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Workout Basics: How Many Reps and Sets Should you Do?

by Evelyn Valdez

When it comes to training to achieve certain fitness goals, like building muscle or shedding some fat, having an effective workout plan is of the utmost importance (along with nutrition). A good workout plan consists of a few things, like knowing what exercises are best for your goals. For example, those wanting to build muscle will take part in strength workouts and exercises, those wanting to lose weight will focus more on cardio with a mix of strength training. Another important aspect of any good workout plan is knowing the best set and rep ranges for you and your goals. 

Applying the effort in your training correctly is the key to driving effective results. In an effort to help you maximize your efforts and build a better workout routine, we've put together a guide to help you figure out the best rep range for you. By the end of this article, you'll have a better understanding of how many reps and sets you should do in regards to training for strength, to build muscle or endurance. Plus, knowing how to train for all three is ideal for when you want to switch up your training technique! So, let's get started on building better, more effective training programs!

How many reps should I do?

For those who don't know, a "rep" stands for repetition and it defines completing one motion of an exercise. For example, doing one push-up is doing one rep. Some, typically beginners, stick between a 10-15 number of reps. There's nothing wrong with this, but it could lead to ineffective results or hitting a workout plateau which will force those to change up their training technique, including how many sets and reps to do. So, before hitting that wall, we'll give you details on the best rep ranges for overall strength, muscle size, and muscular endurance.

Training for strength

Training for strength, or as most know it, strength training, requires techniques that maximize strength. Many think that strength training is for building muscle, and although it does help to do so, its main focus is on maximizing overall strength. So, there is a slight difference when it comes to the number of repetitions between training for muscle growth and strength. 

To maximize strength, it's ideal to train with heavier weights for fewer reps. With heavy weights, you are unable to do a high amount of reps, so naturally, you still to a lower rep range between 1-6 reps. It may seem like it's not a lot, but the heavy lifts require a lot of power and strength which will fatigue you pretty quickly. This means you'll need a longer rest period in between reps and sets, between 3 to 5 minutes. This will ensure you're able to do the next set with good form and technique.

This form of training is similar to the way bodybuilders train. They avoid doing sets or reps to failure due to the adverse effects on the nervous system. They also don't train with heavy weights all the time, and neither should you. To increase strength, cycle high-intensity periods (meaning when you train heavy) with low-intensity periods. This will help reduce joint damage and/or pain and reduce the risk of injury. This is also known as a deloading phase, or a planned recovery period in which your training is less intense. This could include lifting lighter weights, focusing on flexibility training, doing low to moderate intensity cardio, or reducing your overall training volume. Once you feel ready, typically after a week or two (it's different for everyone), you can go back to your usual training routine!

One last thing... Training for strength looks different for everyone. A beginner's training program is going to look different to someone who is training for strength but has experience with resistance training. To those who are barely starting out or are new to strength training, don't start out by diving in and training with heavy barbells. You'll end up hurting yourself! Everyone has to find what's challenging for them. That could be starting by mastering bodyweight exercises or using resistance bands before moving on to training with dumbbells. Usually, beginners will build muscle and strength at the same time, after building significant progress, they can move on to tailor their training program to specific goals like building strength.

Training for muscle size

Training for muscle size requires a specific form of training known as hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy is a term that describes the growth and increase of the size of muscle cells. So, the idea behind this training is to work out in a way that promotes muscle growth. This is usually done in two ways:

  1. Placing a load on a specific muscle in order for it to be stimulated to grow. Typically by including more unilateral and isolation exercises into one's routine.
  2. Increasing the training volume, but keeping a moderate level intensity. As opposed to training for strength, which is more high-intensity, you'll be using lighter weights and higher reps.

So, aside from focusing on unilateral and isolation exercises, to stimulate muscle growth or hypertrophy, you should have a high rep range between 8-12 reps (with a minute to two minutes of rest between sets), or until your reach muscle failure. The best way to accomplish muscle hypertrophy is by selecting a weight that allows you to complete at least 8 reps, but not more than 12 thus leading rep to failure. Anything outside of that is too heavy or too light. Although isolation exercises are best for increasing muscle size, you should still focus on compound exercises like deadlifts, squats, bent-over rows, and bench press. These multi-joint movements are ideal because they recruit more muscle mass thus building muscle effectively. But instead of doing low reps with a heavy weight, you're lifting a lower amount of weight for high reps. After doing your key compound exercises, sprinkle in some unilateral and isolation exercises to further stimulate growth in weaker muscle groups.

Training for endurance

Endurance simply means training your muscles to perform for an extended period of time. Endurance training is often seen as doing cardio for an extended period of time, like running or cycling outdoors regularly. But another, less common, way to train muscle endurance is by weight lifting with a lighter load for 15 or more reps. Low-intensity training like this allows you to maintain your activity level for a longer period of time which generates an energy process that occurs primarily in slow-twitch muscle fibers which helps improve the muscle cells' endurance. 

This form of training involves using light weights and performing exercises for 15-20 reps or more, with very short rest periods in between sets, typically between 30-60 seconds.

To recap, 

  • Keep reps in the 1-6 range to build strength and power.
  • Keep reps in the 8-12 range to build muscle.
  • Keep reps in the 15+ range to build muscle endurance, size, and cardiovascular health.

How many sets should I do?

As we know, a rep describes doing one motion of an exercise. Well, a "set" describes a group of repetitions performed for an exercise without stopping. For example, doing 10 reps of triceps extensions without stopping means you've just done one set. Although rep ranges vary for different fitness goals, the average number of sets is the same for any fitness goal... It's simple, do 3-5 sets of any given exercise.

Many people stuck with this range due to physician, Thomas L. Delorme, who suggested 3 sets of 10 reps to be an effective form of weight training back in 1948. He recorded, analyzed, and published one of the first academic looks on how to strength train. However, this was very long ago, and since then lifters have increased their sets to up to 5 in an effort to increase muscle mass. But it all depends on the type of exercise you're doing and the number of sets you can do (with your target rep range) without compromising your form! For example, supersets involve two exercises that target the same muscle group and doing one after the other. To do them with good form, you might stick to three sets as opposed to five. So, it really depends on what exercise you're doing and your ability to do them correctly, but to keep things simple, 3-5 sets is the average. If you're able to comfortably do 5 sets of any exercise then consider increasing the weight to further challenge yourself. This brings up our important, final point...

Discovering how many reps and sets you should do will help you determine what weight you should lift! Oftentimes people get stuck at the same rep range lifting the same weight because they're unable to do as many reps with a heavier weight - Well, duh! That's when you know you need to level up and increase the weight. You won't be able to do as many reps right away, but you'll work your way up to it by doing fewer reps and increasing the rep range as you make progress.

Honestly, most of this will come naturally to you! Use this as a guide to finding a good rep range for you and your goals. Chances are you'll be following different rep ranges all the time. In fact, most effective workout plans typically involve a few heavy compound lifts with a low rep range, finished off with isolation, or unilateral exercises with a higher rep range. But as always, finding the right exercises and the right amount of reps and sets to do is dependent on which goals you want to prioritize!

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