Congratulations.  You’ve decided to start lifting weights.  But you’re not sure where to start, so you start searching the internet and youtube for guidance, and suddenly, you’re overwhelmed with terms that don’t seem to make any sense.  You go to a gym and try to join in a conversation but people look at you weird because you’re using the words incorrectly.

This article should help clear up some of the confusion and help prevent some embarrassing moments while you transition from novice to expert.

Weightlifting, Weight Training, Lifting Weights, and more

Weightlifting technically always refers to Olympic Weightlifting.  This is an officially recognized Olympic sport.  It is very very specific.  The two main components are the Snatch and Clean and Jerk.  (Described later under Specific Exercises.)  To avoid confusion, don’t say you’re weightlifting  unless you’re doing olympic lifts.  Sometimes abbreviated “oly” or “oly lifting”

Lifting weights on the other hand means any activity in which weights are being used.

Weight training is sometimes used interchangeably with lifting weights, although the term implies using the weights as part of a systematic plan to achieve a particular goal.

Powerlifting is a sport in which people compete in three different lifts.  They do a single squat, bench press, and deadlift.  You add the maximum weight for each lift together, and the highest total wins.  It’s slightly more complicated, with weight classes, but that’s the general idea.

Strongman refers to a sport with a number very specific feats of strength including picking an Atlas stone (large round rock), giant tire flipping, and picking a log up off the ground and lifting it overhead.  Strongman lifts are more awkward than Olympic lifts and Powerlifts.

Bodybuilding specifically refers to using weights for the purpose of winning bodybuilding competitions (or achieve a look that could).  Bodybuilding is primarily concerned with size and shape of muscle.  At the highest levels, bodybuilding depends on having the right genetics for symmetry and proportion.  There are several different “levels” within bodybuilding.  Traditional bodybuilding (think Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno for us old people) is called Classic or Classic Physique.  The newer class is “physique” where guys are typically smaller and wear board shorts instead of “posing shorts” (think Speedos).

Female bodybuilding has three levels, Physique (similar to men’s classic and is dominated by steroids), figure, and bikini.  Bikini is the least muscled of the levels.  There is also fitness which is kind of like figure but with some sort of athletic routine (usually gymnastic or dancing).

Aesthetics refers to training for looking good (which of course is subjective).  The most popular male role model of aesthetics ever seems to be Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club.  Note that looking good with clothes on is not necessarily the same as looking good in clothes.  Bigger typically looks better in clothes (for men anyway), while leaner typically looks better with no shirt.

Strength training refers to training to maximize strength.  It could be for its own sake or for in the pursuit of a strength sport (Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman, Powerlifting, or other smaller specialty strength endeavors).

Training Terminology

Split refers to the number of workouts in a cycle, with most cycles taking a week.  Each unique workout is usually assigned a letter (A,B,C, etc.)  So a 3 day split generally refers to working out 3 days a week. For example Workout A on Monday, Workout B on Wednesday, and Workout C on Friday.  A 2 day split has 2 workouts that alternate, you might do Workout A on Monday, Workout B on Wednesday, and then Workout A again on Friday.  The next week, you would start with Workout B and repeat the pattern.  A five day split has five different workouts.  You get the idea.

Other Common Splits: Bro Split refers to a 5 or 6 day split, where each body part has its own workout.  PPL (push/pull/legs) refers to a three day split where one day is “push,” another day “pull”, and a third day “legs”.

Rep (repetition) refers to one complete movement of an exercise.  So in a squat, squatting down and standing back up is one complete rep.

A set is a number of repetitions done together.  So 5 reps done in a row would be considered one set of 5 reps.

3×5, 5×5, 3×10… are shorthand ways of describing set and reps.  The first number is the number of sets.  The second number is the number of reps in each set.  So 3×5 means three sets of five reps each.  3×10 means three sets of 10 reps each.

Rep Max, Max Rep, RM all refer to a set where a person cannot do another set.  So a set of five reps where the lifter can’t do a sixth rep is called a 5RM.

Intensity refers to the weight on the bar combined with the effort it takes to lift it.  High intensity typically means heavier weight, and therefore lower rep sets.  So a 3RM set would be more intense than a 5RM set.  Intensity is often calculated as a percentage of a person’s 5RM or 1RM.  Alternatively, intensity can be measured subjectively using a scale known as Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) (see below).  One thing to be careful about is that intensity in the exercise physiology research literature does not refer to this definition, and instead refers to taking a set to failure.  Under this definition, taking a light weight to failure at 25 reps is just as intense as taking a very heavy weight to failure in 3 reps.  It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world except for Lola!

Progression means increasing the weight over time.  The rate of progression is limited by a person’s training age, which is not measured in time but by getting stronger.  The terms Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced are generally used to describe training age.  

Novices (or newbies) have the fastest progression because they’re starting from basically zero.  Almost anything they do is going to make them stronger, which is why 12 week beginner’s programs never lack for testimonials.  Some people like to use strength standards to gauge a person’s training age, but the best gauge is usually how often a person can increase the weight on the bar.  If the answer is every workout, then the person is a novice.

Note that the novice stage can last anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months.  Not eating enough or sleeping enough or running too intense a training program, and being older can decrease the length of the novice phase.  Alternatively using a poorly designed program can result in a person never exiting the novice stage.  The vast majority of gym goers are probably novices no matter how long they’ve been training.

Intermediate lifters can no longer increase the weight on the bar every training session.  Intermediate programs are usually designed to allow the lifter to make weekly progress, and as a result are more complicated.  There is some controversy over when a person should switch to intermediate programming.  Some people think a person should grind out their novice stage as long as possible.  Others point to the workouts becoming boring and/or overly grueling and say, just switch the first time you stall in your progress.  Before a person progresses to an intermediate program, they should ask “The First Three Questions.”

  1. Am I trying to take too big a jump in weights.  A rank novice may be able to go up 10lbs each workout where a more experienced novice can only go up 2.5lbs each workout.
  2. Am I waiting long enough between sets?  As the weight gets heavier, it takes longer to recover between sets.  Metabolic fatigue can be a limiting factor with shorter recovery periods.  A brand new lifter may be able to do their next set after just 1 minute, while a more advanced lifter may need 3-5 minutes between sets.
  3. Am I getting enough calories and sleep?  One does not get strong by lifting heavy weights.  One gets strong by recovering from lifting heavy weights.  Not providing your body with enough calories and sleep will impair your ability to get stronger. (Note: if you’re trying to lose weight, maybe gaining strength doesn’t need to be your priority at this exact moment in time.)

Advanced lifters can no longer progress each week, and now the time frame extends to a month (or longer) and the program becomes even more complicated.

Gains is slang for increasing performance in the gym.  It generally refers to increasing the weight on the bar or increasing the number of reps with the same weight, but the term is quite nonspecific and can even refer to looking better.

Frequency can refer to either the number of workouts in a week or to the number of times a particular lift is executed, or to the number of times a particular muscle group is worked.  Confusing right?  Get used to disappointment.

Volume is another amorphous term that can be used to mean several different things.  The definition I prefer is the total number of reps in a given time frame (workout session or week).  So in a 3×5 workout, you would be doing 15  total reps for that lift.  In a 5×5, you’d be doing 25 total reps in the workout for that lift.  A competing (although inferior) definition of volume simply the number of sets.  This treats a set of one rep the same a set of 10.  A third definition of volume is the total number of reps times the weight lifted, although this is better called tonnage (see below).

Tonnage refers to the total weight lifted.  So if you benched 225 lbs for 3×5, you lifted 3x5x225 = 3375 lbs for the workout.

Work sets are juxtaposed with warm up sets.  A work set is a set heavy enough to induce a growth stimulus.  Warm up sets on the other hand are lighter in weight and their purpose is to get the blood flowing to the muscle warming it up and allowing the movement pattern to be practiced.  A proper warm up should not fatigue the muscle.  It should prepare the muscle.

Effective reps refers to the idea that in a given set, some of the reps are harder than others.  Imagine lifting a light weight for 30 reps.  The first ten to 15 reps might be easy.  Those reps are not “effective,” because the muscle is not having to struggle.  The heavier the weight, the higher the percentage of reps that will be effective.

Periodization refers to the planned change in a training variable to promote progression.  Intensity, volume, and frequency are the main variables that can be manipulated.  The simplest periodization is called linear progression, where only intensity if varied–you add a small amount of weight to the bar every session.  It’s not truly linear because the amount of weight added gets smaller over time.  You might start out adding 10 pounds each session, and then after a few weeks only 5, and then eventually 2.5.  So it’s more of a logarithmic progression, but I don’t foresee that catching on anytime soon.

Naturally linear periodization can’t go on forever of eventually everyone would be as strong as Superman. Eventually Other forms of periodization must be used if a trainee wants to continue to make progress, so frequency and volume may also be changed.  Buzzwords you may hear include daily undulating, weekly undulating, and block periodization.  Novices don’t need any fancy shmancy periodization although it might make their program more fun.  More fun is always good.

Concentric contraction occurs when a muscle shortens.  For example, lifting a weight overhead, pulling a weight off the floor, or standing up.

Eccentric contraction occurs when the muscle lengthens.  For example, lowering a weight or sitting down.  Many exercises have both a concentric and eccentric portion; for example, in a squat, you first squat down (eccentric) and then stand up (concentric).  The eccentric portion of a movement is sometimes called the negative.

DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) refers to soreness that comes on within 12 to 48 hours of performing an exercise.  DOMS is more associated with the eccentric portion of a lift.  It is also associated with using a new movement pattern.  This is why people are always sore on “muscle confusion” programs like P90X.  You’re always doing something new so you’re always sore.  DOMS is NOT associated with getting stronger.


Bro is short for brother and can use in almost any situation.  It is often used in place of “dude.” For example, “There was this bro at the gym…”  It can be used in place of “you” as in “Bro, try lifting this way.”  It is often used in a slightly pejorative manner to refer to gym goers who may not be the most productive or adhere to outdated training opinions.  These outdated opinions are derisively known as “Bro science” which gets passed from bro to bro in a telephone-like game until there is no semblance of actual science (or even common sense).

Swole is slang for swollen referring to a person’s muscles getting larger.

Natty refers to a natural, meaning someone who is not on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).  Someone who is secretly on PEDs or suspected of being on PEDs is often referred to as a fake natty.   “Half natty lighting” refers to using lighting, shadows, and angles to make a person appear better than real life.  It is sometimes used to imply that a person is a fake natty.

PEDs is short for performance enhancing drug.

Gear refers to any number of PEDs but usually includes testosterone.

Eat Clen and Tren Hard is a twisting of “eat clean and train hard” usually a cynical response to the question “How do I look like [insert name]?” that implies that the person in question is taking PEDs and to look like him, you probably need to take drugs too.  See Clen and Tren below.

Clen is short for clenbuterol, a selective beta-2 agonist that enhances muscle contraction and mobilizes fatty acids aiding in weightloss.  (It’s in the same drug class as albuterol so it can also help with asthma.)  It was never approved in the U.S. for humans or animals raised for food; it is, however approved for use in horses as a bronchodilator..

Tren is short for trenbolone, the most potent testosterone analog that we currently have.  (Potency refers to the amount of effect that a drug has per dose.)

Supp does not refer to a greeting.  It is short for supplements.  Supplements are generally anything that not is not a medication or drug.  The line can be blurry.  Many supplements are isolated chemicals such as creatine or L-carinitine.  Others “natural” such as ma huang (not legal in the U.S.).

Creatine is the only supplement that has compelling human research to support its effectiveness.  (That’s not to say nothing else works; but the evidence is not as strong.) The only version you should take is creatine monohydrate.  Pretty much any brand will work.  Take 5mg daily.  You have to work out for it to work. Not everyone responds to it.  As a side effect, it produces intramuscular water retention making muscles look fuller but also causing a small increase in weight (yes water weighs something, but don’t worry; it’s not fat).