Weight Lifting Tips Part 3: Exercise Sequence, Sets, Repetitions, Rest & Frequency of Training

In Part 2 of this series on weight lifting tips, we discussed exercise selection, proper form, rep tempo, establishing the mind-muscle connection and breathing techniques. The main takeaway is that you need to choose a few compound exercises that promote balanced development of the entire body, and learn the proper form on how to do these exercises.

In Part 3 below, you'll discover how to organize your exercises into the right sequence, how many sets and repetitions to complete and the amount of rest needed between sets. Now we're getting into the basics of good program design, the way that a weight lifting routine should be structured.

Note: if you're in a rush, there's quick "summary points" at the bottom of the article, BUT we highly recommend that you read everything on this page to get the most out of this super important info.

Exercise Sequence

There are a variety of reasons why you should pay attention to organizing your exercises in the correct sequence, with the most important reason being energy and fatigue management. In general, the basic rule is that the largest muscle groups should be exercised first, and compound movements completed before isolation moves.

Since the largest muscle groups require the most energy to perform at an intense level, it makes sense to work these muscle groups in the beginning of your workout when you're freshest(after warming up properly). Likewise, compound exercises require more energy and effort, so they should come before the isolation movements to make the best use of high energy and freshness.

Basically, the order of priority is based on the size of the muscle, and then the nature of the exercise. So, squats, deadlifts, bench presses, barbell rows and military presses would come before bicep curls, tricep presses and calf raises, assuming you're doing a full-body workout. The additional benefit of using this approach is that the smaller muscle groups, such as biceps, triceps and calves will be warmed up by the time you reach their specific exercises.

If you're only training a couple of muscle groups in a workout, such as chest & back, the compound movements such as bench press and pullups would come before dumbbell flyes and one-arm rows. The purpose behind this, once again, is mainly energy & fatigue management. There are exceptions to this general rule, such as the use of pre-exhaust techinques and bodypart specializations, but for the most part, its beneficial to give the larger muscles and tougher exercises a higher order of priority.

Number of Sets

An exercise Set is the number of consecutive repetitions that you perform on an exercise without taking a significant rest. The number of sets that you choose to do is largely dependant on your goals and whether you're a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter.

For beginners, the general recommendation is to limit the total number of intense(close to failure) sets in a workout to 8-12, excluding warmup sets. Intermediate and advanced lifters can effectively double this volume(reps x sets), but anything beyond that is not likely to yield additional results for natural(drug-free) trainees.

There is some evidence to suggest that the first set of an exercise(after the warmup) offers the greatest benefit for strength and muscle-building results, provided its done at a high enough intensity. Therefore, adding additional sets to an exercise is more of a means to increase workout volume over time, which we'll discuss in the next part of this series.

Number of Repetitions

There's an inverse relationship between repetitions and load, so the greater the load/weight, the lower the repetitions and vice versa. To understand how repetition ranges influence your training and results, we need to take a quick look at muscle fiber types...

In a very basic sense, your muscles are made up of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers. The slow-twitch fibers are heavily used during endurance activities such as long distance running or jogging, while the fast-twitch fibers are heavily stimulated during more intense activities such as sprinting and weight training.

Depending on the amount of resistance you use during weight lifting, there's a stronger emphasis placed on the fast vs slow twitch fibers. Maximum resistance, also known as 1-rep maximum(1RM) is defined as the most weight that you can push/pull on a given exercise for 1 repetition to failure. In other words, the most weight you can handle on an exercise for 1 rep.

Now, most people can complete about 8 repetitions on 80% maximum resistance, 10 repetitions on 75% maximum, and 12 repetitions on 70% maximum. The higher the resistance, the greater the stimulation of fast twitch fibers, especially at loads higher than 80% max resistance. However, even at lesser loads(60% 1RM) and higher repetition ranges(15-20), the fast-twitch fibers ARE stimulated to a good degree.

There are also differences in how your energy systems are used during the different repetition ranges, but the important thing to remember is that training anywhere in the 3-20 rep range is likely to cause muscle growth and increase strength. For that reason, its a great idea to vary your repetition ranges and cycle through them in your workouts. However, if you only had to pick one repetition range to work with for building muscle, 6-8 reps would be optimal for experienced lifters, and 8-12 reps is a sound recommendation for beginners.

For beginners, its better to start with lighter loads and higher reps, staying atleast a couple of reps short of failure. In addition, as mentioned in the previous section, the total number of sets should also be limited. As you adapt to the higher repetition ranges after a few workouts and muscle soreness reduces, weights can be increased in a slow and gradual manner over time.

Rest Between Sets and Between Workouts

Unlike the relationship between repetitions and load, there's a positive relationship between load and rest times. The greater the load, the longer the rest you'll need between each set and exercise. For 15+ reps of lighter loads, recovery times between sets can be as low as 1-2 minutes, while less than 10 reps of heavier loads needing at least 2-3 minutes.

How much you rest in between sets is heavily influenced by your goals. Depending on the load, shorter rests of less than 2 minutes are better for hypertrophy and also for stimulating fat loss. On the other hand, longer rests of 3-5 minutes allow your neural and energy systems to recover, which is ideal for making progress towards strength & performance goals. So if you're trying to maximize your strength & power, longer rests are the way to go.

In between workouts, the amount of rest you need is directly related to the type of workout and the overall volume. The general rule, for beginners and most intermediate lifters, is to allow atleast 48-72 hours of rest before training the same muscle group again. This means that if you're doing full-body workouts, there shouldn't be more than a maximum of 3-4 workouts per week.

A higher volume of training can also prolong recovery days, so for example, if you perform 10+ sets on the chest in 1 workout, you may need 3-7 days of recovery depending on your level of conditioning, nutrition intake and quality of sleep. Typically, for split bodypart routines in which you're only training 1-3 muscle groups per day, the frequency of training is no more than twice a week for each muscle group.

Summary Points:

  • Within a workout, train the largest muscle groups first and compound exercises before isolation moves.
  • Beginners should limit total number of intense sets in a workout to 8-12, excluding warmups.
  • Intermediate/Advanced lifters can double the sets to 16-24, beyond which there isn't an additional benefit and the possibility of negative outcomes from doing too much.
  • Higher loads and lower repetitions recruit a greater degree of fast-twitch fibers, while lighter loads and high repetitions emphasize slow twitch fibers.
  • Vary your training to include both low(6-8) to high(15-20) repetition ranges. Beginners should start with lighter loads & higher reps, avoiding taking each set to failure.
  • Rest times of less than 2 minutes are optimal for hypertrophy & fat loss, depending on the load.
  • Rest times of 3-5 minutes are optimal for strength & performance benefits.
  • Allow a recovery period of at least 48-72 hours before training the same muscle group.

Move on to Part 4, the finale, in which you'll learn about Progressive Overload, Body Part Splits, Cardio & Overtraining Prevention.

Weight Lifting Tips: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Workout Routines: Build Muscle | Burn FatGain Strength/Power

Related Article: Beginner's Guide to an Effective Weight Lifting Program