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A guide to popular fitness terms

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know – yet!

Reps – rep stands for repetitions of the exercise, for example 12 reps might be 12 squats or 12 push ups. Depending your goals, you might work to different rep ranges, for example 12-15 reps might be performed for endurance and 5-5 reps might be performed for strength.


To judge the weight or intensity you’re working at and thus a suitable number of reps, a good rule of thumb is to have 2 quality reps (performed with good form) ‘in reserve’ after you have finished. For example, if you’re working in the 10-12 rep range, then you should be able to perform approximately 14 reps with good form maximum at that weight. If you can do more, then it’s a sign it’s time to progress that exercise, or if you’re struggling to get to that number it’s a sign to drop the weight or take an easier version of that exercise.


If you are new to resistance or weight training (the first couple of years), my advice is to stick to the 10-12 rep range. There’s a lot of adaptation that needs to occur to bones, ligaments, tendons, joints, nervous system, proprioception etc before it potentially is safe to tackle heavier weights for lower reps.


Set – a set refers to the number of times you complete one exercise. For example, you might do 10 push-ups (that’s one set), take a rest, and then complete that twice more (that’s 3 sets). Usually, 3-4 sets of an exercise are enough, otherwise muscle fatigue starts to lower the quality of your form (how well you are able to perform the exercise).


HIIT – high intensity interval training. It’s all the rage. Most HIIT out there though isn’t in fact HIIT. It’s more like interval training or circuit training. Usually with HIIT it involves short bursts of high intensity, and then the rest interval is about double the work interval (this is how it differs from circuit training which usually is less rest).


My advice is, unless you have a super chill life, it’s probably not for you. Or at least not regularly! Exercise is a stressor, and most people living high stress lives (living in the modern world, having a stressful job, having kids, going through the menopause etc) do not need to include HIIT. In addition to rest and recovery therefore being compromised, the high intensity activity it involves can lead to a high rate of injury. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying, evaluate if it fits your goals, and make an informed choice.


LISS – low intensity steady state exercise e.g. walking, swimming etc. The health benefits of low intensity exercise are great, especially in terms of heart health. Bonus is that you can often combine being in nature, or being with another person, all of which is also beneficial to our health. Tracking steps and the magic 10,000 steps an be useful in increasing our awareness of our movement, but 10,000 isn’t the be all and end all. It’s a pretty arbitrary number. In fact, the health benefits in research are currently suggested to level off at about 7,500 steps daily.


Circuit/interval training – interval and circuit training are high intensity levels of training that involves performing many exercises back to back with short to no rest intervals. An efficient use of time, but be aware of lower intensity options and workouts (see previous point)


DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. When we exercise, we actually damage our muscles. There are tiny tears that need to be repaired after we finish working out. We therefore actually adapt and get stronger when we rest, not when we workout. When you first begin exercise, this needs to be carefully controlled as soreness is often most intense when you begin (or possibly if you start an entirely new activity from scratch that involves you using your muscles in a way you are not used to). Adequate rest, protein and hydration can help soreness. If you’re a little sore, you’re probably fine to workout, but if you’re struggling to get up and down off the toilet, maybe give yourself another rest day! DOMS tends to be experienced between 24-72 hours after you exercise.


Time under tension (TUT) – refers to the amount of time your muscles are working during an exercise, and it includes the lowering, pausing and lifting part of the move. Increasing TUT makes the muscle work harder. Most beginner exercisers do not need to worry about TUT, but you may see programmes involves slow eccentrics (the lowering part of the move – beware, more DOMS are associated with this!!), paused reps, slow smooth reps with no pause etc all to increase TUT.


Core – you will hear many, many instructors and trainers tell you to engage your core. This stems from many of us not being overly aware of when our core is engaged or not, and engaging the core supports the lower back. Our core muscles are not just the rectus abdominis, which is what you would recognise as the ‘6 pack’ muscles, but also, but not limited to, the transverse abdominis, the internal and external obliques, the erector spinae, multifidis and pelvic floor muscles. A useful tip is to thing ‘belly button to spine’ before you lift, and lift your pelvis floor.


Be aware that a soft, round belly for good quality breathing outside of your workouts is healthy, and that excessively contracting the core for a ‘flatter’ look, can restrict the quality of your breathing over time.


Exhale for effort – breathing matters. If you’ve ever worked out with me, you know this! Exhaling for effort is usually for the lifting part of the move, e.g. standing back up out of a squat. It can make or break a rep (if you’re lifting heavy). I’m also a massive advocate for awareness of breath, as many of us don’t have a great quality of breath in our normal everyday lives, so paying attention to it when we exercise is a gateway to feeling our body, improving our breath and up or down-regulating our body better. Our mind-body connection is a real thing and worth fostering.


Starting your health and fitness journey does not need to be intimidating! What other terms cause you confusion and would you like to know about?


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