Weight Training Sets and Reps: How to Reach Your Goals

Design your weight program to get stronger, bigger, or more powerful

Dumbbell bench press.
Dumbbell bench press. stevecoleimages/Getty Images

Sets and repetitions (reps) form the basis of weight training programs.

  • A rep is one instance of an exercise—a dumbbell bicep curl, for example.
  • A set is the number of repetitions performed sequentially, usually with no more than a second or two between repetitions (although it may be more in some programs).

Rest periods between sets are usually in the range of 30 seconds to two minutes but can be shorter or longer depending on a particular program goal. 

Understand Sets and Reps to Match Your Training Goals

In order to figure out how many reps and sets you should do a certain exercise or group of exercises, you need to pinpoint your fitness goals. (For guidance on how much weight to lift check, you'll need to choose your ideal weight. Let's focus on specific workout goals and what you need to know about reps and sets for each one.

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

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

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" 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. 

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