The Basics: A Beginners Guide to Fitness Terms

Entering the fitness world can be a frightening and confusing experience, akin to that of wandering about in a foreign land. In both instances, you’re inundated by words and expressions that have no meaning to you, but casually seem to be tossed around by those “in the know.

Fortunately, when you enter the fitness realm, you no longer have to feel like a wandering traveler with this beginner’s guide to common fitness terms. We’ve covered everything from HIIT to TDEE and everything in between, so that next time you step foot in the gym, you’re up to snuff on all the fitness lingo.

Common Fitness Terms


TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) – the sum total of energy your body expends comprised of exercise and non-exercise activity, food digestion, and basic biological processes to ensure survival. For more on TDEE, click here.

Glycogen a stored form of carbohydrates that provides a readily accessible source of fuel for muscles during intense exercise

Cutting (or Dieting) refers to the phase when bodybuilders and athletes consciously reduce calories to lose body fat while retaining as much lean mass as possible.

Bulking (or Massing) refers to a phase in a training cycle when an athlete consumes more calories than they require to increase muscle size and strength.

Aerobic Exercise also known as “cardio,” aerobic exercise relies primarily on the aerobic energy system of the body, meaning it uses oxygen to satisfy energy demands during training via aerobic metabolism. This type of training is typically performed at low-to-moderate intensities in the form of jogging, cycling, or walking.

Anaerobic Exercise meaning “without oxygen,” aerobic exercise is an activity that causes you to run out of breath quickly (i.e., weightlifting or sprinting) and is fueled from energy stored in your muscles.

Compound Exercise – multi-joint movements that involve multiple joints and train several muscle groups at one time. Examples include squats, push-ups, rows, pull ups, overhead presses, and lunges

Isolation Exercise – movements that involve a single joint and primary muscle group. Examples include bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, tricep pushdown, pec dec, and dumbbell lateral.

Rep (Repetition) one full motion of an exercise.

Set – how many times you repeat a given number of reps in a single bout of effort. For example, one set of bench press could involve eight reps before you reach failure and end the set to rest before the next set.

Repetition Maximum (RM) –  a measure of how much weight you can lift for a given number of reps in one set. RM is typically in reference to 1RM — the most amount of weight you can lift in an exercise for one repetition. Strength training programs are usually designed based on percentages of your 1RM.

AMRAP (As Many Repetitions As Possible) – performing a set of an exercise to muscle failure

Rest – idle time between sets of an exercise or in-between exercises when muscles and cardiovascular system recover

RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) – means to measure the level of effort during a set based on how hard you feel that you are working on a scale of 1-10. An RPE of 5 or 6 is a weight that moves relatively easily, while an RPE of 10 would require an immense amount of effort, similar to that of your 1 repetition maximum (1RM). 

RIR (Repetitions in Reserve) – another means to measure intensity during a set, reps in reserve refers to how many reps you could have done, but did not complete, at the end of a set. Another way to think of this is “reps in the tank,” meaning if you perform a set of heavy squats and stop after eight reps, but feel like you could have performed ten without failing, your RIR would be 2. 

ROM (Range of Motion) – refers to the length of movement between the eccentric and concentric phases of an exercise. Good practices advise performing exercises through a complete range of motion from full extension to full contraction and back to full extension.

Mind-Muscle Connection – the conscious, deliberate contraction of a muscle, where you intently focus on activating a muscle to lift a load, and not merely moving a weight up and down. In a sense, the mind-muscle connection is about “feeling” the muscle fibers contracting as completely and intensely as possible on every repetition.

DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) – muscle soreness, stiffness, and aches that arise in the 24-48 hours following an intense workout. DOMS is a natural part of the training and recovery process brought on by muscle fiber damage and accumulation of waste metabolites in muscle cells.

Superset – performing two exercises for different muscle groups back-to-back with little to no rest between each exercise. After both exercises are complete, you may rest. Examples include chest and back, biceps and triceps, and quad and hamstrings. A superset can also involve two non-antagonist muscle groups, for example, shoulders and legs, or back and biceps.

Compound Set – performing two exercises for the same body part back-to-back with little to no rest between them. An example of a compound set would be a set of bench press followed immediately by a set of push-ups. 

Drop Set – intensification technique used to train beyond failure. To perform a drop set, perform a set of an exercise to failure (or one rep shy of failure), then immediately remove some of the weight (10-30%) from the bar or machine and perform another set of reps until you can no longer perform another rep with good form.

Circuit – a “round” of exercises where you move from one exercise or station to another with little rest between exercises. Generally, circuits contain exercises covering the entire body and are used to accomplish a high amount of work in a short amount of time. For example, one circuit may consist of doing push-ups, rows, crunches, lunges, curls, pushdowns, and planks. Then a 60-120 second rest would be taken before performing another round.

Steady-State Cardio – refers to exercise where you try to keep a set pace at a moderate intensity, such as during a long run or bike ride. This type of training is useful if you’re training for an endurance event or trying to increase calorie expenditure during a cut.

HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) – alternative to steady-state cardio that involves rotating between brief periods of all-out effort and active recovery (or rest). Depending on fitness level, HIIT sessions may last only 15-20 minutes yet produce equivalent fat loss results in more extended bouts of steady-state cardio.

Tabata – a form of high-intensity interval training involving 20 seconds of maximum effort followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times for a total of four minutes. Tabata is renowned for its ability to blast fat in an incredibly brief amount of time.

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