A few weeks ago I tried to give an answer to a very common question guys ask at the gym- how many times a week should you work out.
Btw, if you missed that article you can read it here.
Today, I will try to give an answer to another very common question:
How many sets and reps should you do?
It’s time to shed light on this myth: a small number of reps increases muscles volume, a bigger number of reps tones your muscles.
The truth is that your muscles are much more complex than that.
But first things first.
Although I am sure that every one of you knows what sets and reps are, it’s not that bad to say once more.
What are sets and reps?
A set is the number of reps per exercise which is followed by a break.
For example, if you need to do 4 series with 10 reps that means you need to do that exercise 40 times with a certain break after every 10 reps.
After you do the first 10 reps you complete the 1 set which is followed by a short break and then you do the 2nd set with 10 reps and so on.
You can read more about rest between sets here.
So, how many sets and reps should you do?
Well, to answer this question you need to set your goal first.
The number of sets and reps depends on whether you want to build muscle, build strength, or lose weight.
So, let’s start.
For muscle mass (hypertrophy)
A lower intensity training than strength training with more reps leads to hypertrophy (increasing muscle fiber volume).
In this phase, you use weights that are 70-80% of the maximum rep (1RM – repetition maximum).
What is 1RM?
That’s the biggest weight you can lift only once while doing a certain exercise.
So, if you are doing a squat with 200 pounds and you manage to do only 1 rep that’s 1RM.
And 80% of 1RM, in this case, is 160 pounds.
So, how many sets and reps you need to do for muscle mass (hypertrophy)?
If your goal is strong hypertrophy and muscle strength you need to work out with a weight that is 80% of RM.
If you want moderate hypertrophy and great endurance (rather than explosive strength) you need to work out with a weight that is 60% of RM.
So, if you work out with a weight that’s 80% of RM, you should do 5-10 reps per set.
And if you work out with a weight that’s 60% of RM, you should do 12-15 reps per set. (1)
The number of sets can vary from 3 to 5 sets per exercise.
When you combine this with short breaks between sets (45-90 seconds) you get a strong stimulus for naturally releasing the anabolic hormones (muscle building hormones).
So, the general tips if you want to gain muscles are:
- No of sets: 4
- No of exercises per muscle group: 3
- No of reps: 8 – 12 (10 ideally)
- Weight: 60 – 80% of 1RM
- Rest between sets: 60 – 90 secs
The weight for strength training enables you high-intensity training (above 80% of 1RM) and it usually allows you to do 6 or fewer reps until muscle failure.
High-intensity training is extremely demanding and that’s why the number of sets should be smaller.
That’s great for strength since it provides better recovery between workouts.
In this phase of your training, the accent is on weight and the breaks between sets should be longer.
The best strength exercises are squats, deadlift, bench press.
They engage many muscles and stimulate building strength and muscle mass.
So, in short, stronger, but shorter.
That’s the perfect description of the strength workout.
No longer than 45 minutes.
A workout that lasts more than 45 minutes leads to releasing cortisol (a catabolic hormone) which breaks down muscle tissue, and no one wants that.
So, the general tips if you want to increase strength:
- No of sets: 7
- No of exercises per muscle group: 1
- No of reps: 1-5
- Weight: 85 – 100% of 1RM
- Rest between sets: 2 – 4 min
For weight loss
When you want to burn calories you don’t need a big number of reps.
You will speed up that process by doing sets with bigger weight and no more than 2-3 reps, just like doing exercises with smaller weight and 20 reps.
Besides doing exercises with bigger weight occasionally releases the hormones that build muscles and burn fat.
When you are doing the traditional exercises with barbell and dumbbell, do 3 sets with 10 reps maximum, and rest 90 seconds or less.
Or even better, mix exercises for different muscle groups (like squats and pull-ups) and do them as supersets to keep your heartbeat balanced.
The goal is to increase your metabolism and that happens when you do super fast exercises that engage many muscles.
To reduce your fat tissue you need the metabolic processes that happen after your workout.
And to encourage burning more calories all you need is a short workout with a weight that involves complex exercises.
It’s recommended to include high-intensity interval training on the treadmill or bicycle in addition to a workout with weight in order to reduce fat tissue under your skin.
So, the general tips if you want to lose weight:
- No of sets: 3
- No of exercises per muscle group: 1 – 2
- No of reps: 6-10
- Weight: up to 80% of 1RM
- Rest: 30 seconds between sets, 60 seconds between exercises
- Compulsory cardio: running, cycling, HIIT, rowing
Tips for sets and reps for different muscle groups
When it comes to muscle groups, my tips are the following:
- Large muscle groups (chest, back, legs): 4-5 exercises, 4-6 sets, 8-15 reps!
- Small muscle groups (shoulders, biceps, triceps, stomach): 3 exercises, 4-6 sets, 8-15 reps!
What are the tips for beginners?
As a beginner, the best option is to start with more reps or using smaller weight.
This is important because first, you need to build muscle endurance, activate your muscles, and learn the right technique.
You should focus on this type of workout for about 6-12 weeks.
After that, adjust your workout according to your goal.
So, what’s the bottom line?
The number of reps depends on your goal.
If you want to increase your strength, the number of reps per set should be up to 6.
Taking into consideration that the number of reps per set is smaller, you can do more sets, usually 5+.
For hypertrophy, to build muscle mass, do 8-12 reps and 3-5 sets.
And to lose weight, you can do fewer reps with a bigger weight, but it’s very important to include some kind of cardio (cycling, running, HIIT, CrossFit…).