February 15, 2022 8 min read
You’ve got the perfect list of exercises that target the right muscles and suit whatever equipment you have available. Time to start busting out some reps - but how many should you do?
The number of reps, sets, and rests you take will make or break the workout you have planned. Read on for a complete introduction to planning your routine from the warm-up to the cool down so you can find out what works and why.
With enough dedication, you could make body recomposition work, essentially staying atmaintenance calories on non-workout days and consuming a few hundred extra on the days you hit the gym.
And if burning fat or changing the number on the scale isn’t a concern, then you need to consider what kind of strength you’re trying to build.
Most people need a healthy mixture of isolation exercises to train lagging muscles and functional strength training with compound exercises for better day-to-day health.
In any case, your workout routine can be organized around the big lifts that get the blood pumping, like squats and deadlifts, while also including exercises that isolate weaker muscles, also known as 'accessory work'.
Once you know what you’re trying to do, you can break those goals down into reps and sets to translate the long-term ambition into short-term action. But just what are reps and sets, anyway? Let’s hop to square one in workout planning and find out.
A repetition, or rep, is the number of times you complete a given exercise and sets are a predetermined chunk of sets.
In a push-up, you start in a top plank position, bend your elbows until your chest is just above the ground, and then push the floor away through your palms to complete a repetition. Determining how many reps make up a full set is up to the individual.Seasoned bodyweight pros with high muscular endurance might be doing sets of 30 reps while beginners are doing sets of 5 or 6 reps.
3 sets of 30 reps each isn’t the same as 18 sets of 5.
This is because muscular endurance is a key factor to reach higher reps without fatiguing. However, reaching higher reps is possible by breaking down a given number of reps into smaller sets in order for your muscles to develop the muscular endurance to reach the given number of reps, which would be a total of 90 in the example above.
To develop muscular strength and endurance requires hard work and dedication over a long period. There is no shortcut.
Just like you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight, your body needs to be in a caloric surplus to make existing muscle tissue larger and create new muscle mass. This is because your muscles grow through a process called hypertrophy, which happens when muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown.
Protein intake slows muscle protein breakdown and will create that positive protein balance you need to grow muscle.
Beginners, i.e. those who have just started strength training regimens and have only a handful of training sessions under their belts, see increased muscle size as their bodies repair damaged muscle fibers. This is often referred to as 'newbie gains'
As the body acclimates to regular weight training, though, hypertrophy and muscle growth is harder to achieve.
That’s one good reason why you shouldn’t spend all day at the gym trying to build muscle faster. You’ll hear experienced lifters talk about working out to failure, meaning the lift until they literally cannot anymore.
That’s a strategy for advanced bodybuilding. You can do it with a high rep count and low weight, which we’ll talk more about in a bit. But beginners won’t do much more than exhaust their willpower by spending every waking moment working out or obsessing over their fitness. Always leave a little more in the tank and quit that workout when you’re fired up so you’ll be eager when the time comes to hit the gym again.
Beyond all that, your body needs time for that protein synthesis to happen.When you train, your muscles are using something called glycogen for energy.
This glycogen is created from carbohydrates but not when your muscles are under duress. Muscle glycogen cells are broken down, freeing glucose for consumption by tissues that need it for energy.
When there’s a shortage of oxygen, as there frequently is during intense exercise, glycogen is broken down through a process called glycolysis, which produces lactate and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, an important energy source for skeletal muscle.
But as anyone knows who’s done any sort of physical activity for a long period, muscle fatigue and soreness kick in eventually.
The reason that happens is related to this glycolysis, which produces hydrogen ions that in turn make your muscles more acidic. When we say “feel the burn” during a workout, this acidity is what we mean. Long story short, your muscles aren’t going to do any protein synthesis while in that acidic environment. They’re more concerned with powering themselves to survive the workout. If you want to build strength and muscle mass, you need rest as much as you need exercise.
Rest periods are needed between sets and rest days between sessions.
The amount of time you give yourself to recover between exercises in a workout routine will depend on what strategy you’re using to build strength and specific exercises you’re doing.
For instance, if you’re doing biceps curls and triceps kickbacks with a fairly moderate amount of weight for strength gains in your upper body, you probably won’t feel as fatigued as you would using heavier weights.
So you wouldn’t leave yourself much time to recover before starting the next set. On the other hand, when you’re using compound exercises like the deadlift with a heavy load on the barbell, you will want to plan a longer rest period. When you’re using heavier weight on multiple muscle groups like you do in the bigger weightlifting exercises, starting right in on the next exercise could wear out your muscle endurance and cause you to fall short of your planned rep count.
The same idea applies to training sessions. You have to plan rest days so your muscles can recover and get stronger. Throw in a serving of HYPERADE to replenish your carbs, electrolytes, and aminos on rest days so you’re ready to attack your reps on the next workout day.
If it’s not already clear, personal trainers and pro lifters think strategically about their workouts. It all depends on the goal. So before you get started on your workout, you have to know the number of repetitions and the number of sets you’re aiming for.
You can do fewer reps with heavy weights or set a higher rep count if you’re using lighter weights. In general, lifting lighter weight for more reps will help your muscles build endurance while doing a few big lifts with heavy weights will build overall power.
When we talk about high reps and low reps, we’re working within the following rep ranges:
Specific exercises lend themselves to certain rep counts. Deadlifts, for example, are typically done with heavier weight and low reps. Many dumbbell exercises like biceps curls or shoulder presses are done in the medium rep range while bodyweight and resistance band exercises can easily have rep counts of 30 or more. That doesn’t mean you have to stick within a certain range for an exercise, though.
People like to bench press their one-rep maximum and run through a medium rep count at a lighter weight, although they might not do both back-to-back.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends an 8 - 12 rep maximum for novice lifters and says intermediate lifters ought to progress to heavier weight with the same rep count while also including low rep exercises with really heavy weights for well-rounded strength gains.
As for sets, three or four is usually enough for each exercise in a routine. It’s just long enough for you to feel the burn and build endurance while also allowing for rest periods in between. If you’re doing lots of reps, you probably want to do fewer sets. With higher weight reps, you want lower rep counts and more sets.
As a beginner, you should leave just enough time for your muscles to recover but not so much time that you break your rhythm.
1 to 3-minutes rest is optimal unless you’re using high-intensity interval training.
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is a fast-paced routine where you leave 30 seconds between sets and get right to the next exercise. Lifters don’t use heavy weights during a HIIT routine. They use a moderate amount of weight, maybe 30 - 50% of their one-rep max, and do high rep counts with very short rest periods.
It’s a great way to get some cardio into your workout routine, but it’s not the only way to build strength. You can use more weight, a lower rep count, and give yourself more time to rest in between sets if that rhythm is easier for you to work with.
Progress is fuel in a fitness program. You’re likely going to be eager to put more weight on the bar or up that rep count when the adrenaline hits, but we advise against it for the simple reason that doing so prematurely can throw off your whole fitness journey even if you don’t hurt yourself trying to lift more than you’re capable of lifting. Once you can run through your goal reps and sets with ease, try adding a few more repetitions.
If you can easily do an extra 2 - 4 reps, consider adding more reps to your planned routine or increasing the weight.
As far as that goes, don’t expect to increase by a factor of two or three. Add another 10 pounds and see if it’s enough, adding 10 more until you’re at a place where you’re pushing hard to complete your sets - but still completing them almost every time.
If you’re just starting, you need to learn some basics before you get strategic about your routine. Learn how to plank, push-up, squat, lunge, deadlift, bench press, and bicep curl with perfect form.
Those are incredibly useful exercises and understanding how to do them will make more complicated exercises easier later on. Try to do 8 - 12 reps in 2 sets at the very beginning and progress to a third and fourth set before you start increasing either rep counts or weights. Make no mistake that you can improve your strength and endurance with as few as three 13-minute exercise sessions in a week.
If you’re struggling with weighted exercises, a few push-ups, sit-ups, and lunges will help boost your confidence and ensure you get a workout while you build the strength for more weighted exercises moving forward.
Test out the exercises you want to use in your routine with the rep ranges in this guide.
If you’re not using heavy weights, aim for higher rep counts to build endurance. Use heavy weight and low rep counts to increase strength and induce hypertrophy.
Make sure you allow for a couple of minutes of rest between sets at least two rest days during the week so your body can recover and build more muscle mass before the next round of exercise.