Beginners Guide to Sets, Repetitions, and Rest Intervals

Woman doing a bench press
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Sets and repetitions 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.

Sets and Repetitions

A repetition, also known as a rep for short, is one completion of an exercise: one deadlift, one bench press, one arm curl.

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

The rest interval is the time spent resting between sets that allows the muscle to recover. Some exercises have short or minor rests between reps.

A 1RM, or repetition maximum, 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. For 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.

What's Best for Your Goals

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

  • Strength training uses the most weight, least number of repetitions and longest rest periods. This optimizes strength development.
  • Hypertrophy for muscle size and bodybuilding training utilizes lighter weights, more repetitions and less rest time.
  • Strength endurance has less weight again, with more repetitions and even less rest.
  • Power training involves somewhat lighter weights (than strength training) and longer rests while concentrating on the speed of execution the lift.

Rest Periods

In general terms, rest between sets fall within these ranges:

  • 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, using the bench press as an example:

  • 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

This suggests 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.

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

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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