Beginners Guide to Sets, Repetitions, and Rest Intervals

Woman doing a bench press
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Sets, repetitions, and rest intervals are the basis of weight training programs. You need to know what they mean and how to mix and match them for best effect to reach your goals. Your training program will differ in the weights used, number of repetitions and sets, rest intervals, and speed of execution depending on whether you are training for fitness, muscle hypertrophy, strength, power, or endurance.

Sets, Reps, and Rest Intervals

A repetition (rep) is one completion of an exercise, such as one deadlift, one bench press, one arm curl.

A set is a series of repetitions performed sequentially. For example, eight repetitions can be one set of bench presses.

The rest interval is the time spent resting between sets that allow the muscle to recover. The rest period between sets is usually in the range of 30 seconds to two minutes. Some exercises also have short or minor rests between reps.

A repetition maximum (RM) is your personal best or the most you can lift once in a single repetition of an exercise. Therefore, a 12RM is the most you can lift and successfully perform 12 repetitions with proper form.

Example:

Barbell Overhead Press: 50 pounds 3 X 10 RM, 60 seconds

That would mean three sets of ten (maximum) presses using a weight of 50 pounds, with 60-second rests between sets.

Rest Periods

In general terms, rest between sets fall within these ranges for different training goals:

  • Strength: 2-5 minutes
  • Muscle Hypertrophy: 30-60 seconds
  • Muscle Endurance: 30-60 seconds
  • Power: 1-2 minutes

These are general principles, yet you can devise many combinations of sets, reps, rest and exercise types to find the best for you. A qualified strength and conditioning trainer can help you plan the best program for you.

Speed of Exercise Execution

Contraction velocity is the speed at which an exercise is performed. This has an effect on training goals and results.

Here are general guidelines.

  • Strength: 1-2 seconds concentric and eccentric
  • Hypertrophy: 2-5 seconds concentric and eccentric
  • Endurance: 1-2 seconds concentric and eccentric
  • Power: Less than 1 second concentric, 1-2 seconds eccentric

How to Calculate Repetition Maximums (RM)

According to the US National Strength and Conditioning Association, the theoretical distribution of repetitions against a percentage of 1RM (your maximum lift) is distributed as follows. This example uses a bench press where your 1RM is 160 pounds:

  • 100% of 1RM: 160 pounds, 1 repetition
  • 85% of 1RM: 136 pounds, 6 repetitions
  • 67% of 1RM: 107 pounds, 12 repetitions
  • 65% of 1RM: 104 pounds, 15 repetitions
  • 60% of 1RM: 96 pounds, warmup reps

You should be able to do one lift at your personal best, six lifts at 85 percent of your personal best, and 15 lifts at 65 percent of your 1RM personal best, with percentages for any lift in between.

Don’t consider this an absolute reference; it’s a guide and a basis from which to choose appropriate weights for working out in conjunction with the information on sets and reps above.

What's Best for Your Goals

What number of reps, how many sets, and what amount of rest time works best for your goals? Here’s how it works in broad terms; the finer details depend on your goals and current fitness.

Training for General Fitness

A basic fitness program should target both strength and muscle building. When deciding on reps and sets, somewhere in the range eight to 15 repetitions for two to four sets will help you accomplish both. Choosing eight to 12 exercises is also a good idea, as is making sure to hit your lower and upper body, and your core. At this stage, don't lift too heavy or too light (you should feel fatigued by the last rep, but it shouldn't be overly difficult) to ensure a good foundation before trying more goal-specific workouts.

Training for Strength

Strength training uses the most weight, least number of repetitions, and longest rest periods. When your aim is building strength, lift heavier for fewer reps, compared to when you're trying to build muscle size or muscular endurance. For example, those with a strength goal might use a 5x5 system. That means five sets of five repetitions. You'll use relatively higher loads for these reps and sets, plus take a longer rest between sets (about three to five minutes). The neuromuscular system responds to heavyweights by increasing your ability to lift those heavy loads. While adequate muscle is also required, training for muscle does not necessarily improve strength, just size. 

Training for Muscle Hypertrophy

Hypertrophy for muscle size and bodybuilding training utilizes lighter weights, more repetitions and less rest time. Muscle requires metabolic stress to increase in size. This means working the muscle to the point where lactate builds and muscle suffers internal damage. Size increases occur when you rest, eat appropriately and the muscle repairs, growing larger in the process. This sort of training requires a higher number of repetitions in each set in order to stimulate that breaking point, sometimes called "training to failure." A typical approach to reps and sets for those looking to build muscle (the main goal of bodybuilders) might be three sets of eight to 12 reps, at loads that reach failure point (or near) on the last few repetitions.

Training for Power

Power training involves somewhat lighter weights than strength training and longer rests while concentrating on the speed of execution the lift. "Power" is the ability to move an object at a high speed. In other words, force equals mass times acceleration. Power training requires practicing the acceleration part of a lift, then resting and repeating. In power training, you lift moderately heavy weights, accentuate the concentric first movement of the exercise, then rest sufficiently to recover before doing that rep or set again. You need to ensure each push, pull, squat, or lunge is done at a quick tempo.

Training for Muscular Endurance

Endurance weight training requires more repetitions in each set, perhaps up to 20 or 30, with lighter weights. You may want to consider why you'd set this as your goal. What is the day-to-day function that requires muscular endurance? For example, if you're a runner, you might want to concentrate on endurance in your legs. Swimmers might focus on their arms. 

Training for Olympic Lifts

Olympic lifting requires strength and power. Various training protocols exist, and Olympic lifters train to do just two lifts: the clean and jerk, and the snatch. Training sessions include six or fewer repetitions for a higher number of sets, about 10 to 12. The goal here would be to get better and stronger at these particular movements, and also increase the weight used in the exercises. 

Training Programs

A training program is a schedule of exercise types, frequency, intensity, and volume, whether for weight training or any other fitness training.

Below is a list of variables that can be adjusted in any weight training program. Almost unlimited combinations are possible, most of which will be functional at some level but not necessarily ideal for your immediate goals.

  • Exercise selection
  • Weight or resistance
  • Number of repetitions
  • Number of sets
  • Velocity of movement
  • Time between sets
  • Time between sessions (training days/week)
  • Time between periodization cycles

A Word From Verywell

In all, you have a lot to choose from when starting your weight training workout journey. Get good advice, progress slowly and be consistent and patient.

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