Workout Variations: Get the Most out of your Training

So, now you know what the different components of physical fitness are, and those principles of exercise physiology that govern them…Great!

But what do you do with that information now…save it for a dinner party conversation?   (Well, you could and really impress your friends, but why not put it to work in the gym instead!)  

workout variations

Now that you’ve embarked on this journey toward getting fit, you’ll need a routine to follow while at the gym or in your home working out.  Why is it important to have a prepared routine when you step into the gym? It’s so you 1) don’t waste valuable time roaming from exercise to exercise without a plan, 2) have a means to measure progress by doing the same or similar exercises to see improvement in weight or reps, 3) hit all the major muscles and keep the body in balance without always working your favorite muscles, and 4) provide recovery time between different muscles used so that they heal and improve from their last session. 

Believe it or not, the act of exercising is NOT what strengthens your muscles!  It’s the recovery time in between that does.  Exercise actually tears down your muscles and is a stressor to your body. You are shocking your neuromuscular system with stimuli that knocks it out of homeostasis (balance) and that it must adapt to in order to maintain balance. This process of recovery and adaption to the stress (progressive overload) is when the muscles actually become stronger and thicker at a cellular level. If you constantly worked the same muscle to exhaustion day after day, it would overtax that muscle’s ability to recover and adapt and eventually it could no longer recover and would get weaker and weaker.  

How should you actually lift the weights up and down?  How many times should you do it? How many sets should you do? First, let’s look at several workout variations to see some of the different methods for training with weights. 


Straight sets are the most common. These are sets performed with a chosen number or reps, then you rest, and after a brief rest period of 90-120 second, you repeat the same number of reps again. 

Example: 10 reps--rest--10 reps—rest—10 reps

Pyramid sets are slightly more advanced and used when you want to increase the weight lifted from set to set.  The sets are performed so that reps decrease as weight increases after each rest period as you move up the pyramid, and then decreasing the weight again and adding more reps as you go down the pyramid. 

Example: 10 reps at 50lbs.--rest--8 reps at 60lbs.—rest—6 reps at 70 lbs.—8 reps at 60 lbs.—rest—10 reps at 50 lbs

Supersets {agonist/antagonist} are sets performed in either straight or pyramid fashion, however, two exercises are used to work opposing muscle groups like the biceps and triceps, or the quadriceps and hamstrings, for example. Supersets work on a principle called “reciprocal inhibition”—this is the phenomena that when one muscle contracts, its opposite must relax. 

Example: biceps curls immediately followed by triceps extensions--rest--repeat

Compound sets {same muscle} are similar to supersets above, but both exercises are performed to work a single muscle group instead of opposite muscles. 

Example: Shoulders:  side lateral raises immediately followed by military presses--rest--repeat

Trisets are sets performed using three exercises to stimulate a muscle group, usually with three or more “heads” such as the deltoids or the quadriceps, or even the lats which have muscle fibers going at different angles

Example: Shoulders: side lateral raises followed by front raises followed by bent-over laterals--rest--repeat

Giant sets are four different exercises used either on one muscle group to thoroughly exhaust it, on an agonist/antagonistic group, or on a joint complex to work the various muscles that surround that bodypart.

Example: Hips and knees:  leg presses + squats + leg extensions + leg curls--rest--repeat

Try these different set variations in your workout for variety.  But remember, they become more intense as you move down the list, so use straight sets and pyramid sets as the norm, but throw in some of the others from time to time!