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Training 101: The Ultimate Guide To Sets and Reps

author image Jon Goodman
Jon Goodman, CSCS is the Head Coach and Creator of the Personal Trainer Development Center. He also acts as the Senior Trainer at Body + Soul Fitness in Toronto.
Training 101: The Ultimate Guide To Sets and Reps
A young woman works out while listening to music through her headphones. Photo Credit diego_cervo/iStock/Getty Images


If you could peer inside the heads of most people at the gym, you’d probably see that their minds were doing one of the three things during their workout—stewing about work, singing along with the lyrics coming through their headphones, or counting to eight, 10, or 12. Set after set after set.

I may listen to Eminem or let my mind wander, but I can tell you one thing I don’t do: Stress about my reps.

The reason is simple: Strictly structured workouts – such as doing 3 sets of 10 reps because a piece of paper says so —is an archaic way of training. I’m not saying it doesn’t work; I’m just saying that you’ll make more out of your time in the gym if you forget the must-hit-a-number doctrine and learn to lift by more feel --and to suit your personality.

The old school of thought was that performing three to four sets of 6-10 reps was good for muscle gain. If you wanted to burn fat, you’d do more reps with a lighter weight, and move quicker. But the fact is that life’s more complicated than a strict program. Your kids get sick, your boss makes you pull a double-shift, or your homework takes several hours more than you thought it would. There are simply some days when you’re not firing on all cylinders. On those days when you come to the gym stressed, ill, or exhausted, pushing for 10 reps for three straight sets may actually be counterproductive in the long run.

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To determine the approach that will work best for you, you should understand the four fundamental approaches to sets and reps --and the results they tend to produce. Then you should take a look at your own lifting mentality so you can see your own training strengths and weaknesses – and learn how to evolve your thinking to produce even better results.

Know the Basics

Training 101: The Ultimate Guide To Sets and Reps
Photo Credit Jon Goodman

When it comes to reps, different numbers can help you reach different goals. While they can vary a bit, the general range for each is:

ID Yourself

While the above guidelines are helpful, they lack one important variable: You. Every person that steps into the gym finds that certain things work for them, and other things do not. Your mindset and outlook play a huge role in how you train. To develop a plan that’s going to be successful for you, you need to determine what kind of thinker you are when it comes to working out.

Your Style: By the Book

You exercise first and ask questions later. If someone hands you a lifting plan with a 1,500-word article explaining the theory behind it, you skip those pesky words and go straight to the workouts. You follow the plan exactly how it’s written out, performing precisely as many exercises, sets and reps as it prescribes.


Learn to read your body’s signals – and be okay with what they tell you. Stress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition - any of that stuff can affect your workouts. Heck, some New Age types say that even the position of the moon can affect your energy levels. Maybe that’s why today’s workout stunk. Or maybe you’re just having an off day. Whatever the reason, know that it’s okay to have them. You don’t always have to hit 10 reps (or whatever your target number is) on each set.

Though you’re prone to follow instructions exactly, recognize that a rep range is just that: A range. Don’t think you always have to hit the upper limit. Your goal is to push past your comfort zone. If you bang out 10 reps and have more energy, complete another rep or two, and then increase the difficulty on the next set. In fact, if you’re always hitting 10 reps when your range is 6-10, try a using a heavier weight or more challenging variation of the exercise. If you’re having a really great day and finish all of your sets and reps with energy to spare, go ahead and take on a bonus set.

Your Style: Plug-And-Play

You like to try new things, but don’t stray too far from the path. You skim articles and understand the gist of them, but for the most part you still run with the template. Occasionally you’ll replace exercises the author chooses with similar moves that you like better (i.e. going with sumo deadlifts instead of Romanian deadlifts) but you keep the crux of the workout the same.


Step outside your comfort zone and try something new. If you’ve been working in the strength zone since the beginning of time, it’s time to try a hypertrophy approach. If you’ve only been doing high reps, cut them in half and increase the weight. Even if your goal isn’t building muscle or gaining strength, you need to see how your body responds to these changes. They might help you achieve the goals you’ve been looking for. You’ll probably be sore after the first week, but give your new approach some time. You might be amazed at the results you see.

Your Style: Custom Made

You’ve read so many articles, and read them so carefully, that you probably know more than the staff of personal trainers at your gym. You don’t just want a workout plan, you want to understand the logic behind it. You may even check reference materials to fully understand how the author developed their theory. Instead of using workout templates, you absorb concepts and apply them to your own training. Sometimes this means you change things up with an existing workout, other times you draw up an entirely original workout based on new ideas.


Lift by feel. Don’t concern yourself with the numbers. Instead research new theories as a way to test yourself and see what you respond to best. For most this is a matter of setting concrete, realistic goals (build muscle, increase strength, lower fat), and then seeing what strategies work well for your body. But more importantly, focus on the mental aspect of your training. As you mature and improve your fitness, it becomes harder to make dramatic changes.

Think about it—losing the first 20 pounds feels like a breeze compared to melting the last five. So your goal is to find a rep range that maintains a higher level of mental focus. For some people that’s three reps, for others it’s 15. Improving your psychological approach in the gym and having 100 percent of your mental energy dedicated to your program will ensure that you have more intense and effective workouts. At this level, that is ultimately what will bring you closer to your goal.

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