New to strength training? Terms you need to know

Like most sports and creative pursuits, strength training has a language of its own. Learning the lingo is sometimes as difficult as learning the exercises themselves (except for dead lifts; they’re definitely more challenging than simple vocabulary…).


What the what?

Becoming comfortable in the gym requires not only learning how to operate the equipment, but becoming familiar with the terms that you’ll hear your trainer and fellow gym-goers bandy about. Reps, sets, load (knit, purl, SSK 😉 )…

The following is a list of terms that I always spend time explaining to new clients and new-comers to my group fitness classes. How many are you already familiar with?

  • Reps. The number of repetitions of an exercise to be performed before resting or moving on to another exercise. Most strength training programs will provide a ‘rep range’; the minimum and maximum number of repetitions that should be performed. If you can do more than the maximum with the weight you’ve chosen, pick up a heavier weight. If you can’t quite complete the minimum number of reps required, go lighter. Different rep ranges are prescribed for different strength goals. 
  • Sets. The number of times you’ll perform the required number of reps. Sets can be performed ‘straight’ (complete all reps, rest for the amount of time indicated, complete all reps again etc.) or as ‘super sets’ by alternating one set of exercise A with one set of exercise B. Rest time is usually minimized when super sets are used.
  • Load. The amount of weight lifted for a particular exercise. Sometimes varying the load requires performing a different version of the exercise. For example, to increase the load on a pushup one can place a sandbell across the upper back or  elevate the feet on a step or stability ball.
  • Rest. The length of the break taken between sets. Usually, the fewer the repetitions in a set, the heavier the load lifted and the longer the rest between sets. Rest breaks typically range from 15-30 s for a high repetition/low load set to 2-3 mins for a low repetition/high load set.
  • Circuit. A circuit is a series of exercises, performed one after the other, with little or no rest in between. Some circuit programs specify the number of repetitions of each exercise to be performed. Timed circuits require you to perform as many good form repetitions as you can in the specified period of time (for example 45 s or 1 min).
  • Range of motion. The angle through which a joint allows its segments to move. As a consequence of taking your time with each repetition, you’ll be more likely to work your muscles through their entire range of motion, thereby maximizing the number of muscle fibres recruited.
  • Tempo. How rapidly one performs the working (concentric) and non-working (eccentric) phase of an exercise AND how much of a pause one takes between the two. Beginners will typically use a 2-0-2-0 tempo for most exercises. For example, when performing a bicep curl, both the curling and the straightening phase of the exercise will take about 2 counts, with no pause at either the top or the bottom of the move. More advanced exercisers may shorten the working phase and lengthen the non-working phase to increase their time under tension (and facilitate faster strength gains).

Think you’ve got it figured out? Why not test yourself by performing the following workout?


Are there other terms you’ve heard mentioned in the gym that you’d like me to clarify?

Need a lower body program to complement the above workout? Check out my new book, Ultimate Booty Workouts; a 12-week, progress-resistance training program for legs, glutes and core.



  1. Ive rambled at my place a LOT about the importance of learning the phrase MAY I WORK IN? 🙂
    Miz recently posted…I am Carla Birnberg.My Profile

  2. Great intro for the new lifter! I do think the terms get very confusing for peeps! Like anything else, it takes time.. 🙂

    I think just learning the names of the exercises & body parts is confusing for people too!
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Gratitude & So Much Gratitude Below!My Profile

    • So true, Jody! I remember feeling overwhelmed when I took my first human anatomy course. So many things to remember!

  3. Looking forward to reading through more. Excellent post.Really thank you! Would like more.

  4. Great refresher and the Abs & Arms workout looks great to do on the day before my long run, when I want to rest my legs!
    Coco recently posted…Tips To Drink More WaterMy Profile

  5. Though I am familiar with the terms (or I’d have to turn in my teaching mic), I do enjoy seeing your list set up so nicely. Now can you explain “purl” exactly?
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Should You Burn Your Bread (not Your Bra) to Lose Belly Fat?My Profile

    • Purl is the opposite of knit. Bring your yarn to the front Slip your right needle into the front of the first stitch on the left need. Wrap yarn, clockwise around needle. Pull right needle out and slip stitch off. Just as difficult to explain knitting in words as explaining how to do a burpee!

  6. learned these terms in the 70s….????


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