3 December 2017 How Many Sets And Reps Should You Be Doing?
Novice fitness enthusiasts commonly ask the question, “How many sets and reps should I be doing?” Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and the question needs to be answered on an individual basis. The effectiveness of a resistance-training program to achieve a certain goal (i.e. maximal strength, power, endurance, or muscle size) depends largely on manipulating these variables.
Generally, low repetitions should be used when training for power or maximum strength and high repetitions for muscular endurance. (1) With regards to hypertrophy, recent evidence suggests low loads (high repetitions) and high loads (low repetitions) are equally effectual. (2) What repetition recommendations mean, is during your sets of a given exercise, you should reach fatigue within the advised repetition range. To fatigue within this repetition range, you can adjust the difficulty of the exercise by choosing harder progressions with bodyweight training or by adding more resistance with weight training. Note, training benefits are not exclusive to one outcome and are blended in any given program design. (1)
For those doing bodyweight strength training with the goal of achieving feats of great strength, such as planche push-ups and the one arm chin-up, primarily lower repetitions should be used. When progressing, you should focus on increasing the difficulty of the exercise, rather than increasing the number of repetitions. Training for high repetitions will not optimize maximal strength, which is imperative for these skills. Those training for aesthetics and muscle size can use a variety of repetition ranges. Those training for endurance goals should use higher repetitions. How many repetitions you should perform also depends on your level of experience. Beginners make greater strength gains using higher repetitions (lower intensity) than experienced athletes – see figure 1. (3) This is also the safer choice, reducing the risk of injury.
Figure 1. Optimal training load intensity as defined by the percentage of 1RM.
Now to the question of how many sets should you be doing? Volume describes the total amount of work performed within a period of time (i.e. repetitions x sets x load). Increased volume results in greater gains, up to a limit where it plateaus or potentially even declines. (3) To accumulate volume using lower repetition ranges, more sets need to be performed. This can be time consuming, as training at higher intensities (lower repetitions) also requires more rest time between sets due to central nervous system fatigue. High volume training is recommended for maximizing hypertrophy. (4)
How many sets you should perform also depends on your level of experience. Seasoned athletes require more volume and therefore more sets than beginners to optimize strength gains – see figure 2.
Figure 2. Volume of training: Optimal number of sets per muscle group during each workout.
Even when training for maximal strength, I seldom use less than 3 repetitions per set for long periods. Recurrent testing of 1 repetition maximum can be beneficial for monitoring progress, but training at such a high intensity over a long period increases the risk of injury and burnout. Those training at such high intensities should cycle between higher repetitions in a periodized manner.
A variety of programs can be used to achieve the same goal. Following are prescriptions adapted from the references below, that can be used for specific training goals:
Strength: the maximal contractile force that can be produced by a muscle or muscle group.
Novice individuals: Train with loads 12–15RM for 3–4 sets per muscle group.
Advanced individuals: Train cycling higher intensities of 1–8RM for 4-12 sets per muscle group.
Hypertrophy: An increase in the size of a muscle due an increase in the size of its component cells.
As long as enough volume is accumulated, both high and low loads can be equally effectual. From a practical standpoint, traditionally recommended moderate loads of 6-15 repetitions for 4-8 sets per muscle group are generally well tolerated. More advanced athletes should perform more sets per session, or more sessions per week, to increase total volume.
Endurance: The ability of a muscle to generate force repeatedly or continuously against resistance over time.
Individuals should train for 15+ repetitions for 1–3 sets with increasing volume for more advanced individuals.
Power: the ability of a muscle to produce as much force as possible, as quickly as possible.
3–6 sets of 1–6 repetitions in a periodized manner is recommended in addition to a typical strength training program. The focus should be to perform the movement as fast as possible and the set should stop short of failure. The volume of strength training will need to be reduced slightly to accommodate for the added power training volume.
Muscular power is a function of both speed and strength, or the product of force multiplied by speed. Heavy loading is necessary for increasing force, and light to moderate loading (0–60% of 1RM) performed at an explosive velocity is necessary for increasing fast force production.
In summary, the choice of how many sets and repetitions you perform should reflect your training goals as well as training experience.
(1) Bird SP, Tarpenning KM, Marino FE. Designing resistance training programmes to enhance muscular fitness: A review of the acute programme variables. Sports Med. 2005;35(10):841–51.
(2) Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW.Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low- versus high-load resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(12): 3508-3523.
(3) Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: a review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription. J Strength Cond Res. 2005;19(4):950–8.
(4) American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687–708.