A Beginner’s Guide to Gym Terminology

A Beginner’s Guide to Gym Terminology

Every hobby has its lingo, and lifting is no exception. We’ve collected a list of the lifting-related words that most often confuse beginners, so read on to learn what you might be missing.


We don’t usually lift a weight just once; we pick it up and set it down multiple times. Each of those individual lifts is a repetition, or a “rep” for short. You might do eight reps at a time, or 12, or five. Even if you only do one, you might still call it a rep, because when you’re in the gym for an hour your brain starts to melt a little. “That was a good rep,” you might say after a heavy single. We all know what you mean.


A group of reps is a set. You might do five sets of three reps, for example. This is usually written as 5×3 (sets x reps), although a few people out there will flip the numbers around. If you’re not sure, ask.


If you’re doing a small lift, like a bicep curl, you’ll often do it “until failure” — until you physically cannot lift the weight another time.

In bigger lifts, like a squat, it’s not always safe or even desirable to go until actual, physical failure. So you might go until technical failure — in other words, for as many reps as you can while you can maintain good form.


Submaximal training is work that does not go to failure. Your program might ask you to lift a certain weight until you feel like you have two reps “in the tank.” That means you’d pick a weight you could lift 10 times if you had to, but to follow the instructions you’ll only lift it eight times. Submaximal training can be less fatiguing than taking your lifts to failure.


As many reps as possible. Or, if you’re doing a workout with multiple lifts, it may mean as many rounds (of the whole circuit) as possible. Sometimes either of these may be written AMAP (as many as possible).


Every minute, on the minute. For a 10-minute EMOM, you’ll start your stopwatch, do the exercise (say, 10 kettlebell swings), and then rest for the remainder of the minute. The quicker you get the lifts done, the more time you have to rest.

1RM, 3RM, 5RM

These are a one rep max, a three rep max, and a five rep max, respectively. (You can substitute any number. Want to find a 6RM? Go for it.)

In other words, a 1RM is the maximum weight that you can move for one rep. When somebody asks “how much ya bench?” they are asking for your 1RM. This weight might also be called your “max” or your “best,” as in, “my best bench press is 68 kg.”

The others are “rep maxes.” Maybe you know that you can deadlift 102 kg for five reps, but that’s it, you know you couldn’t get a sixth at that weight. (Maybe you tried for a sixth and failed.) That’s a 5RM.


Rate of perceived exertion. In lifting, a 10 means an all-out lift, you couldn’t have done any more. Nine means you could have done one more rep, but you stopped there. Eight means you could have done two more reps, and so on. For compound lifts like squats, sets are often done at a seven or eight RPE. Nobody bothers to track RPE below a six or so.


Sometimes lifting programs tell you to do a set at, say, 80% of your max. This instruction assumes that you know what your maximum is. So, if you can bench press 45 kg once, you might be asked to do a set of five reps at 80%, which is 36 kg.


You can superset two exercises by doing a set of each before resting. This can save time in the gym. Most often, a superset involves two lifts done with opposite or unrelated muscles: you can superset a bench press with a barbell row, or even a squat with an overhead press. Usually you’ll rest for a short time after you do both, and then do them again.


A circuit, sometimes called a giant set, is a superset with more components. Maybe you’ll do four or five exercises in a circuit. While these can save time, the goal of circuit training is often to keep your heart rate high, so that you’re getting a bit of cardio in even though the main focus is weight training.


To spot somebody on a lift is to stand by, ready to assist if they fail. On bench press, you spot by standing at the head end of the person’s bench. You keep your hands nearby (but not on) the bar. If they can’t complete a rep, you grab the bar and help them safely place it back on the rack.

Some lifts, like bench and squats, are commonly spotted. Others, like deadlifts and Olympic lifts, cannot be. Spotting is mainly for safety, but can also be used for forced reps (more on those below).

Free weights

Free weights are the barbells and dumbbells in a gym, as opposed to the machines. They are “free” weights because they aren’t attached to anything; you can pick them up and do whatever you want.


The opposite of a free weight would be a machine. There are cable machines, where you hold a handle that is connected via a cable and pulley to a stack of weights; there are other types of selectorized machines, where you put a pin in a stack of weights and then do the exercise in whatever way is indicated on the instructions (for example, you may push or pull a set of handles, or move a pad with your legs). And there are plate-loaded machines, where you take a plate off a rack somewhere in the gym and place it onto the machine yourself.


Weight plates are the heavy, round discs that typically load onto the ends of a barbell. In American gyms, the largest ones are typically 20 kg.

You can brag about your lifts by saying how many full-sized plates are on each end of the bar. One hundred and thirty-five pounds (20 kg per side, on a 20 kg bar) is a “one plate” lift. Two hundred and twenty-five is “two plates.” Three hundred and fifteen is “three plates,” and so on.


A barbell is the bar that you load the plates on, either empty (the “empty bar”) or loaded (for example, “a 102 kg barbell”).

A standard Olympic-sized barbell is 20 kilograms, or in many American gyms, 20 kg. (20 kilos is 20 kg, so it doesn’t really matter which is which.) There are a variety of other barbells that exist, including Olympic women’s bars that weigh 15 kilos, EZ-curl bars with an ergonomic curve to them, and more. We have a guide to all of these here.


Dumbbells are the smaller hand weights around the gym. They typically come in pairs, and cannot be taken apart. (You can buy adjustable dumbbells for home gyms, though, which have their own teensy little plates on each end.) They are so named because some of the weights historically used for strength training were in the shape of bells (think of a kettlebell, but more…bell-shaped) and since they didn’t make noise, they were silent, or “dumb.”

Clips or collars

When you load weights onto a barbell (or an adjustable dumbbell), it’s handy to have something to hold the weights on there so they don’t slide around. This may be a spring clip, which looks like a clothespin, or a round collar with a latch on it.


A negative rep of an exercise is where you just do the lowering-down, or eccentric, portion, while using assistance (often a spotter) to reset to the top of the rep. Negative pull-ups (jumping up to the top of the bar, then lowering yourself down) are a good way to build strength to be able to do even more pull-ups.

Drop sets

When you do a set of reps to failure, your muscles haven’t totally given out; they just can’t lift any more of that particular weight. So bodybuilders will sometimes employ drop sets, “dropping” some of the weight to do the exercise again with something lighter. You might use 11 kg dumbbells, then put them back and do a few more reps with 9 kg dumbbells, then grab the 15-pounders, and so on.

Forced reps

This is another strategy to keep lifting past failure. Instead of grabbing another weight, ask a spotter to help you lift the last few reps of your set. Let’s say you do as many reps of bench press as you can manage; then your spotter will put their hands on the bar and help you squeeze out a few more reps with their help. Those last few are “forced” reps.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


Leave a Reply