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

Why I Stopped Training Myself

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, "A man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client". I like to paraphrase it a bit and say, "A man who is his own personal trainer, has a fool for a client". 

I'm going to be vulnerable today. I recently had to do some introspection because I was stalling in my training. We've all been there, we've plateaued, or whatever was working stops working. And these plateaus can be frustrating. For me, I was going on close to a year without any real progress, and I was wracking my brain. 

It's when I took a step back I realized the issue. I had been training myself. More specifically writing my own programs and holding myself accountable.

At the surface this doesn't seem all bad. I write a lot of really good and successful programs, for other people. The issue when it comes to myself is the fact that I can't get out of my mind the exercises I enjoy doing. 

I wrote really good programs, but most if not all the exercises were exercises I enjoyed. The issue with this is that these were exercises I didn't really need. When working with other people I often notice the exercises we hate the most are often the ones we need. This was the first problem. 

The next issue I had training myself is the fact that I'm holding myself accountable. Even when I put exercises in place that I needed I would always find a way around it. My knowledge base was my own enemy. I know a million different variations, and would somehow find a way to talk myself into an easier variation. Before long the program changed entirely from what it was originally supposed to be. 


All these issues continued for a long time, and it wasn't until I checked my ego at the door and started doing a program that was not my own that I've started to see success again.

This is a pitfall we all need to be cautious about when it comes to our own training. We all have a tendency of doing what we think we need and in all actuality it's really just something we want, and not what we actually need. 

Being trained or coached by someone other than yourself goes a long way in helping you work harder, be more consistent, actually do what you need and most importantly feel accountable to someone who isn't you. 

- Dave