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The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training

Everything You Need to Know to Hit Your Muscle-Building Goals

by
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.
The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training
The number of reps isn't the "be all, end all" of your workout. Photo Credit shironosov/iStock/Getty Images

Overview

If you could look inside the heads of most people at the gym, you’d probably see their minds doing one of the three things during their workout -- thinking about work, singing along with the songs in their headphones or counting out their reps.

But let's take a closer look at that last one.

Strictly structured workouts -- such as doing three sets of 10 reps because a piece of paper says so -- is an archaic way of training. Not that it doesn’t work; but you’ll make more 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 six to 10 reps was good for muscle gain. If you wanted to burn fat, you’d do more reps with a lighter weight, and move more quickly.

But the fact is that life’s more complicated than a set program. Your kids get sick, your boss makes you pull a double-shift or your homework takes longer than you thought it would. And there are 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.

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

Start With the Basics

The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training
Depending on your goal, you'll need to vary your sets and reps. Photo Credit AceFitness.org

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 as follows:

--For general fitness, do one to two sets of eight to 15 reps at 65 to 80 percent of your maximum effort.

--For muscular endurance, do two to three sets of 12 reps or more at 60 to 70 percent of your max.

--To gain muscle mass (hypertrophy), do three to six sets of six to 12 reps at 70 to 80 percent of your max.

--For muscular strength, do two to six sets of less than six reps at 80 to 90 percent of your max.

--To generate maximum power, you can three to five sets of either one to two or three to five reps at greater than 90 percent of your max.

Know Your Training Style

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 don't. 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. Keep reading to determine your training style and how to make it work best for you.

Your Style: By the Book

The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training
You rarely (if ever) stray from your workout plan. Photo Credit Adobe Stock/Africa Studio

THIS IS YOU IF: 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.

NOW EVOLVE YOUR THINKING: 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.

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 six to 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

The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training
Your workout -- like the rest of your life -- is a little flexible. Photo Credit Adobe Stock/WavebreakMediaMicro

THIS IS YOU IF: 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.

NOW EVOLVE YOUR THINKING: 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

The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training
You know your goals and how to reach them. Photo Credit Adobe Stock/SolisImages

THIS IS YOU IF: You’ve read so many articles -- and read them so carefully -- 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.

NOW EVOLVE YOUR THINKING: 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.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you strength train? What is your goal for your current program? To build muscle? Gain strength? Or to improve your overall health? Did you find that you identify with one of these training styles? Are you by the book or more custom made? Did you find this advice helpful? Share your thoughts, stories and questions in the comments section below!

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