What Are Reps and Sets in a Workout?
Spend any amount of time at the gym, and you are bound to hear the terms “reps” and “sets” thrown around with high frequency. What are reps and sets and how do you use them in a workout? It can be helpful to think of reps and sets as structures that allow you to build workouts that will help you achieve your fitness goals. If you’ve ever wondered things like, “What is a set in weight training?” or “How many reps should I do?” here is everything you need to know.
Reps vs Sets – What Are They?
When you walk into the gym, it helps to have a plan for your workout. Reps and sets are fundamental fitness concepts that allow you to create a focused and purposeful workout.
What does a rep mean? “Rep” is short for repetition and stands for the number of times you will perform a certain exercise. If a workout requires you to perform 20 reps of air squats, that means you’ll need to do 20 consecutive air squats.
A “set” contains a certain number of reps. You can imagine a set as a basket filled with reps. Three sets of 20 reps of air squats mean you have three baskets, each filled with 20 reps of air squats.
The beautiful thing about workout sets and reps is they allow for a significant amount of versatility. You can change the number of sets and/or reps in a workout to achieve different fitness goals (as you’ll see below). In fact, tweaking reps and sets as well as the weight of a resistance movement can dramatically change a workout.
What Are the Benefits of Workout Reps and Sets?
What’s the point of breaking a workout into reps and sets? Isn’t it easier to just perform an exercise straight through? While it might seem simpler to just perform a straight set of a movement until failure, breaking an exercise up into sets and reps with rest between each set will result in a more effective workout.
Let’s say Lucy performs as many air squats as she can until failure and hits 32 reps. Not bad, but there is a better way. Suppose she were to instead perform 5 sets of 10 air squats with 30 seconds of rest between each set. The rest allows her quads to recover enough to complete the next set. By the end of the fifth set, she would have completed 50 total reps of air squats.
Breaking movements into reps and sets often allows you to perform more work (or volume), which will speed up your fitness results. It can also help you avoid injury. Performing a single set to failure, especially with weighted movements, increases the chances your form will break down. Sets and reps can improve your safety and make your workout more enjoyable overall.
How to Use Reps and Sets to Program Your Workout
Once you understand how workout sets and reps function, the next question becomes, how many reps and sets should you do? The answer will depend primarily on your fitness goal. If you are a long-distance runner who wants to build muscular endurance, your set and rep exercise scheme will look very different compared to a person who wants a bodybuilding physique.
Experts constantly quibble over the exact number of sets and reps that will yield the best results. However, the fitness world does agree on these general principles:
- Perform 1 – 5 sets per major muscle group.
- Larger muscle groups, such as your legs, back, and chest, typically require more sets than smaller muscle groups. This is because they store more energy and require more exercise to fatigue.
- If you want to focus on endurance, perform more workout reps per set at a low or moderate weight.
- If you want to focus on increasing power, strength, or hypertrophy (muscle growth), perform fewer reps per set at a heavy or very heavy weight.
Let’s look at how many reps and sets you should do based on your fitness goals.
How Many Reps and Sets for Beginners
If you are just beginning to perform bodyweight and resistance exercises, focus on performing good reps with proper form. Once you get used to the movements, you can begin to program workouts based on your goal.
When getting started, perform 2 to 5 sets of 6 to 10 reps per movement at a moderate weight.
You’ll know you picked the right weight when the last few reps of each set feel difficult to complete. If the reps are easy, increase the weight or perform more reps. If you can’t complete the set without resting, decrease the weight or the number of reps per set.
How many sets should you do per muscle group per workout? Remember the general principle from above. Perform 2 or 3 sets for smaller muscles and 3 to 5 sets for larger muscles.
How Many Reps and Sets for Endurance/Tone
Are you a cardio athlete or are you looking for tone over bulk? Focus on high rep schemes with light or moderate weight. The goal is to burn through the energy stored in your fast-twitch muscles, so you’ll begin working your slow-twitch muscles. (Note: Your fast-twitch muscles will always activate first.)
Endurance athletes should perform 3 to 5 sets of 15 to 25 reps at 45% to 65% of their one-rep max.
What Is Your One Rep Max?
When you get serious about programming workout sets and reps, it helps to know your one-rep max (ORM) for each major resistance movement. As the name implies, your one-rep max is the maximum amount of weight at which you can perform a single rep of a given movement. Most resistance training will be based on a percentage of your one-rep max.
For example, let’s say your one-rep max bench press is 100 pounds. If your workout requires 3 sets of 5 reps of bench press at 75% of your ORM, you would perform 5 reps at 75 pounds (75% of 100) for each set.
Don’t worry if you don’t yet have an established one rep max. You can guesstimate. If a workout calls for reps at 60% of your ORM, choose a moderate weight that you can do a higher number of reps with. If the reps feel too easy by the end of the set, bump the weight for the next set. Lower the weight if you can’t complete the set.
How Many Sets and Reps to Build Muscle
Do you want a sculpted muscular look or get into bodybuilding? Then you need to design your reps and sets for hypertrophy. This will put you in a moderate rep range with a heavy weight. The goal creates temporary damage to your muscle fibers so your body will build your muscles back stronger and larger. Always make sure to warm up before performing reps at a heavy weight.
For muscle growth, perform 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps at 70% to 80% of your ORM.
How Many Sets and Reps for Strength
Building muscle and building strength are related, but they aren’t the same thing. If your goal is strength, you’ll want to fatigue your fast-twitch muscles quickly by performing fewer reps at a heavy weight. Building strength means pushing yourself close to your limit with lots of weight.
For strength, perform 2 to 3 sets at 1 to 5 reps at 80% to 90% of your ORM.
How Many Reps and Sets for Power
If you want to increase your absolute output for short distances, then power is the name of your game. Power training is ideal for anyone who wants to improve sprinting, jumping, or overall explosiveness. This is also where Strongman and Strongwoman competitors live. While the reps per set are low, the weight is near your maximum capacity. Make sure your form is on point to avoid injuries at these heavy weights.
For power, perform 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 3 reps at 90% or more of your ORM
How Rest Plays a Role in Your Reps and Sets
To get the most out of your workout, you’ll want to rest between each set. This rest period allows your muscles to recover so that you can perform a greater number of overall reps and work your muscles more thoroughly. Generally, you’ll want to rest anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes between each set.
Easier sets at a lighter weight typically require less rest per set. If you’re performing muscular endurance training, consider taking 30 to 60 seconds of rest between sets. If you are training for hypertrophy, 30 to 90 seconds of rest is a good range. Finally, for strength and power training, give yourself at least two minutes of rest between sets. As you perform reps at a weight near your one-rep max, you may want to give yourself up to 5 minutes of rest to allow your muscles to recover as much as possible.
Need Help with Reps vs Sets?
What are reps and sets? You know the answer to that question now, but you may still feel uncertain about how to actually use reps and sets to program your workout. One of the best ways to begin programming a workout for yourself is to… just get started! Determine your goal, choose a few exercises to perform, and use the suggestions above to design a set and workout rep scheme that will help you achieve that goal.
Still need help? If you’re a member of EōS Fitness, sign up for a Complimentary Welcome Workout with a certified personal trainer. Your personal trainer can help educate you on how to begin building your own workouts in the future. If you’re not a member of EōS Fitness, get a Complimentary 7-Day Pass today.