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Sets,Reps,Weight and Ego…

It’s the age old question that’s been surrounding the exercise community for decades… how many sets and reps should I perform?

Rep ranges should be based on the primary goals of the individual.
For example, if my goal is hypertrophy (bigger muscles) and my 1RM of the bench press is 300 pounds, then I will need to lift 67-85% of those 300 pounds; 300 – 65% = 201 pounds, which I should be able to lift for around 12 reps.
If one the other hand a person desires more strength, than performing max reps of 6 or less should be implemented in his or her current program. This is preciously why most strength and power lifters albeit stronger than bodybuilders don’t necessarily have that defined muscular look.

Most people in general want to look more muscular and toned which is why rep ranges of 8-15 are ideal.

Training Goal, Load (% 1 RM), Goal Repetitions

Strength, 85, Less than or = 6
Power, 80-90, 1-2
Hypertrophy, 67-85, 6-12
Muscular Endurance, 67, Greater or = 12

It’s important to keep in mind all reps should be performed using full concentric (shortening of muscle) and eccentric (lengthening of muscle) movements.
How many sets should I perform?
The training status, goals, and age of the individual effect how much volume should be implemented in a given program.
Training Status

Studies show that beginners (3 months or less workout experience) display gains in muscular strength and hypertrophy when performing single set exercises (one exercise per body part). When the neuromuscular system adapts to the stimulus a higher volume of 3-6 sets per exercise for the intermediate (3-6 months workout experience) and advance (1+ year workout experience) trainer is advocated.
How many exercises per body is enough?

The intermediate and advanced trainers have the luxury of being able to personalize their workouts because they have more experience. Trial and error run the ship here. Try experimenting to see what works best for you. Some individuals do well with 3-4 different exercises per body part, working 3-5 sets; others perform only 2 sets of 2 exercises for each body part. The saline idea here is getting past the beginner status, so that the neuromuscular system has had time to adapt to resistance training, and runs less of a risk of overtraining and injury. Once the body has adapted more sets, and more intense training methods can be implemented into an exercise program.

How many times a week should I lift weights?
Frequency should be based on training experience:
Resistance Training Frequency Based on Training Status

Training Status, Frequency Guide Lines(sessions/week)
Beginner, (3 months or less experience) 2-3
Intermediate , (3-6 months experience) 3-4
Advanced , (1+ year experience) 4-7

How long should I rest between sets?

Rest period lengths are based on training goal:
Strength and power movements which use heavy loads require full rest periods of 2-5 minutes. Hypertrophy training is based on the concept of starting a set before the previous muscle fibers have recovered. If exhausted muscle fibers have not recovered than new muscle fibers will be recruited which will result in bigger more defined muscles. This is one of the reasons why power lifters don’t look like body builders. The more muscle fibers that are recruited in a muscle will result in the muscle becoming bigger (hypertrophy). Muscular endurance training as the name implies allows your heart rate to remain elevated. Resting less than 30 seconds between sets should accomplish this goal. Due to the cardio nature of these workouts the loads are not heavy enough to produce true hypertrophy results.

Training Goal, Rest Period Length
Strength, 2-5 min
Power, single/multiple effort 2-5 min
Hypertrophy, 30s-1.5 min
Muscular endurance, 30s

Age Factors

The following guide lines should be followed for the youth and older adults
• Older (over 65) and younger (under 17) individuals should perform fewer sets (no more than 12 per workout) compared to adults
• Warm ups and stretching should be performed before and after workouts
• Learning proper technique with light loads(50% or less of 1RM) should be implemented before increasing loads
• Workouts should not occur in succession, allow 48-72 hrs between sessions.
• Seniors should be pre-screened by a medical doctor before any type of exercise program.
• Youth should be encouraged to drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise.

Although some in the fitness field may advocate one system over the other. I have learned there are no absolutes when it comes to exercising. Take for example the person who performs 3 sets of 10 repetitions to get bigger muscles (hypertrophy). Although not performing the ideal rep range of 6 for strength, this person with proper nutrition will no doubt still get stronger. Again the tables and advice located in this article are only broad views and are not written in stone. Try different ranges of sets and reps, every couple of weeks to see what works best for you.
• Concentric: A muscle contraction in which a muscle shortens and overcomes a resistance, as in the upward movement of the biceps curl.
• Eccentric: A muscle contraction in which a muscle is lengthened by the resistance, as in the downward movement of the biceps curl.
• Hypertrophy: Increase in both gross muscle size as well as individual muscle size resulting from training. The most sort after effect of exercise (bigger muscles).
• Isometric: A muscle contraction in which tension in the muscle increases but there is no shortening or lengthening of the muscle.
• Muscular Endurance: The ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions (usually 12 or more) against a resistance. Getting the burning feeling in muscles best describes it (designed for the toned muscle look).
• One rep max (1 RM): the greatest amount of weight that can be lifted for only one repetition. A percentage of 1 RM is used to determine the number of reps one can perform.
• Overtraining: A state in which fatigue during exercise bouts causes a reduction in physical performance. The root of overtraining is likely excessive frequency of volume or intensity coupled with poor nutrition and lack of proper rest.
• Power: Measured by the formula work equals force times distance divided by time. A combination of strength and speed.
• Repetitions: An individual completed exercise movement that includes the concentric and eccentric portion of the exercise.
• Set: A group of repetitions of a given exercise movement done consecutively, without rest.
• Strength: The use of muscular force to move an object, speed and distance are not factors of strength.

“To set goals is to constantly remind yourself of where you’re going and what you’re doing. All goals need to be reviewed regularly. You need to asses whether goals are adequate in the face of changing circumstances or sometimes even realistic or possible. You may need some smaller goal steps along the way that gradually approach where you want to go.” -Don Talbot

First Published in 2009

Some graphs are From Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning by National Strength & Conditioning Association. Copyright 2000 by Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. http://www.humankinetics.com/