If you’ve ever asked yourself “Am I doing too little or too many reps and sets?” then this guide is for you.
This article is part of our Strength 101 series, and we’ll show you exactly how to determine the number of repetitions and sets for specific exercises, so you can build your own workout routine.
It sounds easy, but depending on your goals, the answer to “How many reps and sets should I do?” can vary greatly.
We work hand-in-hand with our Online Coaching Clients to create the correct workout program that suits their goals, needs, and available equipment
In today’s guide on workout programing, we’ll cover (click each to get right to that answer):
What’s the correct number of reps and sets for a workout?
How many reps should I do?
How many sets should I do?
How to build a workout routine.
The Correct Number of Reps and Sets for a Workout
As Coach Jim mentions above, “Rep” stands for “repetition” and defines one complete motion of an exercise.
And one “set” is a consecutive number of reps without stopping.
And one “smorgasbord” is a buffet of food.
(This has nothing to do with this article, but it’s a fun word to say.)
As we mentioned throughout our Strength Training 101 series, how many reps and sets you should do is really going to be dependent on your goals.
For example, is your goal to improve:
Depending on what your goal is, the sets, reps, and rest intervals will change.
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Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
Alright, let’s break down reps and sets for you, because I can see you still have questions.
How Many Reps Should I Do?
Remember, “Rep” stands for “repetition” and is more or less one complete exercise.
So “2 sets of 5 reps of push-ups” means, “5 consecutive push-ups, a rest, then another 5 consecutive push-ups.”
When deciding on how many sets and reps to do, it begins by asking “What am I trying to get out of this workout?!“
We’ll group different rep ranges into different goals, for:
I’m going to share with you the commonly accepted answers, but they ALL come with a HUGE caveat that I’ll share at the end of this article.
I’m going to start with the “widely accepted numbers here.”
Let’s chat about the following:
1) MUSCULAR ENDURANCE (long-lasting muscle)
Endurance means encouraging and training your muscles to perform for an extended period of time. This means doing a LOT of repetitions.
People targeting muscular endurance will aim for a range from 12 to 20+ reps.
Obviously, you won’t be able to lift heavy amounts of weight for 20+ reps, so you’ll be lifting lighter loads.
Also, because you’re targeting endurance improvements, you want to decrease the amount of rest between sets: 30 seconds to a minute.
If you are a runner or cyclist, strength training with higher repetitions can help your muscles develop more endurance as well!
Reps for increased muscular endurance: 12+
2) MUSCLE SIZE (“sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”)
This is for folks looking to build larger muscles.
The scientific term here is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy,” as it focuses on increasing the amount of sarcoplasm, the non-contractile fluid found in your muscle.
Up to 30% of your muscle’s size is attributed to the sarcoplasm, so focusing on this type of hypertrophy helps build overall size (i.e., increased cross-sectional area of the muscle).
If you’re looking to get bigger:
Target a rep range of 6 – 12 reps per set.
Aim for 3-5 sets.
Rest time between sets should be short, about 60 to 90 seconds.
Reps for increased muscle size: 6-12
3) STRENGTH AND POWER (“myofibril hypertrophy”)
If you’re training for specific sports and just want to get stronger with more power – but not necessarily get bigger, this is the strategy for you.
This type of training focuses on strengthening the myofibril, the contractile part of the muscle, hence the name “myofibril hypertrophy.”
For this, target reps in the 1-5 range. And yep, that means you’re going to be picking up heavy weights, focusing all that concentrated effort into just one or a few reps.
Something to note when lifting for strength and power: not only are you shocking your muscles, but you’re also putting a lot of pressure on your body’s central nervous system (CNS).
So what does this mean?
In a way, it means your body’s ability to communicate with its muscles has grown fatigued, and performance may suffer.
That’s why you may want to rest between 2-5 minutes in this range.
Oh, and your CNS will adapt and become stronger, which will be critical for building strength and power.
This is how powerlifters train:
Long time between sets
Since powerlifting really taxes the central nervous system, you may be waiting 3-5 minutes between sets when training in this fashion.
TO RECAP, these are the rep ranges you should be considering:
Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength.
Reps in the 6-12 range build equal amounts of muscular power, strength, and size.
Reps in the 12+ range primarily build muscular endurance and size and also cardiovascular health.
I realize this is a lot to figure out, so if you are somebody – like me – who just wants to be told what to do and outsource all the worry of “am I doing the right workout for my goals?” I got you covered!
I’d love to learn your story, and then build a custom program that fits your goals. We’ll help you with your nutrition, your workouts, and even check in regularly to keep you accountable!
How Many Sets Should I Do?
As explained above, a “set” describes a group of repetitions performed for an exercise without stopping.
For example, if you do 10 squats right now, you just did 1 SET of 10 reps of squats.
So let’s talk about the “correct” number of sets per exercise.
The simple answer: “Do 3-5 work sets of a given exercise.”
Just make sure you’re not compromising your form.
At least he’s trying!
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) will break this down, suggesting the following set ranges:
2-3 will help build muscular endurance (12 to 20+ reps)
3-6 build muscular hypertrophy (6 to 12 reps)
3-5 build muscular power (3 to 5 reps)
2-6 build muscular strength (less than 6 reps)
“STEVE, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO.”
FINE! Pick a weight that feels light to you, and then do 3 sets of 10 reps.
(Learn how much weight should I be lifting”).
And then next time?
Do more than last time:
Did 3 sets of 10 reps of a 65 lb bench press? Do 3 sets of 8 at 75 lbs this week!
Did 3 sets of 5 pull-ups last week? Go for 3 sets of 6 this week.
That’s the key to progressive overload, as Coach Jim explains in this article:
If you’re not sure if “3 sets of 10” or “5 sets of 5” is right for you, we got you covered.
We’ll build a program that fits your goals, and then adjust it each month based on your progress. Never guess or wonder what you should be doing again.
How to Build a Workout Routine!
Now that you have “edumacated” yourself on how your specific goals influence the number of reps per set, and what sets actually are, you can build your workout program around this info.
TO RECAP, aim for 3-5 sets in the following rep rangers per exercise based on your goals:
Endurance: 12+ reps per set.
Hypertrophy (bigger muscles): 6-12 reps per set.
Strength (dense, powerful muscle): 1-5 reps per set.
Two points worth mentioning:
A recent study showed that heavier weight for low reps created more muscle mass than a higher volume (lower weight for more reps).
Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep, and pushing oneself to absolute failure.
What this means: studies suggest targeting heavier weight with fewer reps for big lifts like squats and deadlifts to build muscle, while targeting high reps to absolute failure with bodyweight exercises for muscle building.
Just remember to rest enough between sets so you don’t fatigue your central nervous system too bad.
One last point: Nutrition is still 90% of the equation!
Your rep range doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think, so don’t overthunk it!
Here are some examples:
If you’re trying to build muscle and get bigger, doing sets of 3 or sets of 5 or sets of 10 will ALL help you get bigger, if you’re eating enough to get bigger!
If you’re trying to lose weight, it doesn’t matter if you do sets of 15 or sets of 5 if you are consistently overeating by 1,000 calories a day. You need to eat the right number of calories.
It doesn’t matter if you train like a bodybuilder, you ALSO need to eat enough food to provide your muscles with enough calories to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger! This is the biggest mistake I see skinny people make when trying to bulk.
This brings me to my final point: because nutrition is 90% of the equation, your sets and reps don’t matter nearly as much as you think they do!
All that matters? Doing MORE this workout than the last workout.
Remember, how you build muscle and strength and burn fat: “progressive overload.”
One more rep than last time.
Doing one more set than last time.
Picking up a weight that’s 5 lbs. heavier than last week.
So get out of your own head, and START TODAY:
1) GET HELP: If you want expert guidance and accountability so you don’t have to figure out all of this stuff on your own, I got you.
Click the red button below to get the details about our amazing online coaching program:
2) FIGURING IT OUT OUT ON YOUR OWN!
Download our free Strength Training 101 Guide! You get it free when you join our Rebellion (the name of our awesome free online community). Sign up in the box below:
Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
3) WORKOUTS YOU CAN DO NOW:
New to strength training? Read our entire Strength 101 series.
Starting barbell training? Go to our “beginner weight training” workouts.
BRAND new to any training? Start with this bodyweight routine, and aim for 3 sets of 10. Work on your form!
Remember: the goal should be to get stronger each workout.
Write down what you did last time, and then do MORE this time.
By continually challenging your muscles to do more, they’ll have to adapt by getting bigger, stronger, burning more calories, etc.
There are a lot of different truths and fallacies on plateaus and how your muscles can get “used” to working out and stop growing.
If that’s something you’re battling, here’s a way to continue making progress:
Spend a week in a different rep range with different amounts of weight.
This will introduce a little chaos into the system, which could be a good thing…unless you’re Batman.
What we’re talking about is muscle confusion theory, which is a preplanned period of variation. Not, you know, wandering into the gym with no plan and just doing something different every time (whatever you feel like doing at that moment).
That won’t help.
But spend a week deliberating mixing it up. Then go back to your regularly scheduled routine and you’ll be right back on track.
Make sure you know what you want, and then design a plan to get there.
PS: If you want a nice shiny app to tell you EXACTLY how many seps and reps to do, our shiny new app will do just that!
You can sign-up for a free 7-day trial to Nerd Fitness Journey, which will build a workout around your experience level!
Jump in right here:
All photo citations: Evel Knievel, Me riding a bicycle, Bicylelifter, Project Story 1/3
More specifically, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends executing more than 12 reps and having a rest interval in-between sets of 30-seconds or less for muscular endurance. Additionally, you want to focus on a load of 67% or less of your one-rep max (1RM). For example, if you squat 225 pounds for 1 rep, then 67% of that is ~150 pounds. (Haff G, Triplett NT. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics)
In one of the earliest studies examining the effects of concurrent strength and endurance training, Hickson and colleagues demonstrated that moderately trained runners and cyclists had improvements in treadmill running (13% improvement) and ergometer biking (11% improvement) to exhaustion at maximal work rates. In a more recent investigation by Aagaard and colleagues, highly trained national team cyclists improved their average power output and total distance covered in a 45-minute cycling test (8% improvement). Strength training has been reported to increase musculotendinous unit stiffness his results in an enhanced ability to store elastic energy during eccentric muscle actions (i.e., muscle lengthening), which in turn increases concentric muscle force (i.e., muscle shortening). This is thought to be one of the reasons why improvements in running economy, cycling economy, and cross-country skiing economy have been observed after a period of combined strength and endurance training.
More specifically, the NSCA recommends executing 6-12 reps and having a rest interval in-between sets of 30-seconds to 1.5-minutes for muscular hypertrophy. Additionally, you want to focus on a load of 67-85% of your one-rep max or 1RM. (Haff G, Triplett NT. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics).
Again, we can provide some specifics from the NSCA. They recommend executing 6 or less reps and having a rest interval in-between sets of 2-5 minutes for muscular strength. Additionally, you want to focus on a load of 85% or more of your one-rep max (1RM). The NSCA also recommends executing 3-5 reps and having a rest interval in-between sets of 2-5 minutes for muscular power (multiple-effort event). Additionally, you want to focus on a load of 75-85% of your one-rep max (1RM).
If you’re interested, check out this article from Science Daily on the role the central nervous system plays in strength training.
A work set just means a set where you’re training with your heaviest weight. This doesn’t include any warm-up sets.
Haff G, Triplett NT. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men: study
Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men: analysis
Other ways to mitigate wearing down your CNS include prioritizing the most important exercises by placing them first in a workout, use moderate-to-heavy loads, since these involve performing fewer total reps to achieve the hypertrophic stimulus, and be aware that adding extra volume of work (e.g., adding extra exercises, sets, and/or reps) to a workout may not necessarily produce superior effects, and dividing a single workout into more frequent workouts over the week may sometimes lead to better results.
To gain muscle mass it is recommended that you seek a calorie surplus (i.e., hypercaloric diet). This can be achieved by consuming an additional 250-500 kcal/day or 10-20% above your typical diet. You may also need to increase your protein intake to 1.6-2.2 g/kg of bodyweight spread evenly throughout the day. And finally, carbohydrates should be the focus of the remaining calorie surplus demands when considering fat intake levels should remain at 20-35% of kcals. This will result in a realistic gain in lean muscle mass of about 0.5 pounds per week.
If you’re trying to lose weight it is recommended that you seek a calorie deficit by consuming 250-500 less kcal/day or 10-20% below your typical calorie intake. Your protein intake should be 1.2-1.6 g/kg of bodyweight spread evenly throughout the day. And finally, carbohydrates and fat should be reduced from baseline to satisfy the needed caloric deficit at the expense of protein. However, enough carbohydrate should still be consumed to maintain performance because carbohydrates (muscle and liver glycogen) are the primary energy sources for higher-intensity exercise. This will result in a realistic weight loss goal of 1-2 pounds per week.
Numerous studies published in various exercise science, sports conditioning, and physiology journals have found that the pre-planned variation of acute program variables (changes in exercises, sets, reps, rest intervals, percent 1RM) is more effective at producing strength and lean body mass improvements than non-periodized programs.
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