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How to Read Workouts (Sets, Reps, Tempo, Weights)

Milton Holdiem
Milton Holdiem
5 min read
Deadlifting in the garage
Deadlifts in the Garage Gym

How to read workouts + ensure you’re doing the workouts correctly.

So you open your workout and you see this…

Romanian Deadlifts (DB)
3x10
Tempo: 3131
Load: 6RPE
Rest: 90 Secs

🤔 What does this all mean?

Understanding what's asked for in a workout can help answer questions off the bat, like:

  • "What does 3x10 mean?"
  • "How do I read sets and reps?"
  • "How many reps or sets should I do?"
  • "What weight should I use for workouts?"
  • "How long should I rest for?"

This post answers all those questions to help you ensure you're reading + performing workouts correctly. Keeping your workouts high-quality is important for maximizing results with training.

Doing Romanian Deadlifts in the living room
Romanian Deadlifts

Every workout has a goal, and to maximize the workout to hit those goals, you want to adhere to:

  • The amount of times we perform an exercise (Reps + Sets)
  • How fast or slow we do the exercise (Tempo)
  • The weight we use (Load)
  • How long we rest for changes the way our body adapts to the work. (Rest)

Knowing the notation in a workout helps you understand exactly what to do.
That way, you don't get confused or overwhelmed when you come across something new!

Here's a screencast about workout notation

Sets & Rep Brackets

Romanian Deadlifts (DB)
3x10
Tempo: 3131
Load: 6RPE Rest: 90 Secs

3x10
Sets (left) x Reps (right)

Reps or repetitions are the amount of times you perform an exercise.
Sets are the amount of time you repeat the reps.

For example:
Perform 10 RDLs (Romanian Deadlifts). That’s 10 reps.
Rest and repeat 2 more times, so that you do 10 RDLs 3 times. (30 total reps)

Those are the sets. You’ll normally see reps written like this “3x10” with sets on the left, reps on the right.

When reading it, you’d say: “3 Sets of 10,” or “3 by 10.”

Rep Brackets

Sometimes you’ll see a range of reps like this.

3x10-12

These are rep brackets. They're designed to give you a fallback number in case you’re tired from a previous session or just overall fatigued.

When you see these, shoot for the higher number whenever possible. If you’re constantly needing to hit the lower number in the bracket, reduce the weight so that you can hit the higher number.

Keeping Reps "Unbroken"

In strength training, you want to hit all of the reps of an exercise without taking a break. If you did 6 squats, put the weight down, then picked it back up and did the last 4 would be different than doing 10 in a row!

This is because each rep range drives a specific stimulus. If needed, adjust the weight to allow 10 unbroken reps, OR at least get to the lower number in the rep bracket (3x10-12) and then adjust on the next set.


Tempo training and its benefits

Tempo is the speed an exercise is performed. You're always doing "tempo training," but by tracking it, we can emphasize different parts of an exercise to change the results. By pausing at the bottom of a squat, you improve strength in that position. Through quick explosion out of a pushup, you can increase power.

Manipulating tempo changes up resistance in our training. That resistance is called, “time under tension." It’s the literal time our muscles are under tension.

Tempo allows you add more time in a specific part of a movement. You can get more from an exercise without needing a ton of weight by manipulating tempo. When we slow down, speed up, or pause at certain points, we’re adding extra time under tension.

The benefits of tempo

  • You use muscles longer, allowing you to build more strength.
  • You work on your weaknesses by spending more time in a specific position (pausing at the bottom of a squat for example.)
  • Improve your technique through controlled reps.

Dumbbell Front Squats in the living room

How tempo is written

In a workout, tempo notation looks like this: 3121, or 3-1-2-1

Dual Rack Squats (DB)
3x6
Tempo: 3-1-2-1

First number = The down phase of a movement (Down)
Second number = Time at the bottom (Pause)
Third number = The up phase of a movement (Up)
Fourth number = The time at the top of a movement (Pause)

I like to think of it as “Down, Pause, Up, Pause”

For the goblet squat example above:

Dual Rack Squats (DB)
3x6
Tempo: 3-1-2-1

3 Seconds down
1 Sec pause at the bottom
2 Seconds up
1 Sec pause at the top

How you'd read it: "3 Sets of 6, at a three-one-two-one tempo."

In total, 1 rep of the goblet squat would take you 7 seconds.
Add the amount of reps you did which was 6 and thats 42 total seconds in the squat. That’s a lot more time than if you just went down and exploded up for each rep.

Important Notes on Tempo

Not all movements start in the same place like a squat. A pullup for example starts in the bottom position and you pull up as the first movement. In this case you’d pull up which would start the “up” phase first.


Weights (Load)

Load is the weight used in the workout.

It could be a fixed weight like “135lbs”
It could be a percentage of your max, like “80% of your 1RM
It could be a number out of 10, from the RPE scale. “@6-7RPE”

RPE Scale

RPE stands for the Rate of Perceived Exertion.

It means how high you rate the difficulty of an exercise out of 10.
To be clear, the RPE is for the entire set, not just 1 rep.

So for example:

Bench Press
3x10
Load: @6RPE

It would be a 6RPE for each set of 10. Each set should feel like a 6/10 in difficulty. If needed, you can swap weights for the movement to feel like the 6RPE.

If it felt like a 7, reduce weight. If it felt like a 5 and below, add weight.

A more subjective way to measure RPE is to count the reps you have left in the tank. At a 10RPE, it would be a MAX set where you wouldn’t be able to perform another rep. From there, every RPE down would be +1 Rep left in the tank.

It would look like this:

10RPE = 0 Reps left in the tank
9RPE = 1 Rep left in the tank
8RPE = 2 Reps left in the tank
7RPE = 3 Reps left in the tank

With this scale, you can gauge whether a weight is the right RPE for any exercise.


Rest Times

Rest is just like it sounds, rest time! Usually it’s rest between sets or rest between sides for single arm/leg movements. This is a good time to keep track of sets, reps, and weights used, and write any notes about the movement.

Common rest times you'll see:

  • 30-60 Secs (Short rest periods) Usually for programs based on conditioning.
  • 1-2 Min (Medium rest) Usually for general strength & conditioning programs.
  • 2-3+ Min (Long rest periods) Usually for strength or muscle-building programs.

Other Terms:

A Workout = the entire session as a whole.
An Exercise = One movement performed in a workout.

Getting Started

Milton Holdiem Twitter

Focused on coaching busy professionals. Cold brew drinker.

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