If you’re brand new to weight training and confused by all the talk of so-called ‘sets and reps,’ this is the article to help you understand everything as soon as you’re done reading.
I’m sure you’ve seen some of my programs or any other programs on the internet where it has a movement, and then next to it, a set of numbers.
For example, here’s a screenshot from one of my programs:
As you’ll see above, you have the movement, followed by: 3×6-8.
The first number represents the total sets. The ‘x’ represents ‘multiplied by’ (more on this in a second), and the second number represents the total reps (or rep range).
To understand all of this, we have to start at the smallest component and build on top of that. It all begins with reps, which is short for repetitions.
What Are Reps?
A rep (repetition) is when you perform the full movement of an exercise from start to finish.
So, if a program calls for 5 reps, it means you perform the movement 5 times.
5 reps of jumping jacks means you do 5 total jumping jacks.
5 reps of squats means you so 5 total squats from start to finish.
What Is A Set?
A ‘set’ is a group of reps done one after another until you reach a specific number prescribed, or within a range, such as 8-12. I’ll cover how it all fits together in a bit.
A set is always a series of repetitions done without any rest between reps. Deliberate rest periods happens between sets.
What Does The ‘X’ Between The Numbers Mean?
Now we know what reps and sets are. The ‘x’ means ‘multiplied by.’
When you see something written as 3×8, or 10×3, or 5×5, it’s usually read as sets multiplied by reps.
So 3×8 means 3 sets of 8 reps. 10×3 means 10 sets of 3 reps, etc.
See the screenshot of my beginners workout routine below:
It reads as:
1. Squat (or leg press) // 3M rest between sets
In this case, you’re doing squats for 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps. And this leads to the next section about rep ranges.
What’s a Rep Range?
A rep range is a total amount of reps suggested for each set. This is primarily the total reps we want to perform for each set. Ranges are helpful when you’re trying to get stronger and progress on a movement. Rep ranges are especially helpful when you finally reach the intermediate experience level of being unable to add weight to the movement every training session.
Rep ranges also help you determine how much weight to use for a movement. For example, if you’re aiming to do your working sets in the 6-8 rep range, you want to choose a weight that is heavy enough to be challenging with 6-8 reps.
If you choose a weight that you can easily do for more than 8 reps, you need to go heavier. If you struggle to get 6 reps, the weight is too heavy, and you’ll need to lighten the load.
Rep ranges are also useful for planning out your progression over time.
See the screenshot of my beginners workout routine below:
It reads as:
1. Squat (or leg press) // 3M rest between sets
The ‘3M’ means 3 minutes. The rest intervals are the time you take in between sets to recover before you do another set.
Rest intervals are going to vary depending on the type of program you’re doing. For instance, if you’re more focused on maximal strength and getting stronger as your main goal, then rest periods need to be longer, rather than shorter.
Anywhere from 2-5 minutes is a good resting period for pure strength work. The longer you rest between sets, the more recovered you’re going to be to produce the most strength.
Long rest intervals are best used for when you’re doing a program that calls for very heavy loads, typically anything above 80% of your one-rep max. This is covered below, in full.
Shorter rest periods (anything less than 2 minutes) are good for when you’re less concerned about producing maximal effort in terms of raw strength.
There is no right or wrong way to go about selecting rest periods because they’re going to be quite individual based on your own ability to recover, how long you’ve been training, how experienced you are, your current work capacity, and most importantly, your individual goals.
Reps And Percentages Of Your One-Rep Max
In general, the heavier weight you lift, the fewer repetitions you’ll be able to do in a single set. So while you might be able to do 10 sets of 3 with 275 pounds on the squat, you most likely won’t be able to do that for 3 sets of 10 because the loads are simply too heavy for that particular rep range.
So this is where the whole percentage-based rep schemes come into play.
For hypothetical purposes, let’s say that your one-rep max (aka: 1RM, for short) on the bench press is 225 pounds. For sake of example, this is one 45-pound bar with two 45-pound plates on each side.
If you know that your one-rep max is 225, the percentages all fall based on that figure. When writing a program based on these percentages, we have a very good understanding of how we’ll handle the loads based on percentages for total reps.
Here’s a handy way to look at it. There are many calculators online to determine these percentages. I particularly like this one.
Here’s what it looks like when I input the values of 225 for 1 rep:
The following will be in this format:
Percentage of 1RM // total weight // estimated reps you can perform
100% // 225 // 1
90% // 203 // 3
80% // 180 // 7
70% // 158 // 12
60% // 135 // 15+ reps
Here’s a nice chart estimating the reps you’ll be able to perform with the given percentages:
How does this apply to rep ranges?
Going back to my program example, if you’re aiming to do squats within the 6-8 rep range, you’re likely to be using around 75-85% of your 1RM.
How Do These Reps Feel?
In general, the closer you are to your 1RM, the harder the movement is going to be, meaning the load will feel much heavier. In general, you can build strength in any rep range and if your primary goal is muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth), you will get the best results from going to momentary muscular failure on the movements of your choice.
For practical training and overall safety purposes, I see no reason to go any heavier than 90% a majority of the time. The only time I see going for a one-rep max is even necessary is if you compete in strength sports such as Strongman or powerlifting. Outside of that, attempting one-rep maxes can be incredibly dangerous and the risk is NOT worth the reward of telling your friends how much you bench.
The lighter the loads, the faster you’ll be able to perform the movements and you’ll typically have much more control. The heavier the loads, the more likely you are to rely on activating your nervous system for power, or adjusting leverages (ie: arching your back on the bench to decrease the range of motion).
For the most part, I’m an advocate of having full control over your ability to train with loads in all rep ranges, and if you can’t perform a movement with proper form and a good range of motion because it’s too heavy, you have no business trying it.
What About Tempo?
Tempo is the most rational topic to cover after percentages. Tempo refers to the time it takes for each individual rep to be completed. This can get confusing, so I’ll keep it very simple. Tempo is the actual time your muscles are under tension during the entire duration of each rep for each set.
If you’ve heard the term Time Under Tension (TUT), you probably have an idea of what this means.
For example, if you’re doing a bench press and you lower the bar for a 3-second count, pause for 1 second at the bottom, and then take 2 seconds to press it back to the starting position, you’ve taken 6 total seconds to perform this single repetition.
Do a set of 10 reps, and you’ve just experienced 60 seconds of time under tension.
There are a bunch of ways to manipulate the tempo.
Sometimes you’ll see it written as 3-0-1-0, which can mean 3 seconds to lower the weight, no pause at the bottom, 1 second to press it back to starting position, and no pause at the top before doing another rep.
Another way could be 4-1-2-0, which would mean 4 seconds to lower the weight, a 1-second pause at the bottom, 2 seconds to press it back to starting position, and no pause before doing another rep.
It’s pretty much endless in how you can go about manipulating the time under tension, and in general, the more tension, the greater the intensity. The greater the intensity and activation, the better chance for muscle growth.
How To Determine Intensity?
Intensity is determined in various ways. From my muscle hypertrophy article, I cover the RPE scale. RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion.
The scale spans 1-10, 1 being least amount of intensity, and 10 being the most intensity possible.
0 – Nothing at all
0.5 – Just noticeable
1 – Very light
2 – Light
3 – Moderate
4 – Somewhat heavy
5 – Heavy
7 – Very heavy
10 – Very, very heavy
In general, to make your training the most effective, you ideally want to work toward the RPE of 7-9 during your training. The above scale counts mostly for the heaviness of the loads, but you can also measure it in how fatigued you are.
So if you’re doing a superset, alternating 2 movements back to back with very little rest between sets, you’ll notice you can become fatigued with lighter weights than you’re typically used to.
In this case, you could generate a similar amount of fatigue you get from using 85% of your 1RM by using 60% of your 1RM loads, shortening the rest periods and going to failure.
The RPE scale is very helpful in managing your fatigue and increasing intensity with lighter loads.
How Many Sets And Reps Should You Do?
This is going to be determined by a handful of factors. For sake of brevity, we’ll cover a few variables and I’ll make recommendations based on them below.
- Training Experience (training age)
- Schedule, Personal Stress Levels, Individual Genetics And Recovery Ability
The total amount of sets and reps you do will first be determined by your training experience. We’ll categorize experience into the following:
- Beginners (0-2 years training)
- Intermediates (2-4 years training)
- Advanced (5+ years and beyond)
From a general perspective, the more advanced you are, the more stimulus you need, so more reps, more sets, more exposure to the stimulus. The newer you are to training, the less stimulus you need to cause the positive adaptations to occur.
Experience dictates your training loads, frequency, volume, and recovery ability.
Beginners (no training experience)
Beginners will generally need the lowest dose of training (when compared to intermediates and advanced trainees) to experience results.
A good starting point for beginners getting into training will do well on just 2-3 training days per week, mostly full body programs with a strong focus on compound movements. A good example of a program to use is my beginners workout routine.
This will have you training your entire body 3 times per week and will give you sufficient volume and loads to produce the positive adaptations of more muscle, more strength and it will provide ample time to recover from each session.
For the most part, linear progression (adding weight and/or reps almost every session) is what’s most common for beginners because the adaptations happen quickly.
After about 1-2 years of consistent, regimented training, the beginner will move into the intermediate level of experience, which requires some adjustments in programming to continue progressing.
Intermediates (2-4 years of training experience)
As one progresses from beginner to intermediate, the demands will go up to provide enough stimulus for muscle growth and strength increases. As the body adapts, you must force it to change with even more work than before.
The trick is managing recovery, because the more advanced you get, the heavier loads you’re exposed to, and the less likely you’re able to recover as easily as you did as a beginner.
While intermediate trainees will benefit from various workout plans, adjustments must be made to ensure they continue progressing. While linear progression works well for beginners, it’s not always the easiest method of progression for intermediates.
Example: while you might be able to add 10 pounds every week to your squat as a beginner for months on end, this is highly unlikely for the intermediate because the stronger and more advanced you become, the harder progression is to come by.
Think of it like this. If you were able to increase your bench press by 1 pound per day after starting with a 45 pound bar, you’d be benching 410 pounds after just one year of training. Making this much progress in just a year’s time is nearly impossible, so accept the fact that linear progression will slow down a lot as you gain more experience.
After about 3-4 years of consistent, regimented training, the intermediate will move into the advanced level of experience, which requires even more tweaks in programming to continue progressing.
Advanced (5+ years of training experience)
For the advanced trainee, there are 2 things that become more important than anything else for long term progression. Those are:
- Maximizing potential for recovery
- Avoiding injury
While a beginner is able to get away with lots of training, hitting the full body with frequent training sessions many times over during the first few years, the advanced trainee is not so fortunate. This is because as one gets more experience over the long term, recovery becomes more and more important.
The advanced trainee has to monitor their training and adjust their splits based on their ability to recover from session to session. The amount of energy expended lifting 500 pounds for the advanced person is going to be much more taxing than lifting 100 pounds for the beginner.
And this makes sense when you factor in the total workloads the two trainees are exposed to. In general, beginners are using much less volume and load per muscle group, while advanced trainees might be tripling their efforts in both volume and loads.
For the advanced trainees, all programs and training splits will work well as long the work they’re doing is within the limits that allow them to recover effectively from session to session.
Warm-Ups And Total Rep Suggestions
Warm-up sets and reps are not to be included in the recommendations for total sets and reps because warm-ups are not heavy enough to be classified as work sets. Work sets refer to the total amount of work called for in a training session that satisfies the loads and rep ranges that produce the desired adaptations of more strength, and more muscle.
Example: if a program calls for 3×8 of bench press, one might do 3-4 sets before their first work set to ensure they are adequately warmed up and prepared for the first heavy set of the training session.
Individual Schedules, Recovery Ability, Temperaments
Training splits, programming, and overall volume recommendations are going to vary depending on the individual’s schedule, preferences, ability to recover and how much time one can dedicate to training. There are people who can train 6 days per week and recover adequately, while others who will start to regress when they push training sessions over 3 times per week.
As a result of the differences in individuals, recommendations for total volume and training splits will vary based on the need.