Understanding Sets and Reps

Numbers. They’re such a part of our lives and all have different values and significance. When it comes to exercise, more specifically weight training, numbers can become one of the defining differences between accomplishing a goal or missing it completely. Take for example sets and reps. Most will exercise with a number(s) in mind but do they truly know what they represent and are they using them according to their goals? Let’s take a deeper look.

The Obvious

Repetitions, or reps, are simply the number of times you perform an exercise. For example, in weight training when you do a bicep curl for 10 reps, you’re lifting the weight 10 times. Sets are simply a group of reps. The ultimate goal with sets and reps is to stimulate a change, whether it be to increase strength, muscle growth, power, or endurance. It’s important to note that all four desired outcomes require different stimuli and no one set of reps are going to take care of all four. So what scheme is one to use to maximize their workout goals?

Start at the Beginning

It’s become more cliché but no exercise plan should ever start without a goal. Too many “go through the motions” and then blame exercise not working for them. They come up with generalized goals like wanting to lose weight or increase muscle size but have no real specific approach to how they’re going to get there. When deciding on sets and reps schemes, a goal must be clearly defined. Following are some specific guidelines on where to start:

Training for Strength. When your goal is to increase strength, you need to lift heavier weights for fewer reps. For example, those with a strength goal might use five sets of five repetitions. With the relatively higher loads for these reps and sets, you will want to take longer rest periods (1-3 minutes). The neuromuscular system responds to heavyweights by increasing your ability to lift those heavy loads.
Training for Muscle Hypertrophy. 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. 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.”
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. 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 for 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, a runner might want more endurance in their legs or a swimmer in their arms.

But of course most will begin with a basic fitness program that looks to 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.

Making Sense of it All

Bottom line. Exercise is meant to cause a stress; a physical stress to cause change. The bigger the stress, the better the result. Manipulating the sets and reps that you use (a concept known as periodization) is the best bet with creating consistent gains and decreased boredom. Other concepts such as rest periods and tempo of lifting are for a different discussion but even manipulation of those two variables are of importance. The most important key as with any exercise program is to stay safe and injury free. Even light weights at low reps can be hazardous. Sets and reps are merely a guide to help you along the way.

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

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