In this section we will cover how to determine the proper number of sets and repetitions to meet your individual goals. For those who want a better understanding of the program you currently follow, or want to design your own workout schedule, these are important variables that can greatly influence the results you see.
First off, let's be clear on what these two terms mean. A set is defined as an entire strength training exercise reflecting from when you begin the move to when you complete it. Using the simple bench press as an example, the set begins when you take the weight off the rack, continues through all the times you lower and raise the bar, and primarily ends when you place the weight back on the rack. Most workout schedules will have you perform exercises for more than one set.
A repetition takes place within each set. They are the individual efforts that you usually repeat more than once before resting again. Using the bench press, one repetition is completed when you completely lower the bar, and then raise it back to the top. Rarely, if ever, you will complete just one repetition in a set.
Varying the number of sets and repetitions can produce drastically different physical changes over time. If you know what you want to accomplish, then you need to know the right amount of sets and reps to match your needs.
Choosing the number of repetitions
As we mentioned in Part 1, it is important that you know how to choose the right weights, regardless of the number of repetitions you perform. We will not get into that again here, but anything we mention here is dependent on picking weights that are not too heavy or too light. Our goal in this section is to give you guidelines on what you can expect to achieve for each repetition range. Strength training can help you build muscle, get a great cardiovascular workout, and of course, make you stronger.
Very high repetitions, like 15 or more per set, works very well as a cardio workout to help burn calories and strengthen your heart. You will need to take very little rest between sets, and should be careful here not to go too heavy, but for this specific goal a 15+ repetition range is very effective. Do not expect to get significantly stronger or muscular, though. If you are really hardcore and do 50-100 + repetitions on each set, though, you will help to strengthen the tendons and ligaments that hold your joints together.
Choosing a 10-15 repetition range starts to work toward gaining some strength and muscle, but not too much. Personally I think it is a good range for beginner athletes to work with, because the weights will not be overwhelming and they get a lot of practice perfecting their technique. This is also about the range anyone under the age of 15 should use when they are dealing with free weights, although they should not be spending a lot of time with them at that age.
The 6-10 repetition range is a good transition zone for 15-16 year olds, and for those who want a little more strength and / or muscle development than they'd get from the 10+ range. Most athletic-based programs use repetitions in this range, but I would suggest that it is not the best choice. It is a certain safe choice in that you will not go too heavy, but you will see some strength gains. In my opinion, there is a better choice.
I believe that anyone really interested in building strength, power, or muscle mass should be primarily working in the 4-5 repetition zone. If you are over 16, follow the guidelines given in Part 1, and have good technique, training this heavy is as safe as anything else you'll do in a workout program. It allows you to consistently train with heavier weights, which in turn will build your strength and maximize your power potential. And, depending on the number of sets you elect to perform, it can quickly build muscle, as well.
Anything done for 3 repetitions or less works pretty close to your limits, and should be done sparingly. It will build strength and power, but will not do much for gaining muscle unless you do a very high number of sets. Elite power lifters may work in this range fairly regularly, but for 99% of us you can make great progress with the 4-5 rep plan.
No matter which range you feel is best for you, proper technique is always your first priority. And for those choosing weights of 10 repetitions or less, it is always a good idea to have a spotter watching you in case you misjudged what weight you should have used.
Choosing the number of sets
Regardless of the number of repetitions you perform per set, you can choose to do one, two, or any number of sets for a particular exercise. The amount of sets you complete has to do with one critical variable: volume. Volume involves the total amount of weight you lift within a workout. If you multiply the weight used times the number of repetitions per set, and multiply that by the number of sets, it will give you the total volume of weight you lifted.
Why is this so critical? Because the higher your volume, the greater your chance of building muscle. The lower the volume, the less chance you have of adding bulk.
Some athletes need extra mass to perform better for their sport, but others would have been adversely affected. Luckily, this critical factor can easily be controlled.
If you want to gain muscle, do more sets of each exercise. Three to five sets is usually about right, but occasionally you can go even higher. Anything more than 6 sets of a heavy weight exercise (using the 4-5 rep range we recommend) and you may not be able to sustain that volume for long without getting hurt. Tendonitis is the most likely problem you will face.
Unfortunately, there is a definite downside to performing more sets, especially when using heavier weights. The added volume can be incredibly taxing on your body over the long term, and will make it difficult to work on other aspects of your training. I would recommend setting aside a specific time of year to focus almost solely on mass training, if it is even necessary for you, and save other goals for another time.
If you need to get stronger and more powerful, but want to avoid getting bigger or need your energy for other goals, then go with one or two sets per exercise. Two schedules that work well here are to do one set per exercise five days per week, or two sets per exercise three days a week. Both keep the volume relatively low, but the heavy weights will help you adapt to what you need. Keeping the number of sets down will allow you to put more of your energy towards other goals, allowing you to build two or more skills at the same time.
That is our general guide for how to determine the correct number of sets and repetitions you need to meet your goals. This is obviously a more detailed topic than we covered here, but hopefully it is a good starting point for you. In our final article in this series we will cover how to determine the right rest times in between sets, and give you some important reasons why you should always use proper technique in your training.