September 17, 2013 posted by

The Perfect Set

The Perfect Set

How much weight to use while training is a common question. This morning I received a follow up to our standard answer from a guy doing Body Beast that, I think, will help clarify what your goals should be when you’re weight training. Today we’ll address how to achieve the perfect set.

First, let me apologize to anyone who’s mailed this site since it changed from Blogger because I haven’t responded as I just got your message (and probably haven’t read it) today. I’ll go through the mail as quickly as I get the chance, which may not be that quick. On the top of the heap was a note from Andrew asking,

1) On which sets do you aim for failure (when doing, let\’s say, a single set, super set, and/or giant set)? The 15 rep sets? The 12 rep sets? The 8 rep sets?

2) Same question as above, but what about progressive sets?

3) What is the minimum amount of reps you should hit on a 12 rep set and an 8 rep set?

On standard answer to newbies (which shows up in all the “How to…” videos) is to add enough weight so that you sometimes fail at the end of a set. We often use language such as “failure is not an option. If you’re not failing you aren’t getting the most out of your workout.”

We don’t go into a lot of detail beyond that because, primarily, our customers’ biggest issue with our resistance workouts is that they do them with too little weight and failing on occasion is the simplest way to know that you’re pushing yourself.

However, there is another level, highlighted in the question above. Strategizing complex workouts, like super stacks, requires deeper understanding to get the most out of your workout.

Time under tension

The key to getting the best hypertrophy (muscle growth) workouts is keeping your muscles contracted using as much resistance as you can for as long as you can over the course of the workout. In the perfect workout every repetition will be hard, you’ll nearly fail at the end of each set, and your pump will build and build throughout the workout but you’ll always choose the right weight so that you can barely squeeze out that last rep.

Failure isn’t a part of the perfect workout because to absolutely nail it would mean you would fail, on every set, if you tried to do one more repetition. Because the perfect scenario is almost impossible, failure will occur sometimes. When it does you always want it to be during the end of set because time under tension, not force load, is the goal.

Power and endurance

The above covers hypertrophy only. Power (also called absolute strength) and muscular endurance require you target different goals. Time under tension is not the goal for these outcomes. Power requires very high force loads and lots of rest. Endurance low force loads and lots of time and not enough tension to inhibit that time. We won’t get into these subjects here but if you search them on this blog you’ll find plenty about both.

Reps vs time

Repetitions are nothing but an easy way to measure time. When we ask you to, say, target 8-10 reps we’re looking for time, not numbers. For hypertrophy most sets target about 60 seconds, though stacked sets, which have short breaks, go longer looking ultimately for time under tension for the given workout, not just the set.

The perfect set

Now let’s answer Andrew’s question. Hopefully with the time under tension definition you could all do it. His goal is actually NOT to fail at any point during those sets but to choose a weight where he could NOT COMPLETE ANOTHER REP at the end of each set.

Since that probably won’t happen he’ll need to choose a weight that’s too heavy, and fail on some sets, to see where his limit is. He should choose a weight where he makes it mostly through the set. There is no problem with starting too heavy and changing weight during a set and, in fact, if this never happens you probably aren’t pushing enough.


What you don’t want to do is use such a heavy weight that you get a fraction of the reps and spend then spend too much time resting between sets. That is power training. Conversely you don’t want weight that’s so light you’re not getting pumped. That is endurance training. You want to be so pumped on every single set that you feel like your head is going to explode. Nobody does this better than Tom Platz (pics).

A perfect set is very difficult to achieve. When you do feel you’ve nailed it your next set is probably going to suck because the reality is that was slightly too hard. This is the game of weight training. Setting targets and hitting them sometimes, failing on others, and always adjusting/tweaking each set depending on how you are performing on a given day. The key is knowing your end game, which in the world of hypertrophy is time under tension.

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