Man doing dumbbell shoulder press

How many sets and reps should you do?

A weight training workout consists of completing a list of exercises. For each exercise, you perform a certain number of sets. Each set consists of a specific number of repetitions, or reps. For each set, you lift a specific amount of weight. The question then follows, how do you decide how many sets and reps to do for each exercise and how much weight to lift in each set?

Muscle properties

The number of sets and reps you do and the amount of weight you lift depend on what muscle property you are trying to develop. Muscles have four properties:

  1. Strength (the amount of force a muscle can produce)
  2. Size (a muscle’s diameter)
  3. Endurance (a muscle’s ability to keep contracting against resistance)
  4. Power (a muscle’s ability to rapidly generate force)

How to develop each property

In order to develop each property, you have to perform a different number of sets and reps. You also have to lift a different amount of weight. The following guidelines, summarized in Table 1, provide a generalized outline of how each muscle property can be developed.

Guidelines for developing different muscle properties

Table 1. Guidelines for developing different muscle properties. 1RM = one-repetition maximum. *Training tempo defines the number of counts for the concentric, hold, and eccentric phases of the rep (e.g. 1:2:2 is 1 count concentric, 2 counts hold, and 2 counts eccentric).

What is 1RM?

Notice that the amount of weight you have to lift to develop each property is presented relative to your 1RM, which stands for one-repetition maximum (or one-rep max for short). Your 1RM is the heaviest weight that you can lift in an exercise for one, and only one, rep using proper form. Being aware of your 1RM for a given exercise can be useful for two reasons:

  1. You can use it to work out how much weight to lift for the exercise (although this isn’t necessary, as explained below)
  2. It allows you to notice and measure an increase in strength. If your 1RM increases, you know that you have become stronger. If it doesn’t increase, it means that you have hit a plateau

You can find your 1RM for a given exercise in two different ways:

  1. Work up to it using increasingly heavier weights
  2. Estimate it by finding a weight with which you can perform three reps (which is safer) and consulting a 1RM chart

By convention, the weight with which you can perform one rep is known as your 1RM, the weight with which you can perform two reps is called your 2RM, and so on.

Note, however, that you don’t have to know your 1RM for an exercise in order to determine the amount of weight you have to lift for that exercise. The rep range you have to follow actually tells you the amount of weight you have to lift. For example, the rep range to develop size is 6 to 12 reps. This means that you have to use a weight with which you can squeeze 6 to 12 clean reps. If you can’t do 6 clean reps, it’s too heavy; if you can easily do 12 clean reps, it’s too light. In other words, by the sixth or twelfth rep, you should be nearing failure to perform clean reps. By ‘clean’, I mean using proper form.

How do you develop muscular strength?

As you can see from Table 1, training for strength involves performing 2 to 6 sets per exercise, each consisting of 2 to 6 reps, using very heavy weights (more than 85% of your 1RM). Because the weights are very heavy, the rest interval between sets is relatively long (2 to 5 minutes) to allow for sufficient recovery. Lifting very heavy weights ensures that virtually all Type I, Type IIa, and Type IIb muscle fibers are recruited. (Muscle fibers were covered in Muscle structure.) However, mostly muscular strength and size are developed; muscular endurance is not developed due to the small number of reps. What’s more, the gains in size that you make with this rep range are not optimal.

How do you develop muscular size?

Training for optimal size involves performing 3 to 6 sets, each consisting of 6 to 12 reps, using heavy weights (67%–85% of your 1RM). This kind of training will recruit most Type I, Type IIa, and Type IIb muscle fibers, leading to great gains in strength and size but limited gains in endurance due again to the relatively small number of reps. More size is built than with training for strength because the muscle sustains more microdamage as a result of the higher workload and the extra time under tension. This kind of training is also more effective at increasing the body’s production of testosterone and growth hormone, which are important for building muscle.

How do you develop muscular endurance?

Training for endurance involves performing 2 to 3 sets, each consisting of 13 or more reps (often 15 to 20), using low to moderate weights (less than 67% of your 1RM). This kind of training will mostly recruit Type I muscle fibers, thus helping you to develop good endurance but limited size and strength. Because the rest interval is short and the number of reps is high, sets are kept to a maximum of 3 to avoid overtraining.

How do you develop muscular size, strength, and endurance?

If you perform a mixture of low-rep training with heavy weights and high-rep training with moderate weights, you will recruit and strengthen the properties of all muscle fiber types and therefore develop good size, strength, and endurance. However, none of these properties will be emphasized.

How do you develop muscular power?

Power is developed by rapidly performing 1 to 5 reps using a heavy weight (75% to 90% of your 1RM), which recruits all fiber types but calls mainly on the properties of Type IIb muscle fibers. If performing just 1 or 2 reps, use 80% to 90% of your 1RM; if performing 3 to 5 reps, use 75% to 85% of your 1RM. The number of sets is kept between 3 and 5, with a 2- to 5-minute rest between sets. Power-building exercises involve generating a great force as rapidly as possible. Such exercises can be dangerous for beginners, so they are only recommended for intermediate and advanced lifters. To avoid injury, the exercises must be performed using optimal form, after fully warming up.

Optional adjustments

Whichever property you’re trying to develop, you may make the following adjustments to your workouts.

  • In order to get a good workout, small muscles, such as the biceps brachii and gastrocnemius, need fewer sets than do large muscles, such as the quadriceps and latissimus dorsi. Therefore, you may stick to the lower end of the set range when training small muscles and to the higher end of the set range when training large muscles
  • As explained in Types of weight training exercise, isolation exercises involve a single joint, whereas compound exercises involve two or more joints. In order to avoid placing too much pressure on a single joint, you may stick to the higher end of the rep range (and therefore to the lower amount of weight) when performing isolation exercises and to the lower end of the rep range (and therefore to the higher amount of weight) when performing compound exercises. Another argument in favor of avoiding heavy weights when performing isolation exercises is that, to help lift the heavy weight, surrounding muscle groups will often get involved, in which case you will no longer be isolating the muscle group as intended

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