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When specifying sets and reps like 5x5, 3x5, (in general, XxY), which is which?

It seems like it usually means "X sets of Y reps." but on some forums I see logs that seem to indicate that either they are (a) doing dozens of 1 rep sets (which might be valid) or (b) they are using the notation in the other order (i.e. "X reps done Y times").

Is there a "traditional" way of reading/writing these?

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and so we have one answer for each of my alternatives. Figures. ;) –  PaulRein Mar 11 '11 at 17:57
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In most circles I've read it (as far as teaching goes) its sets x reps. The only people whom I've seen refer to it in an opposite manner would be folks from Great Briton. They've also been known to call a 4x5 camera a 5x4--so it's more of a localization issue. Kind of like the way Germans swap the meaning of commas and periods when writing numbers. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 25 '11 at 16:46
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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The Universe is an Uncaring Void

I've seen sources say "3x5" (three sets of five) but denote their workouts as 100x5x3 (100 pounds, 5 reps, 3 sets). I've also seen sources say "3x5" and write 3x5 and mean three sets of five in both cases. There is no clear answer to your question. YxZ is fundamentally ambiguous.

Show Your Units

In physics, I was taught to never leave the units ambiguous in our calculations. "5" means nothing; "5 Newtons" means something. I think that advice applies here too. We have competing standards each trying to be the One True Answer. Our only reasonable course of action is to somehow indicate that 3x5 in this case means three sets of five rather than five sets of three.

I independently developed two methods of showing my units: marking my sets as I complete them, and putting commas between "x reps" to show different sets.

The Ticking-Off-Sets Method

I do this haphazardly in my own training notes, either simply remembering, or ticking off sets as I complete them:

Front squat: 45x5, 95x5, 145x5, 195x5x3 '''

This says I warmed up my front squat with a set of five each at 45, 95, and 145 pounds before my work sets. The three tick marks at the end show that I completed three work sets, telling me-six-months-from-now that I meant three sets of five. I certainly don't think this method is optimal.

The Comma Method

Another method I use refuses to write down the number of sets at all, but instead demarcates sets with commas, like so:

Front squat: (45,95,145)x5, 195 x5,x5,x5

This says the same thing as above--three warm-up sets, then three work sets. I think this is perhaps my most unambiguous and concise notation, making it the best.

It has a drawback that is also a benefit: it accounts for failures. This is good, because it minimizes scratching out "3x5" when I fail at the last set. It's bad, because it reduces the consequences and certainty of completing the sets as planned.

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3x5 is 3 sets of 5 reps - it follows the same order as when you write or say it.

Two examples from two well known strength coaches & programs:

Starting Strength:

Reduce the volume on Monday. Sometimes the Monday’s workout is too stressful. You need more time to recover.

You can try:

  1. Dropping a work set or two (5x5 becomes 4x5 or 3x5)

Or T Nation:

Each training cycle lasts four weeks, with these set-rep goals for each major lift:

  • Week 1: 3 x 5
  • Week 2: 3 x 3
  • Week 3: 3 x 5, 3, 1
  • Week 4: deloading

(...)

Exercise 1)
Standing shoulder press: 3 sets of:

  • Week 1 - 5 reps
  • Week 2 - 3 reps
  • Week 3 - 5/3/1 reps
  • Week 4 - 5 reps
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I like this because it goes from most significant to least significant. It has the same appeal as the international date format of yyyy-mm-dd. –  Chris Nov 17 '13 at 21:16

It depends where the word is.

5 x 10 pushups
5 x 15 situps
5 x 50 jumping jacks

Looks a lot nicer than

10 pushups x 5
15 situps x 5
50 jumping jacks x 5

The prettier way to write it would be the first option.

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