How Many Reps (and Sets) Should You Do When Working Out?

Woman lifting dumbbell

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When you lift weights, your workout plan will usually specify a certain number of sets and a certain number of reps. But what are reps and sets? And how should you determine how many reps and sets you should do? Learning basic weight lifting terms can help you to answer these questions and set up a program that help you to reach your weight training goals.

What Are Reps?

In the gym, the word "rep" is short for repetition. It is one execution of a single exercise. For example, if you complete one push-up, you did one "rep" of a push-up. If you complete 10 chest presses, you did 10 reps of a chest press.

Understanding repetitions can help you to understand another basic weight lifting term: one rep max or 1RM.

Your one rep max (1RM) is the maximum amount of weight that you can lift to complete one repetition.

In the gym, trainers may help you to determine your 1RM to determine how much weight you should lift when doing multiple reps in your program. You are likely to have a different 1RM for different muscles or muscle groups throughout the body.

Especially if you are new to weight training, it is important to test your 1RM with the help of a trained professional, such as a certified personal trainer. During the test you will pushing your muscle to its maximum load, which carries a risk of failure and injury. So it is important to warm up properly and have some assistance if you are new. In some instances, your trainer may use a formula to estimate one rep max to avoid these risks.

What Are Sets?

Sets are simply a group of reps. You might do a single set of reps for a given exercise, or you might do multiple sets. It is more common do do multiple sets, especially if you are interested in building muscular endurance or muscular strength.

For example, if you are trying to build muscle in your chest, you might do 3 sets of 10 repetitions of a chest press. That means that you complete 10 repetitions of the chest press and then briefly rest. Then you complete another 10 reps and take another short break. Finally, you finish with your last 10 repetitions before taking a short break and moving on to your next exercise.

Determining How Many Sets and Reps to Do

The number of sets and reps that you do in your workout depends on your training goal. In resistance training, goals are usually divided into these general categories:

  • General fitness: This is a reasonable goal for someone who is new to weight lifting and wants to improve daily function and overall health. Some might refer to weight lifting in this category as "toning."
  • Muscular endurance: Strength endurance or muscular endurance is a muscle's ability to produce and sustain force over an extended period of time. Typically, you would work toward this goal with a program of higher reps with slightly lower weight.
  • Hypertrophy: Muscle hypertrophy is simply a technical term for building muscle mass. If you want your muscles to "bulk up," or achieve maximal muscle growth, you'll plan for higher volumes of work at moderate-to-high intensity levels (1RM) with minimal rest periods between sets.
  • Muscular strength: Maximum strength is the ability to generate a maximal amount of muscle force for a particular exercise. When training with this goal in mind, you'll generally lower the number of reps but increase the intensity by lifting close to your 1RM.
  • Power: Powerlifters are often competitive weightlifters. Powerlifting simply refers to the ability to generate a significant magnitude of force in the shortest amount of time possible.

Different training organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), have slightly different models for each training goal. But they follow the same general guidelines.

Training Goal Sets Reps Rest Period Intensity
General fitness 1-3  12-15  30 to 90 seconds Varies
Endurance 3-4  >12  Up to 30 seconds <67% of 1RM
Hypertrophy 3-6  6-12  30 to 90 seconds 67% to 85% of 1RM
Muscle strength 4-6  <6  2 to 5 minutes >85% of 1RM
Power: Single rep 3-5 1-2 2 to 5 minutes 80%–90% of 1RM 
Power: Multi reps 3-5 3-5 2 to 5 minutes 75%–85% of RM

How to Build a Workout Routine 

Once you have established your training goal, use the chart to establish the number of reps and sets you should accomplish during each workout. It should also help you establish the intensity of your training.

If you don't know your 1RM, use fatigue to make sure you are lifting enough weight. You should be lifting enough so that when you complete your last rep in each set, it feels like you could not do much more. The last rep should be quite challenging.

Exercises Per Workout

The best number of exercises per workout will depend on your goals and your fitness level. When you are just starting out, it is reasonable to do one exercise per muscle group. Make sure you use good form when performing each move to make sure that your workout is both safe and effective.

As your fitness level increases or if you change your goal, you may want to increase the number of exercises you do for each muscle group. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) suggests that lifters who want to build muscle size and strength try to do two to four exercises per body part.

Workout Frequency

In addition to understanding your sets and reps for each exercise, you probably want to know how many times per week you should work out. The optimal number of training sessions for you may depend on your lifestyle, your goals, and your schedule.

For better health and general fitness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that Americans participate in at least two strength training workouts per week, and that these should work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). That means that during each week you should include at least one exercise that targets each area of your body.

To build muscular strength or to increase hypertrophy, total training volume is more important than the number of training sessions per week. That is, you can increase or decrease the number of training sessions each week but the volume of work (the total number of exercises, sets, and reps you do across all sessions) will make the biggest difference.

Authors of one research review, however, said that lower frequency training (one to two days per week) may be better for untrained or older individuals. Higher frequency training (three or more days per week) may be more effective method for seasoned athletes who want to increase strength.

Workout Structure

There are countless ways to structure your workout. Of course, you can simply move through the weight room and complete each exercise according to the availability of equipment. For instance, if the dumbbells you need for your shoulder press are not available, you can do lat pulldowns until the weights you need are free.

But to decrease boredom and to increase the effectiveness of your program, you might use one of these models to structure your workout. Some of these workouts also incorporate cardio to burn fat and improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

  • Circuit training: With circuit training, you do each exercise one after the other without rest. This allows you to build muscle while keeping your heart rate elevated, which can help burn more calories during and after your workout.
  • Pyramid training: With this type of training, you build on each set, increasing weight and decreasing reps so that you really target muscle fibers and get the most out of each rep. Try an upper-body pyramid workout.
  • Supersets: Choose two exercises that target the same muscle group and do them one after the other. This increases intensity, which can help burn more calories. A total body superset workout will really challenge you.
  • Tabata strength training: This is a kind of very short, high-intensity circuit training that keeps your heart rate elevated even more than traditional circuit training. You alternate 20-second work intervals with 10 seconds of rest, repeating that for four minutes. If done with intensity, it is tough.
  • Tri-sets: Like supersets, tri-sets involve doing three exercises for the same or opposing muscle groups, one after the other, with no rest in between. Again, this is a great way to build intensity and burn more calories.

How to Boost Your Training

Once you've planned your workouts, there is still more you can do to optimize your resistance training program.

Eat a Well-Balanced Diet

Getting enough protein will help to optimize muscle protein synthesis. When you participate in strength training, muscle fibers break down as a natural response. Muscle protein synthesis (repairing these fibers) occurs during recovery and with the help of protein from your diet. Amino acids—the building blocks of protein—help to rebuild muscle tissue.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines suggest that you consume between 10% and 35% of your total daily calories from protein. You can also determine your protein needs based on body weight. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming between 1.4 and 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

You'll also want to be sure that you consume nutritious carbohydrates for energy from foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. And healthy fats, such as nut butters, avocado, and plant-based oils, will help you to maintain healthy cells and boost satiety.

Get Enough Rest

You build muscle during recovery, not during your workout. Muscle protein synthesis happens after your workout when your body has a chance to rest and recover.

Give yourself at least 48 hours between strength-training workouts. You can exercise between weight training workouts, but you should focus on muscles that you didn't use during your strength workout. You might also want to decrease the intensity of your workout on recovery days.

Proper rest and recovery can also help you to avoid burnout. Going to the gym every day can be exhausting. Give your body and brain a break and seek out enjoyable activities outside or in other locations.

Seek Professional Guidance

If you are new to weight training or if you've reached a plateau, consider working with a certified personal trainer. A qualified professional can assess your current level of fitness, your goals, and other lifestyle factors and develop a personalized plan to meet your needs.

A Word From Verywell

A new weight training program can be both simple and effective. If you are new to resistance training, start by doing one to two workouts per week with exercises that address all of the major muscle groups. You don't need to spend hours in the gym. A couple of 30-minute sessions should do the trick.

Once you get the hang of it, you may find that you enjoy weight training. You will probably also find that you feel better, mentally and physically. As you meet your weight training goals, try different training plans or work with a personal trainer to set and reach new goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many reps should you do to lose weight?

    The best number of reps for you will depend on your training goals. If you are new to exercise and looking to improve your current level of fitness, doing 12 to 15 reps should be sufficient. Improving your fitness and strengthening your muscles will help you burn calories, which can lead to weight loss.

  • Are 3 sets of exercises enough for building muscle?

    Building muscle, or hypertrophy, requires a greater training volume than just three sets. If you have some training experience and you are looking to build muscle, you would do 3 to 6 sets of each exercise and you would aim for two exercises per body part.

  • What are the least reps you should do?

    Again, this depends on your training goal. Powerlifters might only do one rep of each exercise. But they lift a lot more weight than someone who is trying to build muscular endurance. With the exception of powerlifters, you generally wouldn't do fewer than 6 reps per set.

  • Are 25 reps for each exercise too much?

    If you divide 25 reps between four sets (about 6 reps per set) then 25 reps is not unreasonable. But if you can complete 25 reps per set, you probably need to increase the amount of weight that you are lifting.

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10 Sources
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