The Ultimate Guide To Sets And Reps For For Anyone Wanting To Maximise Every Workout …
At some point in time you’ve pondered the question, ‘How Many Sets And Reps Should I Be Doing?” In fact, it’s hands down one of the more frequent questions I get asked. So it seemed an appropriate topic for an article.
Gym folklore would have you believe it’s 1-3 reps for strength, 8-10 reps for building muscle, and 12-15 reps for endurance. But is this all bro-science, or is there some truth to it? And what's the bro-science law on sets?
After all, there’s some things the bros do get right. Albeit they wrap it up in a veil of chest-thumping hyperbole, which leaves you doubting if it’s more horse shit.
So is bodybuilding folklore backed up by research?
It’s time to dig into this one and find out…
The Ultimate Guide To Sets And Reps
Over the course of this article, I’m going to give you everything you need to know to start getting the most from your workouts. Is this absolutely everything I could possible think of on the subject? No. Because then the article would start to get pretty boring. And I’d be giving you a load of information you probably don’t need.
So what I’ve done is boil everything down to the actionable information needed to get results. Sounds pretty awesome, right?
Because at the end of the day we’re in the results business. You want to get results with as little headache and frustration as possible.
Therefore, my goal isn’t to confuse you. It’s to bring you clarity.
And this is exactly what you’re going to get…
So let’s get into it.
Sets And Reps For Beginners
We’re starting this one off with the beginners. Those of you out there who haven’t really spend much time doing proper weight training. And notice I mentioned proper weight training. Because there’s a bunch of you out there who claim to be resistance training, but actually aren’t. Ineffective weight training doesn’t really count.
Trust me, when you start doing this stuff properly you’ll see the difference. And you’ll also see the value in swallowing a little pride and getting back to basics.
In actual fact it’s something I’ve been doing over the last 2 years.
A couple of years ago my bench press was up around 120kg for 4-6 reps, which is pretty good considering I’m a little over 80kg. But I knew my form wasn’t as good as it could have been. And as a result my chest hadn’t really developed at the rate I expected.
So I committed to stripping things back. To putting my ego to one side and going back to basics.
And by doing that, my form is name infinitely better. And guess what? My chest development is infinitely better too.
So I’d urge you to think the same way.
Sometimes 1 step backwards allows you to make 5 leaps forward.
The alternative is to plateau and smack your head against a brick wall for the next year…
Where Should A Beginner Start?
Lifting weights is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman. You have to focus on technique first.
It’s not about volume… It’s about quality.
And to me this is the principle EVERYONE needs to start with.
And to be honest, the same thing goes for the intermediates and advanced out there. Form is king. Just like calories are king for nutrition.
When you’re a beginner you can pretty much gain muscle by doing anything. I could pretty much guarantee you’d build some muscle swinging a cat around your head three times a day. Hell, you could even get results from a couple of Zumba classes a week and vigorous self-pleasuring. Although, not at the same time… Thats’s how you get yourself arrested…
Please note, I have no personal experience of this…honest.
I’m just illustrating the point that as a beginner, you’ll respond to pretty much anything, at least in those first few months.
Get One Rep Perfect
Too many people, jump straight into a programme and think the number of reps and sets is the golden ticket to gains. The belief is that hiring this sweet-spot is going to be the difference maker. And it’s like us coaches and trainers aren’t letting you have the secret sauce…
We’re keeping it under lock and key. The vault of gains is well and truly locked shut!
But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Because believe me, if there was a secret sauce and a perfect rep range I’d tell you it straight away. Sadly, the real answer is much more mundane.
As we’ll cover later, you can pretty much make progress in ANY rep range, assuming some other variables are in check.
So where should you start as a beginner? Clearly you need some form of structure to follow as a newbie.
You start by getting 1 rep perfect.
Yep. One rep.
Because it doesn’t matter if you do 8-10 reps, 12-15 reps, 30-300 reps per set. If your form is the equivalent of bodybuilding dog shit then they were mostly pointless reps.
So you start by focusing on technique. Taking the time to thinking about the movement. What is the exercise supposed to do? What muscles are you supposed to be working? Can you feel them working?
If you’re not thinking about these things and establishing them as your foundation, then your progress is going to stall when you start to try and progress.
How To Nail A Rep
A question you might have right now is, “How the hell do I get one rep right?”
And that’s a very good question, so let’s get into it.
Firstly, you need to look at your training programme. Ideally, you want movement patterns and key exercises to be repeated multiple times during the week. As the old adage goes, ‘practice makes perfect’. Or ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ would be slightly more apt.
Repeating the movements and working the muscles multiple times during the week is going to help you absolutely nail those reps.
So set your training programme up to do that.
For example, if you’re doing squats because you want big quads, then squat 3 times a week in the early stages. You’ll be a squatting badass inside 3 months. And everyone knows “Squats Make You A Goddamn Sexual Tyrannosaurus.”
Not sure what that says about me considering I don’t squat. But hey, we’ll move on…
Every Set With Pink Dumbbells?
“Ok Simon. I get this 1 rep stuff. But does that mean I lift the pink dumbbells for every set?”
It might seem like I’m advocating the most boring training programme of all time… But there is a method to the madness.
Think back to the film The Karate Kid… No. Not the one with Will Smith’s son. I mean the original with Mr. Miyagi…
Perfecting one rep is the “wax on, wax off” of building muscle. We’re honing technique now, so when you do go into battle you can bust out a crane kick.
Obviously, most people want to jump straight to the crane kick, ie lifting heavy shit! But this is where they go wrong. And more than likely end up injured and with a barbell embedded in their chest.
But this doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time lifting pink dumbbells and wearing ankle weights.
So here’s what I suggest you do.
Pick light weights to start with. These weights should make you feel like you training, but very far away from the feeling you’re about to die.
Opt for a rep range towards the higher end of the scale. For example, 12-15 reps per set would be a good starting point. This helps you practice the skill of the movement without have to contend with a heavy weight at the same time.
And from there you progress the weights as your confidence and skill in execution of the movement improves.
How Many Sets?
Set volume is probably less important at this stage.
Again, you’re pretty much going to be making progress whatever you do. So don’t fret about it too much. And certainly don’t think you’re missing out on a huge amount of gains with a slightly lower set volume.
Because, remember, the quality of your work is going to lead to way more progress in the future.
Get out of the “I must crush myself” mindset.
In my experience 3-4 sets per exercise works well. Because you’ll be lifting lighter weights at this stage and not over-taxing the body, you can opt for more volume.
And this volume has the added benefit of helping you practice the movement. Which, as you know by now, is massively important.
How To Judge The Intensity Of Your Sets
As a beginner it’s easy to misjudge the intensity of your sets.
And we don’t want that, do we?
So I’m going to introduce you to a concept called Reps In Reserve (RIR). RIR is useful because it’s a pretty simple way for you to stay within your limits in this early phase. Plus, as you improve and progress it’s comes in handy to help ensure you push yourself.
So what the hell is RIR anyway.
Well, RIR is about estimated how many reps you have left in the tank at the end of a set.
For example, if you were to bench press and take the set to the point where the weight crashes into your chest and you literally couldn’t move it, that’s zero reps win reserve. You ran the tank to empty, ie complete failure.
Stopping 1 rep short of that point would be 1 RIR. And stopping 3 reps short of the chest crush would be 3 RIR. Get the idea?
As a beginner, you’ll want to gradually increase your intensity over time.
There’s very few cases where you go balls to the wall from the first workout.
Over the course of the first 3-4 months you want to work up towards 5 RIR.
This should allow you to stay within your limits, but also make you feel like you’re working hard too.
Progressing Reps In Reserve And Set Intensity
I can imagine you don’t want to be sat perfecting 1 rep for the rest of your training days. Nor are you getting excited about the prospect of lifting the lightest weights in the gym for all eternity.
But don’t panic. You WILL be progressing. And here’s how…
After the initial 3-4 month period, feel free to ramp up the intensity (as long as your form doesn’t revert back to dog shit).
Logically, you could progress to an intensity of c.2-3 RIR. And this is said on the assumption your technique is pretty solid by this point (which it should be).
Then, after 6 months, you should be all good to unleash the reigns and plunge forth into a more standard setup.
“Which means what?” You might ask…
Luckily for you we’re covering exactly that in the next section.
Sets And Reps For Non-Beginners
So you’ve painted the fence, waxed on and waxed off, so now what? Is it time to learn that badass crane kick?
Pretty much my friend… You’re now at the point where you can unleash your inner training beast…
First up, let’s talk rep ranges…
Right back at the beginning I mentioned the old school thinking was there are certain rep ranges applicable to different goals.
But, in actual fact, this isn’t the case.
A study by Brad Schoenfeld in 2017 concluded strength gains are maximised using heavy weights and lower rep ranges. However, if the goal is building muscle, this could be achieved in a multitude of rep ranges where intensity was matched.
Therefore, you can actually build muscle in a rep range anywhere between 4-30 reps per set.
And that’s a pretty broad spectrum to work in. But it further highlights why focusing on reps and rep ranges is not really the place you should be devoting your attention.
Although, having said that you’re still sitting there thinking, “Yeah Simon… But how many reps?” This is where you imagine me face palming…
But I’m not one to disappoint. A few ex-girlfriend’s may disagree, but we don’t talk about that.
Reps And Sets Guidelines
Here’s a few general guidelines I use for myself and clients. These aren’t hard and fast rules. Because that rep range for building muscle is so wide you can pretty much do whatever you want.
1. Pick a rep range that feels comfortable for the exercise.
Heavier compound lifts, ie bench press and squat may be more suited to lower rep ranges. Whereas, isolation exercises may be more suited to higher rep ranges.
2. Understand your skill level.
Judge the rep range based on your skill level and ability to execute the exercise. If you have execution nailed, heavier weights and lower reps become more of an option.
3. Change rep ranges as you see fit.
You don’t have to change rep ranges, but it does work well for some. Basically, shifting rep ranges from 12-15 reps per set to 8-10 reps per set forces you to lift heavier weights, which potentially helps increase overall training volume.
4. Aim for 1-2 working sets per exercise.
If you have execution nailed then you don’t need to do a huge amount of working sets. These all out sets where you give everything, only need to be done once or twice per exercise. Everything should be geared towards these sets. So make sure you do as many sets as needed to reach the point you’re ready to go!
5. Balance set volume between what stimulates growth and what you can recover from.
This is going to be very individualised. Essentially, you need to have enough set volume to create the opportunity for muscles to grow. But you also need to be able to recover effectively. So this might be a case of trial and error. Find what works for you and run with that. Of course, you can always tweak and adjust as you go.
Sets And Reps: The Final Word
To wrap things up let’s recap on the general rules for optimising sets and reps.
* Focus on form 1st
* Start with lighter weights
* Repeat exercises frequently to hone form
* Advance RIR in conjunction with skill level
* Focus on form 1st
* Select an appropriate rep range between 4-30 reps
* Target 1-3 RIR
* Adjust set volume to balance training stimulus and recovery
And there you have the The Ultimate Guide To How Many Sets And Reps Should You Be Doing…
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Come Say Hi
And lastly, if you enjoyed this article, let me know. Come and find me on Instagram and slide up in the DM’s. Just go to iron_paradise_fitness
But for now all that’s left for me to say is keep living the Lean Life and I’ll see you soon.
I’m off to go paint the fence…