This is sort of an extension to the article I recently wrote about performing pyramids. As I said in that post, many people tend to perform sets without really knowing why they are doing what they are doing or without a clear goal in mind. When you are lifting weights, your goal should always and only be to get stronger and/or gain more muscle mass. If you perform a set that is not in alignment with this goal, then the set is useless at best and hampering at worst. Pyramids have many sets in them that are not in alignment with that goal, so I never do them. However, there are other types of sets as well that you should avoid if you want to get the most out of your body.
Before I go into what not to do, how about I advise what you should do. There are only 3 types of sets that you should perform EVER if your goal is to build muscle mass:
- Light warm-up sets
- Weight acclimation sets
- Heavy, working sets
Light warm-up sets are just what the name implies. You pick a light weight, maybe half of what your working set is going to be, and you lift it for about 6-12 reps. I normally do 2-3 warm-up sets, the first one with weight half of my working set for about 10-12 reps, and the other 2 progressively heavier for about 8 and 6 reps. Warm-up sets should not fatigue you at all – they are not meant to build muscle. Their main purpose is to put blood into your muscles and lubricate them to prevent injury. I rest for about 1.5 minutes between these sets.
Weight acclimation sets are designed to get your muscles ready to fire and give it all they got! I normally do 1-2 weight acclimation sets, the first one for about 3-5 reps and the second for 1-2 reps. The last acclimation set I do is normally about 10lbs lighter than my working set is going to be. These sets should make you stronger during your working sets. It gives your mind and body a feel for how heavy the weight is going to be, and it has been shown that this increases the electrical impulse sent to your muscles from your nervous system which makes you a little stronger. If you have ever been able to do more reps during a second working set than the first set, then you probably did not perform the weight acclimation sets properly; your muscles were not ready.
Working sets are the muscle building sets. The other sets before these should not have fatigued you at all, and by now you are ready to give it your all! These sets should be heavy and create overload. If you keep a lifting log or journal, then you should try to perform more reps during these sets than you did your last workout of this muscle group or add more weight. Progressive overload is key to these sets. If you are not getting stronger, then you are not going to get much bigger unless you’re on steroids (if you are not getting stronger but are getting bigger, then the growth is most likely caused from sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and not myofibrillar hypertrophy, or larger muscle fibers). The working sets should be as intense as you can make them but are not designed to fatigue your muscles; they are meant to overload them.
Most of the sets that you should not perform are ones that fatigue your muscles but do not overload them. These include sets with little or no rest in between them and sets that have you using momentum instead of your muscles to lift the weight. Sets in which you get out of breath and fatigue aerobically before anaerobically (read: muscular failure) should also not be performed. If you want to do aerobic activity, then do it sometime else; while you are lifting you should be focused on muscle growth.
The only exception to any of this is if you are trying to deplete your glycogen storages. However, this will probably not apply to the majority of you, and in that case the goal is not muscle growth anyway.