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How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?

Aug 13, 2019

 

Something that drives me NUTS is seeing everyone prescribe 3 sets of 10 reps for EVERY exercise. It is NOT a magic number and does not help you achieve your fitness or physique goals better than other sets and reps. Let's cover how many sets and reps WILL help you achieve your goals.

 

Here are some simple guidelines to follow based off your goals.

Goal: Muscle Growth

 

Frequency: At least 2x per week per body part

Training a movement pattern at least twice a week has been shown to be better than once per week.

This more than likely has to do with being unable to achieve the targeted amount of sets needed for muscle growth is easier to be done in multiple sessions than it would be in just one session. If you had to do 16 sets of chest in one session, your last few sets would be pretty rough.. You wouldn't be able to give your best effort and lift the same amount of weight as if you had 2 sessions consisting of 8 sets each.

Sets:  10-20 sets per week per body part

If you have not been training for longer than 6 months, you will get the most benefit in the 10-12 set range. As your lifting age increases, you will need more sets to continue to improve. For the first 2 years of lifting, you will need 14-16 sets to make the most progress. Once you become advanced, you will benefit from even more volume. As this volume gets higher, you will need some structured deloads every 4-8 weeks due to the fatigue build-up you will experience over your training. 

You can have as little as 1 set per exercise or have as many as 6-8 sets of the SAME exercise to stimulate growth. You don't need to change exercises after 3 sets.. 

There is benefit from getting these 10-20 sets from multiple different exercises for a variety, but that is NOT needed!

Reps: 1-3 reps in the tank at the end of the set

This might surprise you.. but there is no ideal number of reps to stimulate muscle growth!

We find that the number of sets is a better indicator of muscle growth than the number of reps. 

Sets of 8-12 are most commonly prescribed due to the fact that they are easier to recover from when compared to sets of 3-5 reps. If you do a hard set of 3-5 reps, they often take LONGER to recover from. With reps of 8-12, you can get them done and rest 30-60 seconds and repeat a similar number of reps with less fatigue.

Also, I remember reading one study that mentioned those who were training in the 3 rep range experienced more joint-related pain than those in the 8-12 rep range. Training in the higher 8-12 rep range makes the most sense if the goal is hypertrophy. But you could get away with anything from 5-20+ reps. 

Rest: Enough to complete a similar number of reps next set

Again this might surprise you.. but there is no special amount of rest between sets. Once you feel ready to hit the same number of reps, do it! Some people need 30 seconds while others need 120 seconds. This is completely up to you and your overall conditioning level.

 

Goal: Improve Your Strength

Strength is more complex than muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is more related to increasing the number of sets you are doing. Yet strength is multifactorial. Here is a simple equation for strength:

Strength = Muscle Hypertrophy + Neural Adaptations + Skill

Lifting heavy things is a skill. You need to be in the right position at the right time to exert maximal force. Some muscles need to be braced while others are relaxed. This takes TIME to develop.

Also, we know that muscle recruitment is also a component of strength that must be taken into consideration. When you first start lifting, all of your gains are coming from your brain connecting the dots on how to do the task better and more efficiently. You don't experience muscle growth until 6-8 weeks after starting a training program. 

Frequency: At least 2x per week per movement pattern

Training a movement pattern at least twice a week has been shown to be better than once per week for strength as well. 

Strength is specific to the activity you are doing. If you want to get better at that movement pattern, you need to do it more often. 

If you want to become a better basketball player, you shoot the basketball more often. The same goes for here. You need more practice attempts to master your lifting technique. 

Sets:  10-20 sets per week per movement pattern

This is the EXACT SAME as the section above. But sometimes adding more volume is NOT the answer for improving strength. Hypertrophy responds better to adding sets, while strength often requires manipulating reps before manipulating sets.

Reps: Under 6 reps

Like mentioned in the frequency section, strength is a skill. Doing a heavy set of 10 of back squats feels COMPLETELY different than a heavy set of 1-3 reps. How the bar feels on your back, how you have to brace/breathe, etc.

You need more practice in the rep range you want to get stronger. If you want to get better at doing heavy singles, you need to practice doing them.

I typically would start in the 6 rep range and then work my way down to heavy singles in 6-12 weeks.

Rest: Enough to complete a similar number of reps next set

Again this might surprise you.. but there is no special amount of rest between sets for strength either. Once you feel ready to hit the same number of reps, do it!

Rest is often longer than hypertrophy training due to the fatigue heavy weights puts on your entire body. There have been a few times that I have had to give myself over 5 minutes of rest when squatting 5x5 around 350lbs. 

I hope this helps you understand more about what REALLY matters. You don't need 3 sets of 10 for growth and strength. If your goal is to develop strength, I would actually recommend against it!!

- Dr. Matthew Shiver

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