Understanding Sets and Reps for Weight Training Goals

Design Your Program for Your Goals

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 -- an arm curl with a dumbbell for example.
  • A set is a number of repetitions performed sequentially with usually no more than seconds between repetitions (although it may be more in some programs).

Rest periods between sets are usually in the range 30 seconds to 2 minutes but can be shorter or longer depending on a particular program goal.

Sets and Reps to Match Your Training Goals

The next thing you need to consider is how to construct the specifications for sets and reps so that they sync with your training goals. Let's look at common strength training goals. For guidance on how much weight to lift in each scenario, see: How to Know How Much Weigh to Lift and for an overall review of weight training, Best Weight Training Guide.

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 8 to 15 repetitions for 2 to 4 sets over 8 to 12 exercises is about right. AT this stage, don't lift too heavy or too light, but ensure a good foundation before trying more specialized workouts.

Training for Strength

Training for strength, in particular, rather than for bodybuilding or body shaping requires a lower number of repetitions and higher loads.

For example, strength trainers might use a 5x5 system, that is, 5 sets of 5 repetitions. In each case, relatively higher loads will be used and greater rest between sets will be required. The neuromuscular system responds to heavy loads by increasing your ability to lift heavy loads. While adequate muscle is also required, training for muscle does not necessarily improve strength proportionately.

Training for Muscle

Muscle requires metabolic stress to increase in size. This means working the muscle to the point where the lactate builds and muscle suffers internal damage. Size increases occur when you rest, eat appropriately and the muscle repairs -- in the process growing larger. 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 bodybuilding approach might be 3 sets of 12 exercises, 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 higher speed. Force equals mass by acceleration if you like. Power training requires that you practice the acceleration part of the lift, rest, then do it again. 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 or pull is done at high speed.

Training for Endurance

Endurance weight training requires that you do more repetitions in each set, perhaps up to 20 or 30, with lighter weights. You may want to consider why you need to do this.

What is the day-to-day function that requires muscle endurance? Performing that function is likely to be a superior method of training than doing weight training. For example, run for legs, swim or row for 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 mostly include sets with 6 or less repetitions. They are not interested in training for big arms and legs with extra repetitions. In some sessions, they will do the Olympic lifts only.

In other sessions, variations of the clean and jerk and snatch are included. In all cases, the speed of the lift is important; and of course, ultimately, the total weight.