on the second exercise. For example, you can handle more weight on the bench press if you precede it by a set of bent-over rows. This might avoid the typical decrease in strength that comes with performing straight sets.

Constructing Your Sets With Supersets – Using Non-Related Muscle Groups:

Supersetting two exercises for non-related bodyparts. For example, leg presses and lat pull-downs. This has distinct advantages as well. The great benefit here is that you’re constantly moving from one exercise to another. You’re increasing the caloric cost of the workout. This can favorably affect your body composition. Another benefit is that you’re alternating between upper- and lower-body exercises. That means one muscle group can recover while the other is being trained. The end result is that you can still handle decent weights. This is despite the fact that you’re never really stopping to rest. All in all, this is a great choice for anyone looking to improve his or her overall conditioning level.

2) Compound Sets

Another way to group sets is to perform two or more consecutive exercises for the same muscle group. The big plus here is that you can stimulate a greater number of muscle fibers than you could doing a single exercise. Think about it. Just because you push to failure on a set of bench presses doesn’t mean your chest is totally fried. Try immediately doing another exercise. For example, flyes. You force your chest to work from a different angle, thus increasing fiber stimulation.

Constructing Your Sets – The Perfect Setup?
Variable Beginner Intermediate Advanced
No. of Sets 1-3 total sets per bodypart of compound exercises 3-4 for compound movements 2-3 for isolation exercises Varies. Higher (5-6 per exercise) for low-rep strength work at constant loads and all types of pyramid training. When adding high-intensity techniques like drop sets and negatives, fewer sets (2-4) are necessary.
Type at Sets Straight sets with constant load

Supersets (non related muscle groups)

Pyramid up

Supersets (agonist/antagonist)

Straight sets with constant load (85%-100% of 1RM for building maximal strength preceded by a good warm-up).

Reverse pyramid and double pyramid for general bodybuilding purposes.

Supersets for increased caloric expenditure.

Compound sets.

Time Frame 4-6 weeks of each type Switch every 2-4 weeks Switch as often as every week.


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