Sets and Reps

Target your weight training routine to achieve your goals by choosing the right combination of sets and repetitions.

Let’s take a look at sets and reps, part of the core of your weight training routine. The number of repetitions (reps) of an exercise that you do depends on your goal. The number of reps you can do is limited by the weight of the resistance (provided by free weights, machines, or other devices). If you lift, say, a 10-pound dumbbell, as many times as you can, that will obviously be more than you could lift a 15-pound dumbbell (always assuming good technique) for the same exercise. If you do as many reps as you can, until your muscle gives out and you cannot finish another rep with good technique, that is called going to muscle failure, or just failure.

Before we get to how many reps you need to use, let’s examine the controversy over whether you should really go to failure on your exercises. Some people feel very strongly about this, and studies have shown success with both approaches. Let’s consider the safety factor, which is not always mentioned. If you are doing heavy barbell bench presses alone with no one else at home, should you go to failure? Of course not, unless you’re ready to spend the rest of the day with a barbell on your chest. Overhead lifts, like military presses, and complex lifts, like squats, can also get you in trouble if you go to failure, because you may lose control or compromise technique, which can lead to injury.

It is safer to go to failure when using machines, and it’s usually acceptable when you are doing something like a biceps curl or 1-arm row, where you can just set the dumbbell on the floor if you can’t complete your rep. Most ab exercises can be taken to failure. In most cases, it is safer and just as effective, especially with free weights, to stop a rep or two short of failure. You will get, if you pay attention to your body, to a point where you know you cannot do another rep with good technique. You can grind out another by compromising your technique, but that doesn’t count. What about stopping several reps short, such as doing only 10 reps when you could really complete 15? Don’t waste your time.

The number of reps you do in a set depends on your goals. For general fitness, the range 8-12 reps is most common. Using progressive resistance (which is necessary to continue to improve), when you can do 12 reps, you increase the weight lifted (resistance), which means you will not be able to do as many reps so will go back to 8 or so. This is also the bodybuilding or muscle building range. To emphasize strength gains, increase resistance to where you can only complete 4-8 reps. There is some overlap, of course, and you will get stronger with the bodybuilding protocol and increase muscle size when you work for strength. The reason the strength routine doesn’t give you the biggest muscles is that much of strength is neurological, so by lifting heavier weights, you train your nervous system to recruit more of the muscle.

Depending on the individual, the range of 12-15 reps to near failure (muscular fatigue) may give good gains in both strength and size, but when you go over that, you are working muscular endurance. If you work only muscular endurance, and there may be good reasons for doing that, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot of muscle size or definition. The lowest range, 1-3 reps, is generally only used by strength and power athletes, and is of less interest to most of us.

How many sets should you do? There are proponents of the one-set-to-failure routine. To simplify, the idea is that if you go to muscle failure, you’ve already stimulated the muscle as much as it’s going to be stimulated that day, so why do more? This can be deceptive, as not everybody means the same thing by one set. People who train heavy may do one set to failure, but preface that with several warm-up sets. Some such routines have you doing one set to failure on a series of Nautilus machines, which is not practical if you train at home. On the other hand, one set per exercise for 10-12 exercises, usually on machines, has been shown to be successful in some studies, especially for beginners and for general fitness.

Multiple sets to fatigue (just short of failure) is the most common alternative to single set to failure routines. Three sets is standard, although there is no reason you can’t do 2. Four or 5 sets is about all you should do, or you reach a point of diminishing returns. After that, you should switch exercises if you want to continue working that body part. Do no more than 10-12 sets total for large muscles, and 4-8 sets for small muscles.

You can also mix it up. For instance, do 4 sets of flat bench presses, 3 sets of incline presses, and 1 or 2 sets of dumbbell flies for your chest workout. The most important exercise gets the most sets. If you do triceps in this same workout, you could limit your triceps exercises to 2 sets, because you have worked them in the bench presses. If you are really targeting your triceps, you would do more, but be careful of over-training your arms.

With most recommendations, a set is a set, regardless of the number of repetitions involved. As a practical matter, though, if you are lifting heavier weights (for fewer reps), you will probably require more light warm-up sets, so you will be doing more total sets, although the number of work sets would be the same. If you are doing one set of an exercise, do not do less than 8-10 reps, or you may not have the requisite time under tension to get results. If you are doing very high reps for endurance, you may not want to do more than one set per exercise, because you will begin to be limited by anaerobic waste products.

One more thing to consider when choosing rep and set schemes is personal preference. I usually work in the 6-10 rep range and do no more than 4 work sets, with sometimes only one for some exercises. I just don’t like to do high reps, but some people love it. You do have to choose something that takes you at least to muscular fatigue. It may be uncomfortable at the time, but it feels good afterward.

Let’s sum this up with a few recommendations.

–If your goal is to gain muscle, gain muscle and lose fat, or improve muscle tone and definition, do at least 1 exercise per body part, 1-3 sets and 8-12 reps per exercise, to muscle fatigue.

–If you have a more ambitious bodybuilding goal, do more than 1 exercise per body part, 2-4 sets per exercise, and 8-12 reps, to muscle fatigue.

–If you are a beginner, choose 1 exercise per body part, do 2 or 3 light sets of 10-15 reps, not to failure, for 2 weeks or until you learn the exercises. Then go on to another routine that suits your goals.

–If you are interested in general fitness and have limited time to work out, do 1 set each of 8-10 exercises, covering all body parts, with 8-12 repetitions, to muscle fatigue or failure, if you are using machines and are comfortable with that.

–If your goal is to get stronger, choose 1 major exercise for each body part and do 4-5 sets of 4-8 reps. Add other exercises for fewer sets and the same amount of reps, as your time and energy level allows. Stop just short of failure, for safety reasons.

If you want to improve muscular endurance, choose 1 or 2 appropriate exercises for the muscles you want to target, and choose a weight that allows you to do more than 15 reps, then go to failure for 1 or 2 sets.

Use rest periods of 30-60 seconds between sets for muscle building and 2 or 3 minutes for strength improvement, with no more than 30 seconds for endurance training. Do each rep slowly and under control. Do not train the same muscles two days in a row.

You don’t have to stick with the protocol you choose now forever. Variety in sets and reps is as important to your long-term success as variety in exercises. In another article I will describe “periodization,” which is a way of planning ahead that lets you get the most out of variety in sets and reps. For now, pick the protocol that best matches your goals, and enjoy lifting.

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