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All about reps and sets

All about reps and sets
This article covers all about reps and sets needed to create your workout routines for your specific goals with regards resistance exercises. It also includes the various ways you can work a repetition to maximise its effectiveness. Get ready as there is quite a bit to take in, so make yourself comfortable!

Reps and sets explained

How many reps and sets should I do and how should I do them? These are questions often asked and very much often argued about. Research shows varying results for different ranges of reps and sets as can be expected, as individual people are genetically different and have different muscle fibres and attachments and lengths of muscle from one another. However there are some general rules that can help you choose what is best for your goals. It may also help if you read the introduction to your body and the effects of exercise on the body articles first.

What is a rep?

A rep is the action of doing an exercise from its start position through to a range of motion whether partial or full and then back again to its start position. Each cycle of this motion will count as one repetition.

What is a set?

A set comprises of a number of consecutive reps you do for an exercise. So if you plan on doing 8 reps for an exercise, 3 times, then it will normally be written as 3 x 8 (3 sets of 8 reps). Each set is also normally separated with a brief rest period before the next set is attempted.

Introduction to reps

What are the common rep ranges?

High reps (15+) – This rep range is generally used to increase muscular endurance and building capillaries, which will aid in supplying more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. This rep range will see you lifting lighter weights with rest periods between sets lasting from 30 seconds to 60 seconds.

Moderate reps (8-12) – This is an optimal rep range for building muscle size through Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which is essentially the fluid and its components that surrounds muscle fibres. Also this rep range can still be an effective way to increase strength. This rep range also keeps your muscles under tension long enough to increase lactate acid build up, that in turn will make the body produce more HGH (human growth hormone) and testosterone. You will also get a pump and force blood into the muscle and increase protein synthesis (the creation of protein for growth). You will need to use moderately heavy weights with rests between sets of between 60 seconds and 90 seconds.

Low reps (3-6) – Lifting in this rep range is ideal for strength gains and size gains. The strength and size gain is created from the increase in the size of the actual muscle fibres. You would usually use compound exercises with heavy weights and rest periods of between 120 seconds and 240 seconds between sets.

What rep range should I work in?

So the question of which rep range is best. Well that depends on your goals. As mentioned above, at the very basic level, you need high reps for endurance, medium reps for muscle size, low reps for strength, that’s not to say you couldn’t see size or strength gains in a variety of rep ranges. However working out in the same rep range can lead to a plateau, where your body gets used to that rep range and stops progressing. It also doesn’t give you all round physical abilities or maximise your gains. To combat this you can either train different rep ranges at different times (see heavy days and light days below) or even during a single workout (see holistic training below). If you would also like to do a mixed style workout, please also see my combo training article.

How many reps per week should you do?

Ideally most people will benefit from working larger muscles (chest, shoulders, back, legs) and your calves with between 60-120 reps per week and 30-60 reps for your smaller muscles (biceps, triceps, abs). Shoulder work can vary a lot and will depend on whether you want to do a lot of assistance/rotator cuff exercises as well. Of course this is a rough and broad amount and you will be looking on the lower end if lifting heavier weights and at the higher end if lifting lighter weights. If you are an advanced lifter the rep count could even exceed the higher end by some margin, depending on your goals and level of training.

Introduction to sets

Warm up sets and work sets

Let’s start off by explaining that work sets are the sets that you use to actually get those muscles working, growing and getting stronger. While warm up sets are there to prepare your joints, ligaments, muscles and body for the work it is about to do.

Now apart from your general warm up procedure mentioned here (which I highly recommend the older trainer to do), if you plan on lifting heavy weights, you would be advised to do a few warm up sets. Therefore when you start your first exercise (usually a compound exercise) it is a good idea to do a few warm up sets first. For example, if you plan to do a bench press with a work set of 200lbs for 8 reps, your warm up will be:

25% of your work set weight – with double the reps – fast paced
50% of your work set weight – at your work reps – medium paced
100% of your work set weight – for 25% of your work reps – slow paced

So it will look like this for a 200lb work set of 8 rep bench presses:

50lbs for 16 reps – fast paced reps
100lbs for 8 reps – medium paced reps
200lbs for 2 reps – slow paced reps

You do not want to tire your muscles with these warmup sets, instead you are using these sets to practise the lift and your form, as well as help warm the joints up before going heavy and allows the fluid between your joints to lubricate them. Warmup sets will also help prepare the nervous system and your muscles for the work ahead.

You only really need to do warm up sets on the first exercise of your workout, although you can also do them for the first exercise for each of your major muscle groups if you wish, but you do not need to do it for every exercise you have planned in your workout session. So if you plan on doing chest with bench presses and then incline flyes, then you only do a warm up for the bench press exercise. The same is true for your smaller muscle groups such as your biceps and triceps if you have worked the associated major muscle group for those muscles beforehand, i.e. your back before your biceps, your chest or even deltoids before your triceps, then you do not need to do any warm up sets for these smaller muscle groups.

How many working sets should I do?

Let me start off by saying that the workouts you read about in magazines or some professional athlete or bodybuilder doing is of no use to the average trainer. Their diets, genetics and sometimes substance use, makes them able to handle large volumes of work and recover from it. The average trainer, especially older trainers needs to stimulate their muscles and recover using a much more sensible approach that suits their physical standing.

The number of sets to do per exercise will depend on the number of exercises and reps you plan to do in your workout session. Divide your sets based on the reps range (see reps above) for your chosen goal. Remember each successive set gives you diminishing results for your effort, so you end up working harder for less in return, i.e. your first working set will give you the biggest benefits and each successive set less so. Ideally a muscle should get enough stimulus from 2-3 sets of an exercise if you are doing the exercises correctly. Here are some examples:

If I plan to work my chest twice a week within the 60-120 total rep range for the week, with one session heavy(ish) and the other lighter, it could be divided as follows:

Heavy(ish) workout:
Flat Bench press 3 sets x 6 reps
Incline Dumbbell press 3 sets x 6 reps
Total reps = 36

Light workout:
Flat Dumbbell press 3 sets x 12 reps
Incline Flyes 3 sets x 12 reps
Total reps = 72

Total reps for chest for the week = 108

This is a very rough example, you don’t have to get out your calculator, it’s not a numbers game, but just be aware that in order to provide enough stimulus and work for muscle development that it requires some volume, but not too much to make the right gains. As a side note there’s also nothing stopping you from doing one exercise with low reps followed by one exercise with higher reps. Such as:

Flat Bench press 3 sets x 6 reps
Incline Flyes 3 sets x 12 reps
Total reps = 54

As a side note to the number of reps per week, you should look to be doing between 10-20 sets per body parts per week.

Performance of your reps and sets

How to perform your reps

Another important factor is how you perform a rep and yes the way in which you lift a weight can also have an affect on the effectiveness and/or the results of your workout.

Range of motion

Most trainers will have been taught that using a full range of motion on each of their exercises is the way to go. Full range of motion is to take an exercise and to do a repetition from ‘close to fully stretched’ to ‘close to fully contracted/flexed’. As you are looking to maximise muscle size and or build a balanced physique, the majority of your rep range should be done in its natural full range of motion. A full range of motion allows you to stretch a muscle under load. This stretching under load can create small microscopic tears in the muscle, as it struggles to hold that load. The tears are then repaired with the muscle being made bigger to compensate for the next time that load is placed upon it (however please read and take note about your form during executing an exercise below). Using a full range of motion should make up the majority of your lifts and is most effective, but improper form can cause injuries.

Now with regards doing partial reps. Partial reps are actually closest to real life movements, as in real life you wouldn’t normally use a full range of motion to move an object. There are two reasons you may want to do partial reps in your training:

The first is for strength training and increasing muscle size and to strengthen ligaments and tendons through hyper loading a muscle beyond its normal lifting capacity. Many of the compound exercises that you would normally do with a full range of motion can also be done with a partial rep range. However partial reps do need to be used sparingly and correctly if you are going to use them. To do a partial rep, the majority of exercises should be done closer to your mid to near fully extended position, which is normally your strongest position in an exercise. You will also therefore be able to lift heavier weights than with full range of motion. But of course in order to do this you will either need a spotter (a person who can watch and be prepared to take/help with a weight you are using) or use a rack or machine for safety reasons. However, there is no advantage to doing partial reps from the fully stretched position, as a partial rep is usually done with a much heavier weight than that of a full range of motion rep and by using a very heavy weight from a full stretch position it can be both dangerous and/or create injuries. The only exception to doing a partial rep at full stretch is if you are purely looking to work a weak point in a movement or you are looking to add that little bit more intensity at the end of your last set.

The second reason to do partial reps would be for exercises where there is no advantages to raise or lower a weight into a position that takes the tension off a muscle due to gravity no longer working against it. For instance, exercises like chest fly exercises on a bench and side lateral raises (see exercise list here).

Exercise Form

When doing an exercise it is most important to do so with the best form you can to avoid injuries and to maximise the return on your effort. The name ‘full range of motion‘ can actually be easily misinterpreted to wrongly imply that you must go to the extremes of extension and stretch. However a muscle must be kept under tension to reap the full benefits of a set of an exercise, so most exercises should stop just short of locking out to maintain tension in the muscle. Also over stretching a muscle can lead to injuries, you must use a range of motion that feels comfortable. If you are not comfortable with an exercise doing a full range of motion, then change it to another exercise, you should not be hearing clicks or crunching noises coming from your joints. The small tears needed to promote growth and adaption are from a load placed against a stretched muscle (a muscle under tension), not from over stretching a muscle to the point it wants to rip itself from your tendons, so don’t put yourself in a position of over extending a muscle beyond a comfortable range. Keeping a muscle under tension for a period of time (called time under tension) is a major part in muscle development.

At no point should you be using momentum or swinging the weights up to get the weights to their finish position. You must use an appropriate weight for the exercise, which allows you to complete the required reps without cheating. Don’t allow your ego to take over.

Training to failure

This is another hotly debated subject. But something that needs to be covered and explained. Firstly what is training to failure? Well it is taking an exercise to momentary muscular failure, where it becomes extremely hard for you to complete the next repetition in good form.

Interesting to note is that recent studies have shown that it doesn’t really seem to matter too much whether you lift heavy or light weights when wanting to stimulate muscle into growing, as long as you train the muscle sufficiently enough to stimulate growth and recent studies have shown you do not need to work a muscle to failure.

However, here’s my take on training to failure. You should ideally complete your warm up sets, then fall short of going to failure by around 1-2 reps in your first few work set. Then your final set you can aim towards training to failure with good exercise form (remember, you must be able to complete the last rep in good form and not try for another rep in which you cheat or struggle and fail to complete the next rep).

Again and as a side note, training to the point of failure makes it way too easy to cheat and you gradually lose your form and technique and may even suffer an injury. Training to failure can also take a toll on your body and your nervous system and slow the recovery time down if you follow a high frequency workout plan. Listen to your body and learn what is best for you on any given day.

Mind to muscle link

Something that you hear often when it comes to building muscle is the mind to muscle link. Essentially when you move a weight, you do not want to just simply move it from A to B. Your muscles work by your brain sending a signal to your muscles to contract and in normal circumstances this is an automatic non thinking function. However what you want to do when you move a weight is to concentrate on the entire movement. Notice I said move, not lift a weight. The majority of people, especially beginners do not realise that the negative part of the exercise, the deceleration of the weight is as important if not more so than the lifting part. Therefore you need to concentrate and focus on the working muscle, feel the contraction/squeeze and then concentrate on slowing the weight down as it returns to the start of the exercise and not just let it drop. Remember it’s that time under tension that helps a muscle develop. Do this and you will have given your muscles the best chance to reap the benefits of the exercise and not waste your time.

Rep tempo

This is something a lot of people skip over or lose focus on with over time. However it can be quite important in maximising your efforts and gains. Of course there are many variables with your rep tempo that will depend on what your training for. For the purpose of this website I’ll be mostly concentrating on and talking about tempos that help with strength and muscle size. So let’s break this down:

Rep speed

The speed that you lift and lower a weight and also pause a weight at the beginning and end of an exercise can make a difference to its effectiveness. The most important part of doing an exercise is its effectiveness to stimulate and engage a muscle and the time the muscle is under tension against a load can improve its development in the area you want to train it.

By doing an exercise with full control of its movement rather than blindly just lifting and lowering a weight you can improve your mind to muscle link, have more stability, reduce potential injury and of course increase performance and development.

So what speed should you look to do your exercises? Firstly some exercises will of course take longer than others, simply due to the length of the muscle being worked and the range of motion for that muscle. For instance a calf raise is not going to take as long as a full squat. With that out of the way, as a beginner the most important thing to do is to be in full control of an exercise and to lift with good form. This will require a slowish speed of lift and an even slower speed for lowering. I would recommend 2-3 seconds up and maybe 1 second pause at the top of an exercise (do not lockout an exercise and do not pause if there is no gravity or force working against the muscle, you want to keep the muscle contracted and in tension and working not resting), then 3-4 seconds lowering the weight back down, with no rest at the bottom (remembering to adhere to good form). Only do this tempo speed until you are comfortable with the exercise.

For more advanced trainers, who have good control of an exercise and can lift with good form, I’d recommend a more explosive lift of around 1-2 seconds and a 2-4 second lowering phase to an exercise. Try to think of your muscle as a spring, exploding the resistance into a contraction and then fighting against the resistance back to the start position.

Remember these are approximate timings, you may alter them to increase the intensity of your exercise or if you are lifting a heavier weight slow the tempo down or for endurance use a more constant tempo, but try to stick to good form with a tempo that gives you a reasonable amount of speed on the lift, very little if any pause at the contracted position (keep the squeeze and tension on, no locking out) and then slower controlled lowering of the weight (don’t let the weight drop), as the negative part of an exercise is actually more important than the lift, fight that weight back down. I also don’t like pausing at the beginning of an exercise either, so get straight into the next rep. It’s hard, but really what are you lifting a weight for, keep that muscle under tension and get that set done as efficiently and effectively as you can. If you can’t keep a good tempo, then you are probably lifting a weight that is too heavy to control effectively.

Breathing when performing a rep

Within the exercise section I have already incorporated how you should breath during an exercise, but here I want to expand on it little bit more. Generally speaking when you lift a weight you want to be breathing out (exhaling) and when you lower a weight you want to be breathing in (inhaling). However this can change depending on the type of workout you are doing and the speed of your repetition. Therefore don’t let your breathing interrupt the flow or concentration of your lift, if you need to take a second breath at mid point or on the negative portion of your rep then do so and take a deeper bigger breath before exploding the weight up. Don’t let your lifting of the weight dictate your breathing, try to breath naturally and time your lift to that. What you don’t want to do, is hold your breath throughout an exercise – that’s for powerlifters and strongmen stuff – please also see valsalva manouver.

How to perform your sets

There are many ways to perform your work sets. Here are the ones that I recommend for the majority of trainers to this site.

Straight sets

Here you do an exercise for the same amount of reps for each set with the same amount of weight. So for instance you do 12 reps with a weight you could probably do 15 or more reps with, rest, do 12 reps again for the next set, rest and then again do 12 reps for your next/final set again stopping just short of failure. This cumulative fatigue method works well for many, but does take a few attempts and a little experience to work out the desired weights needed.

Super-sets with antagonistic exercises

Here is another great method for an upper/lower or full body workout (these workout routines are explained here, read about them within the series of articles for this section). Antagonistic pairing of muscles is were one muscle contracts while the opposite muscle relaxes. Here you do a set of an exercise for a given body part and then follow immediately with a set of an exercise for a body part on the opposite side. For example back/chest or biceps/triceps or quads/hamstrings. This method is great for creating shorter workouts, a great pump, balanced muscle development and increased strength. So for example, do your first set of an exercise for the first body part, then follow this with the first set for the opposite body part, rest, do the 2nd set for each body part again, then do your final set for each body part one after the other again. Of course with doing two sets in a row, this method is a little more tiring, but a great time saver.

Rest between sets

I’ve already mentioned timing above for this in the reps section. However just to clarify, the rest you take between sets will be determined by your goals for that particular workout. As a rough guide:

If you are looking to increase muscular endurance then you will want to take between 30 seconds and 60 seconds rest between your sets. If you are looking to build muscle then look to have between 60-90 seconds rest between sets. If you are lifting heavy weight and/or strength training take between 120 seconds and 240 seconds between sets. Also as a general rule, bigger muscle groups use more muscle fibres and therefore require more oxygen, which in turn may need more time to get your breathe back and remove the lactic acid build up in your muscles.

Making progress from workout to workout

Progressive overload

Well I wasn’t too sure where best to slot this in within the series, but feel it may be best suited to being placed here. When you lift a weight your muscles work to carry out that movement. If that weight is too heavy for your muscles to lift it multiple times or even hold that weight for any real length of time, it will be inefficient at creating the right environment for growth or adaption. However if you lift a heavy enough weight that places stress on your muscle but allows you to either lift that weight a number of times or puts that muscle under tension for a reasonable period of time then adaptive processes take place, so that your muscles can try to cope with that load again. However once that adaption has taken place and your muscles get stronger or increases its endurance capacity depending on how you were working the muscle, then that stress will no longer be optimal at forcing it to adapt any further.

This is where progressive overload comes in. You simply need to keep placing new stress on those muscles by increasing either the rep count or the load on the muscle to keep it progressing. It is however important to do this while still using good form and it will not always be possible to keep adding weight. Sometimes you may even need to take a step or two back. One way I like to increase the weight I use, is to actually increase the reps I do instead for a given weight, then when I reach a certain rep range, increase the weight and drop the reps back down. This is where your workout journal can help. Just be sure that you do not compromise form for a weight increase and if you need to, reduce the weight or reps back down again if necessary, until you can complete your desired reps with a given weight in good form.

Note: Progressive overload is something you don’t need to or should aim for every workout. If that was the case then trainers working out for 10-20 or more years would be able to lift huge amounts of weight and that just doesn’t happen.

Heavy days and light days

One way to keep all your muscle fibres (both slow twitch and fast twitch) working and growing, is to alternate between heavy days (with lower reps) and lighter days (with higher reps). On your heavy days you can stick to more compound exercises training in the 5-8 rep range and on the lighter days use which ever exercise you like and hit the muscles with 10-15+ reps. I’d recommend training just short of failure on both days to avoid injuries, keep good form and avoid getting too much assistance from other muscles and cheating.

Holistic training

Another approach to hitting all the muscle fibres is the holistic training method. A great ways to train from time to time. This entails you training a muscle from slow twitch muscle fibres to your fast twitch fibres. Working as many muscle fibres as possible in a single workout.

You can do this either by varying the weight and rep range in one exercise for full body workouts. Such as:

warmup set (empty bar or light weight done slow and deliberate, stopping short of tiring a muscle)
work set 1 – heavy (works fast twitch fibres) 5-6 reps, rest 3 minutes
work set 2  – medium 8-12 reps, rest 1.5 minutes
work set 3 – light 15-20 reps

Or use 3 separate exercises for an upper/lower split:

Exercise 1 heavy compound exercise (works fast twitch fibres) 5-6 reps, rest 3 minutes
Exercise 2 medium secondary compound exercise 8-12 reps, rest 1.5 minutes
Exercise 3 light isolation exercise (works slow twitch fibres) 15-20 reps

For those looking to really up the intensity, you can do giant sets, where you do all three exercises with no rest between them, but do several sets, resting for 3-5 minutes between each giant set.

Holistic rep speed

For heavy sets of 5-6 reps use a more explosive lift at around 1-2 seconds and a 2-4 second lowering time. For both medium weight sets of 8-12 reps and light sets of 15-20 reps use a mid speed lift at around 2-3 seconds and a 3-4 second lowering time.

More useful articles here:

Keeping a journal

Please also see the article about blood pressure

For more advanced training methods please see here