How many sets? How many reps?
So recently I’ve gotten a ton of questions about how many reps and sets people should be doing.
Which actually is a really great question – and is completely dependent upon your level of fitness and fitness goals.
So then…how many reps and sets should you be doing!?!
Let’s say you are a beginner…or doing a recovery week…or simply working on muscular strength endurance.
Then you are probably going to go for higher reps, and by higher reps I mean 15-20 reps, and 1-3 sets.
When you work in the higher rep ranges, you aren’t using the heaviest weight possible. You are using a weight that starts to fatigue you toward the end of your rep range.
So basically doing 15-20 reps is going to get you the same results whether you do 15, 18 or 20 as long as you use a weight that means you are fatigued before the final rep.
Higher reps can be a great way for beginners to focus on form and really get the move ingrained WHILE still building up their basic strength.
How many sets you do in that higher rep range is based on how experienced you are, your training intensity for the day and even the volume of your workout.
If this is your first workout ever, you are probably only going to do one set. If you’ve been working out and building, you may be pushing through three sets.
If you are going super heavy and can barely make it through those 20 reps (like breathing squats), you may only do one set because any more would simply be overtraining (and if you went as heavy as possible for those 20 reps, you shouldn’t have anything left in the tank to push through a second round!).
If you are doing a leg workout for the day, you may only end up doing one set of the exercise because you are doing a ton of volume for your legs. You don’t want to overdo it by doing three hundred thousand reps of everything!
Ok, so 15-20 reps, 1-3 sets.
This rep range is where you find many women. They fear bulk so stay within this range.
But then they are missing out on the huge amount of benefits that lower rep ranges have to offer them!
So let’s say you do actually want to really get toned, buff and build some muscle while lifting some heavier weight. Let’s say you’ve become more advanced and your tendons and joints are ready to handle more load. What rep range do you enter next?
This is when you enter the supposed hypertrophy range of 8-12 reps. In this rep range, you supposedly have the great chance of actually increasing muscle size. I rarely ever mention this since most women then get scared and flee toward the higher rep ranges.
But let me tell you…you won’t get freaking bulky just cause you lift a heavy weight only 8 times!!! You may burn more fat. You may look more toned. You may get stronger and perform better…
BUT YOU WON’T FREAKING GET BULKY!
I love the 8-12 rep range. You can use heavier weights than the higher rep ranges. More rest is generally required between moves because you are moving heavier loads, but you really do get a big bang for your buck in terms of strength gains. You also are lifting heavy enough loads for just enough reps to get your heart rate up a little, which isn’t bad either.
If you are doing 8-12 reps, you should have good form. If this is really your first time out of the 15-20 rep range, don’t just start lifting 30 more pounds and go straight to 8 reps!
Start out by adding a little weight and doing 12 reps with good form. If that is easy, add a bit more weight and shoot for 12 more. If you say only get 10 with the new weight, stick there until you can lift the weight for 12 reps with good form and then add a bit more.
Add weight slowly so your body can adjust to the new loads.
When working in the 8-12 rep range, you don’t want to just randomly select 10 reps and perform them. You want to only do 10 reps because at 8 or 9 you want to drop the weight and quit right then and there.
In this heavier range, you want to make sure that you aren’t just stopping at 8 reps because that is what you said you were going to do. You want to have the weights make you stop at 8.
Using the heavier weights with 8-12 reps, you should be doing between 3-5 sets. You will need more rest between rounds with this rep range than you probably needed with the higher rep range unless of course you are doing something like breathing squats.
The number of sets you do for any rep range is based on the intensity of your lifts (how much weight are you using, how much rest are you getting) AND the training volume.
To simplify things, generally speaking, more reps means fewer sets…fewer reps means more sets.
So say you really want to work on gaining maximal strength. How many reps/sets do you do?
Well 1-5 reps and generally 4-6 sets.
If you are doing basically the heaviest weight you can handle, and nearing your one rep max, you probably aren’t going to be able to do very many reps of that weight over the workout.
I mean 25-30 reps in total at a heavy heavy weight (so a weight you can handle for 5 reps at a time for 5-6 sets) is going to be pretty killer. You probably AREN’T going to be doing that many supplemental lifts after it and if you do most of them are going to be with pretty darn light weight. (Remember training volume is key….too much volume equals overtraining which means your results won’t be as good as they could be if you just did less!)
Anyway, to sum all this up….
When considering how many reps and sets to do:
- Think about your level (Are you new to lifting? Do you have a solid base?)
- Think about your goals (Maximal strength? Building some great muscle tone? Building up strength endurance?)
- Think about the intensity of your workout (Do you need a lighter day? Have you done 3 heavy days already this week? How much rest between sets? Is it a circuit? Are you lifting super heavy?)
- Think about how many exercises you are doing for that body part during the workout (A workout with 5 leg exercises vs. 10 leg exercises means very different set ranges per exercise)
- Think about the weight you are using (You shouldn’t just say you are doing 20 reps or 12 reps and stick with an easy weight that you could do for 30 reps! Your weight needs to match the rep range. You should want to stop and have muscle shake-age, but good form!, 1-3 reps before you stop. Muscle shake-age is a very technical term meaning your muscles are shaking from working very hard.)
So if you have considered all of the things above, you will then want to use these three very basic rep/set ranges. I do want to note, however, that there are times when doing more than 20 reps is really beneficial AND that there are times when doing as many reps in a certain amount of time is an even better workout for strength endurance than 15-20 reps. (Sorry nothing is ever black and white!)
Anyway, to boil things down…
Strength endurance/beginner/recovery-variety for the advanced lifter – 15-20 reps, 1-3 sets
Hypertrophy aka sexy muscle range/Strength for performance – 8-12 reps, 3-5 sets
Maximum strength/sexy muscle-building – 1-5 reps, 4-6 sets
You should then choose weights and rest periods appropriate to the range that you select. You aren’t simply doing 8 reps to do 8 reps or 20 reps to do 20 reps!
Know why you are doing certain things! Don’t just do 10 sets of 10 reps because you think 100 reps of something seems gnarly!
Consider your variables and know what your goals for the workout are…THEN you can pick a rep and set range that will help you accomplish your goals!
SIDE NOTE: Remember these ranges are GUIDELINES. AND you shouldn’t just only do one rep range for the rest of your life. I cycle through all 3 rep ranges since all three work on different things, but at the same time really do overlap. The point is to consider how intense you are training and the volume of your overall workout so that you don’t overtrain OR undertrain, but instead get the most out of your workout!