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The Basic Guide to Sets and Reps

With so many training variables to consider, such as which exercises you should do, how many days per week, and how long, it’s easy to get confused on determining what the effective dosage is for each exercise.

In this article I’ll explain the basics of set and rep selection, how these ranges are associated with various training goals, and how you can apply them effectively into your exercise program to get the results you want.

What is a Rep?

A rep or repetition is a single movement of an exercise. For instance, if you do 2 push ups in a row, you’ve done 2 reps.

What is a Set?

A set refers to a consecutive set of repetitions performed without rest. For example, if your program calls for 3 sets of 10 (3x10) squats , you’d want to do 10 squats in a row before taking a timed break. You’d then repeat this twice more for a total of 3 sets.

The heavier the load that you are lifting, the fewer reps that can be performed in one set; the lighter the load, the more reps that can be performed in one set. Later, you will see how this relationship determines the use of certain load and rep schemes according to your training goals.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?

Although some have advocated that performing 1 set to muscular failure is sufficient to maximize gains in strength and hypertrophy, the recommendations provided here support the practice of performing multiple sets of each exercise. Studies show that multi-set, higher volume workouts are superior to single set protocols, especially in experienced lifters [2]. The musculoskeletal system will eventually adapt to the stimulus of one set to failure and require the added stimulus of multiple sets for continued strength gains. Therefore, an athlete who performs multiple sets from the beginning will increase in strength faster than with single set training.

The ideal balance of sets and reps is determined by the intensity at which you are performing your workout. As stated earlier, the number of reps and the weight lifted (intensity) are inversely related: the higher the intensity, the lower the reps and vice versa.

Intensity is commonly described as a percentage of 1 rep maximum (1RM) - the most you can lift with proper technique for a single rep- or the most you can lift for a specified number of reps, rep maximum (RM).

For example, if you can perform ONLY 1 squat with 100 lbs., then your 1RM is 100 lbs. This would mean 80% of your 1RM is 80lbs. As the percentage of 1RM decreases, you will be able to successfully perform more repetitions. Table 1 shows the relationship between %1RM and the number for reps that can be performed at that load [1].

Table 1.

If we look at 80% 1RM, we can see that you should be able to complete 8 reps. In essence, you can complete 1 rep at 100lbs and 8 reps at 80lbs.

Reps are categorized into 3 basic ranges: low rep (1-5), moderate reps (6-12), and high reps (12+). These 3 categories are roughly divided by the different energy systems used for each range: Phosphagen System, Glycolysis (slow and fast), and The Oxidative (Aerobic) System. These systems differ in their ability to supply energy at a certain rate for activities of various intensities and durations.

Phosphagen System and Fast Glycolysis: Used for short duration, low rep, and high intensity activities (power/strength) because they can produce a small amount of energy, but at a faster rate.

The Oxidative System: Used for long duration, high rep, and low intensity activities (muscular endurance) because it can provide larger amounts of energy, but at a slower rate.

Any activity between these two extremes, such as hypertrophy, shifts between Fast and Slow Glycolysis depending on the duration and intensity of the program.

It is important to note that all energy systems are working simultaneously, however their overall contribution to energy production is highly dependent on the goal being trained. Each energy system affects the neuromuscular system in specific ways, ultimately impacting the physical composition of the muscle, so we want to make sure we train according to our goal.

Power: (1-3 reps @ 80%-90% RM; 3-5 sets)

The goal of power training is to increase the rate at which your muscle produces force. Think: quick, explosive movements. This is usually applied to complex olympic lifts for elite level athletes (football, basketball, volleyball etc).

Power exercises require low reps and high intensity, but cannot be maximally loaded. Even if you are performing only 1 rep, power training at 100% 1RM is not recommended because it’s detrimental to maintaining form. Instead, lifters are encouraged to use 80-90% 1RM. Loads slightly lighter than maximum and lower rep count allow the athlete to complete each repetition with maximum speed while maintaining the integrity of the lift.

Strength: (Up to 6 reps @ >85% 1RM; 3-6 sets)

The goal of strength training is to improve the maximal force that a muscle can generate, in other words to simply lift heavier weight. The ultimate goal is to increase the weight you can lift for 1 repetition (1RM).

Strength training requires low reps and high intensity, primarily utilizing multi-joint lifts (deadlift, barbell squat, bench) that allow for heavier loading. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), research has determined that several sets of 3-6 repetitions resulted in maximal strength gains by increasing neural adaptations and progressively increasing intensity.

Also, it is important that when training for strength to take long rest periods between sets so that maximal effort can be applied to each rep.

Hypertrophy: (8-12 reps @ 67%-85% 1RM; 3-6 sets)

The goal of hypertrophy training is to increase muscular size. Hypertrophy is beneficial to those looking to increase lean muscle mass, burn fat, and improve aesthetics. This goal is applicable to all persons looking to improve their health and fitness because increasing lean muscle mass improves overall body composition.

Research supports the requirement of higher volume workouts in order to increase muscle mass (3-6 sets). In order to do so, hypertrophy uses a moderate range of reps and a moderate intensity. Moderate rep range training causes metabolic stress that has been shown to increases the buildup of metabolites, anabolic hormone response, and time under tension (Schoenfeld, 2010). The perfect combination for the remodeling of muscle tissue.

Muscular Endurance: (>12 reps @ <67% 1RM; 2-3 sets)

The goal of muscular endurance training is to train the muscle to resist fatigue and challenge the cardiovascular system. This type of training is ideal for marathon runners, cyclists, and other long sustaining exercise.

Emphasizing muscular endurance demands higher reps and low intensity to sustain activity for a determined period of time. Muscular endurance involves a minimal amount of rest in order to train the muscle’s resistance to fatigue (up to 30 seconds), characteristic to circuit training. Muscular endurance applies to those looking to lose weight and improve their cardiorespiratory fitness without significantly increasing strength or muscle mass.

For your reference, the below table summarizes all the information I’ve covered:

Of course there are many other complex resistance training protocols that utilize a combination of the guidelines I’ve outlined here. But, I hope this gives you the fundamentals to start on the right path toward your goal.


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