The Correct Number of Reps Per Set in the Gym

I have a lot of people ask me, “How many sets and reps should I do, Steve?”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy, perfect answer to this question without a little more information.

Okay, there are two answers that ARE always accurate:

  • “It depends.”
  • “More than last time.”

But I like you, and I know those answers just made your eyes roll, so I’ll get into the specifics of what you ACTUALLY need.

After all, some people have weight loss goals, while others are looking to build muscle like bodybuilders: should your sets and reps change based on your goals and experience?

Great question. I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume you’re reading this article because you have approximately one million questions about how you should be training in the gym:

  • Should you do different muscle groups each day?
  • Should you do 5 sets of 4 or 4 sets of 8?
  • What about really high reps like 20 per set?
  • When should I do high reps or low reps?

These are all great questions, and they’re the same questions I asked when I got started. Unfortunately, I was an idiot and spent 6 years training the wrong way in the gym before I finally figured it out

I’m guessing you don’t have 6 years to struggle as I did – it’s why we created our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program! You’ll get paired with a coach that gets to know your story, creates a custom workout program for you, and can answer all of the questions you have about training and nutrition.

You can learn more about the program by clicking in the image below to schedule a call with us!

Otherwise, let’s dig into sets and reps below!

How many Reps should I do?

“Rep” stands for “repetition” and defines one complete motion of an exercise.

And one “set” is a consecutive number of reps without stopping.

So “2 sets of 5 reps of push-ups” means, “5 consecutive push-ups, a rest, then another 5 consecutive push-ups.”

Cool? Cool.

When deciding on how many sets and reps to do, it begins with asking “What am I trying to get out of this workout?!””

We cover this stuff in significantly greater detail over in our Strength Training 101 intro, but the content below should get you started.

We’ll group different rep ranges into different goals, for muscular endurance, muscle size, and overall strength.

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…

Let’s chat about the following:

1) MUSCULAR ENDURANCE (long last muscle)  Endurance means we want your muscles to perform for an extended of period time. Which means you can do a LOT of repetitions before getting tired. 

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, but certainly no more.

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 guys or gals looking to build muscle size.

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.

If you’re looking to get bigger, target a rep range of 6 – 12 reps per set. I find this is best accomplished by doing between 3-5 sets, with a rest time between sets should be short, not as short as for endurance, between 60 and 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, you’re going to be targeting reps in the 1-5 range. And yep, that means you’re going to be picking up significantly heavier weight and focusing all of that concentrated effort into just one or a few reps.

Something to note: not only are you shocking your muscles, you’re also putting a lot of pressure on your body’s central nervous system.

This forces it too to adapt and become stronger, which is critical for strength and power.[1]

This is how powerlifters train. Low reps, high weight, long time between sets. You need to increase your rest period because lifting this heavy fatigues the central nervous system and you’ll need longer to recover.

You might be waiting 3-5 minutes between sets when training in this fashion.

Reps for increased strength and power: Less than 6. Oftentimes just sets of 1 single, really heavy rep!

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 push-ups right now, you just did 1 SET of 10 reps of push-ups.

So let’s talk about the “correct” number of sets per exercise.

In the section above, I mentioned doing “3-5 sets of a given exercise.” Why 3 to 5, and why not 6 or 10 sets?

Why?

This answer of “3 to 5” has a history:

3 sets became popular in 1948 when the physician Thomas L. DeLorme suggested 3 sets of 10 reps to be an effective form of weight training.

Delorme came to his conclusion after prescribing strength training to his injured patients, as a way for them to rebuild muscle and rehabilitate.

He recorded and analyzed their improvements. When Delorme published his findings, it was one of the first academic looks on how to strength train.

As one of the pioneers, Delorme’s recommendations stuck and became “permanently etched into the collective subconscious of the fitness community.”[2]

And THAT’S the history of 3 sets at 10 repetitions…

Anyways!

Don’t stress yourself out by worrying if you should do 4 sets or 3 sets. 

The correct answer is: however many sets you can do, with your target rep range, without compromising your form.

STEVE, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

FINE! Pick a weight that feels light to you, and then do 3 sets of 10 reps.

And then next time? Do more than last time:

  • Did 3 sets of 10 reps of a 65 pound bench press? Do 3 sets of 8 at 75 pounds this week!
  • Did 3 sets of 5 push-ups last week? Go for 3 sets of 6 this week.

It should be noted, there is evidence of more sets performed leading to more gains in endurance, size, and strength.[3]

Which makes sense, because you are forcing your muscles to do more work overall.

After your third set, if you feel like you can do a fourth, it might be a good idea to try it. Or a fifth. Any more than that, and you should be thinking about increasing your weight instead.

Exception: if you are doing endurance work, you may want to do only 2 sets with more reps. Less recovery time will test your muscle’s endurance.

Building a 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.

Oh, remember that “caveat” I mentioned above? 

Nutrition is still 90% of the equation. Your rep range doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think, so don’t overthink 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.
  • 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.

Which 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? That you do MORE this workout than last workout.

That’s how you build muscle and strength and burn fat: “progressive overload.”

So get out of your own head, and START:

  • Starting barbell training? 3 sets of 5 reps at a light weight is a great place to start.
  • BRAND new to any training? Start with this bodyweight routine, and aim for 3 sets of 10. Work on your form!

The goal should be to get stronger each week. Which means write down what you did last time, and then do MORE this time. One more rep. 1 extra set. 5 more pounds.

By continually challenging your muscles to do more, they’ll have to adapt by getting bigger, stronger, burning more calories, etc.

Still not sure what sets and reps to do? Want to remove all the confusion and be told what to do?

Download our free, comprehensive Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, and follow the free workouts in there. 🙂 I’ll send it to you right away after you sign up for the Rebellion in the box below:

There’s 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 to throw them off.

This will introduce a little chaos into the system, which could be a good thing, unless you’re Batman.

After a week of mixing it up, 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.

-Steve

PS: If you’re somebody that wants an expert to guide them through the training process, I hear you.

I have a fitness coach myself who programs my workouts!

IF YOU WANT TO BE TOLD EXACTLY WHAT TO DO:

Consider our 1-on-1 coaching program where we’ll build a powerlifting and nutrition program for you based on your situation and current level of experience, with video form checks and expert guidance.

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All photo citations can be found right here[3]

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