Making a Plan pt. 6 - Are You Using the Right Sets and Reps for Your Goal?

I'll admit, when you are new to training you sometimes feel like you need the Rosetta Stone just to understand the exercises let alone understanding how many sets and reps you should do. Us trainers have a bad habit of simply assuming everyone can read our mind. I fall into this trap more frequently than I would like to admit, just ask my wife... 

 

So what does it mean when you see a sequence like "6x45"? Well fortunately You don't have to do any multiplication. Rather it's reasonable to assume the first number will tell you how many sets you are going to perform and the second number is how many reps you will perform for each of those sets. Regardless of how the information is presented usually the first number will be the sets and the second number the reps. 

The real problem arises because sets and reps aren't as simple as they seem. Depending on the muscular quality you want to train you will change your sets and reps accordingly. 

For instance strength is often best trained from the 1-6 rep range. I personally like 3-5 reps as my sweet spot for myself and athletes.

Building muscle tends to work best between 6-12 reps, and muscular endurance tends to work best with 12 or more reps.

However the operative word for each of these is "tends". There are times where I will hit hypertrophy performing upwards to 15 reps, and hit strength performing 10 reps. Some may argue that I'm not really training strength or hypertrophy if this happens. Well much like trying to decide who is the greatest wizard Dumbeldore or Gandalf this is a discussion which isn't very relevant to the lesson in this post.

The truth is most strength training is spent under 5 reps, and most muscle building will spent around 8 - 12 reps. 

Determining sets is another conundrum all in it's own. Usually the higher the reps the less sets you want to be doing. There are some physiological explanations for this but I think time is the biggest consideration. Basically, I don't want myself or my athlete's to spend more than 90 minutes in a gym. Any longer and we're doing it wrong. And quite frankly I try to aim for under 75 minutes. 

Suffice to say, it's usually a safe bet to think of it like this

  • Strength = 3-8 sets for 1-6 reps
  • Hypertrophy = 3-5 sets for 6-12 reps
  • Muscular Endurance = 2-4 sets for 12+ reps

For the sake of simplicity I am choosing to keep this black and white. And for most everyone I find these tend to be good ranges when training each of these qualities.

Our next post in this series will dig a little bit deeper and discuss frequency and volume depending on what you want to train and where you are at in your training career.

- Dave