Today you feel like trying something different.
You walk into the weights section (feeling like a gazelle in a lion’s den)
But now what?
How many reps?
How many sets?
What even is a set?!
As your online personal trainer, I want you to feel confident when you walk into the weights area.
Therefore, I’ve designed a super simple, but totally comprehensive beginners guide to weight training to help you find your way around.
I’ve worked with a wide variety of clients. From those preparing for athletic competition to those just wanting to ‘just lose a bit around the belly’, nearly all have one thing in common – a lack of scientific knowledge on the most suitable rep, set and weight range for their goals.
Generally, within the gym environment, it is more common for men to lift weights that are too heavy, under the misconception that the only way to bulk is to lift as heavy as possible. While women tend to go for weights that are too light, under the fallacy that lifting any amount of weight will turn them into a female bodybuilder.
Both reasonings are fundamentally floored.
As any qualified personal trainer will tell you, the ideal rep range for you depends upon the following: how long you have been training, your age, your basic fitness level, your body type and your goals.
Each of these will have a direct bearing on how many repetitions and sets you should do.
Let’s break down the various rep, set, weight and rest recommendations, and explore a little of the science behind each of them.
(I highly recommend every fitness enthusiast become aquatinted with the following information as it will increase your results tenfold!)
First off, the terminology…
Rep is short for repetition or more specifically, the number of times you can repeat a movement. For example, if you complete 10 press-ups that would equal 10 repetitions, and 20 press-ups would equal 20 repetitions, etc.
Once you have completed the recommended number of repetitions for a given exercise, you will have completed a set. Let us say you have just finished 10 press-ups (10 reps); that is 1 set. If you take a minutes rest and then complete another 10 press-ups that is 2 sets, and so on.
1RM is your one rep max, the maximum amount of weight you can lift (with correct form) in a single repetition, for a given exercise. Therefore 7RM is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 7 repetitions, and so on.
Reps and Sets for Long, Lean Muscles
Reps: 13 – 20
Weight: 60 – 70 % of 1RM.
Sets: 2 – 3
Rest: 30 – 60 seconds (1)
This rep, set and weight range is best if you are new to training. Training within the 13+ rep range can prevent the nervous and muscular systems from shock as they deal with the physical stresses of a new training programme.
The 13+ rep range is also suitable if: you are training 2 hours or less per week, are overweight, overcoming an injury, over 60 years of age, are looking for lean, toned limbs, or compete in endurance events.
If you fall into any of the aforementioned categories, I recommend sticking within the low weight, high rep range.
For a complete beginner this rep, set and weight range will build strength. But, for the majority of people it will build muscular endurance, coordination, balance and cardiovascular fitness without growing muscle size.
Training within this rep and weight range recruits type 1 muscle fibres (also called slow twitch or slow oxidative fibres).
Training that targets these fibres can increase myoglobin concentration which can facilitate greater transportation of oxygen within the muscular environment, leading to increased capillarization. Greater capillarization within the muscle tissue can improve the delivery of oxygen and lead to an increased lactate threshold.
Training within this rep range will increase your muscular endurance, allowing you to train for longer before feeling the burn.
To advance past this rep, set and weight range, slowly increase the weight and lower the number of reps over several weeks.
For more information on muscular endurance, I recommend reading ‘Citrus Fruits & Muscle Fatigue – An Athletic Advantage‘.
Reps and Sets for Shapely Curves and Muscular Gains
The 8-12 rep, set and weight range is ideal if you have been performing within the light weight/high rep category above for 3-4 weeks and are now wanting to increase your intensity. This rep range is also beneficial for those looking to tone, sculpt, and increase their overall muscle mass.
The 8-12 rep range can increase the release of HGH (human growth hormone), an anabolic hormone which is a major contributing factor to muscle growth and repair. This rep range can stimulate muscle growth because it targets both type 2a and type 2b muscle fibres.
Type 2a fibres are fast-twitch fibres that have endurance properties similar to type 1 fibres, and fast-contractile properties similar to type 2b fibres.
Type 2a fibres experience the most significant increase in hypertrophy, while type 2b fibres produce maximal strength and power.
Training within this rep, set and weight range can recruit and increase the size of type 2a fibres. But, more importantly, it can cause type 2b fibres to adapt to the forces placed upon them and turn into type 2a fibres.
This adaptation of type 2b fibres into type 2a fibres can lead to greater increases in muscle size and mass.
But ladies, please do not worry, this rep, set and weight range will not turn you into the Hulk!
It is impossible for women to bulk in a similar manner to men because unlike men, we do not have the same high quantity of testosterone flowing through our veins.
Competitive female bodybuilders are the size that they are because they either train extremely hard (3+ hours every day for years) or inject testosterone into their bloodstream.
If you are not supplementing your workouts with testosterone injections (which most likely you are not), then this rep range will only increase your muscle size marginally.
This slight increase in muscle mass is a good thing, as it is this that will give you a toned, firm body (and booty).
Reps and Sets for Superhuman Strength
Reps: 1 – 5
Weight: 85 – 100%
Sets: 6 – 10
Rest: 2 – 5 minutes (1)
The 1-5 rep range is best if you have been training regularly (3-4 times per week) for over 6 months, are an athlete, or are looking to become stronger, faster and increase your rate of force development (power).
Training within this rep, set and weight range incorporates weights that are close to a persons 1RM and therefore, this training method is for advanced lifters only.
The adaptations from training within this rep range are mostly neural leading to increased strength without adding a significant amount of bulk.
Training within this rep, set and weight range recruits type 2b muscle fibres (also called fast twitch or fast glycolytic fibres).
These fibres contract extremely rapidly and create very forceful muscle contractions. However, they also fatigue quickly which is why longer rest breaks between sets are required. (1)
One particular benefit of training within the low rep, high weight range is that it allows the body to improve the synchronisation and recruitment of all three types of muscle fibres.
Improved recruitment and synchronisation can lead to maximal strength and power – the ability to produce the greatest force in the shortest period of time.
Increasing power can significantly benefit many athletes who play a sport in which time is limited.
Training to improve strength and power usually incorporates Olympic lifts such as the snatch and the clean and jerk. For athletes, it may also include plyometric training.
For more information on strength training, please visit my post Strength Training For Athletes
If you have any questions about rep, set or weight range, please leave a comment below.
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