How many sets and reps should I be doing?

Very often people will get stuck in their own ways, especially when it comes to sets and reps – me included. There are so many training variables when it comes to writing a programme, but reps are probably the most basic, yet easily adjustable of them all.

Reps essentially determine the stimulus that the workout will impose upon the body. In simplistic terms, the lower the reps the greater potential for strength gains, the higher the reps the greater potential for adding some muscle mass. And sets and reps have an inverse relationship so more reps, less sets and visa versa.

When it comes to figuring out exactly how many reps you should be doing, it is unfortunately not as straight forward as we might like it be. It depends on many different factors such as training goal, age, training age, sessions per week, injury, nutrition and sleep, and we will all respond differently to the same stimulus.

Despite it not being straight forward, below is a simple guide of what each rep scheme is geared towards, and although it can be broken down further, these are the basic principles.

1-5 Reps is where you want to be if you are looking specifically for strength gains. Stick to this rep range of top end strength is your goal.

5-8 Reps is used for what is known as functional hypertrophy. This is for people who are looking to gain some size, strength and speed, without too much muscular building. Here we get equal amount of strength and muscle gains.

8-12 Reps is more you’re traditional hypertrophy or muscle building. This is where many gym goers, especially guys, spend far too long, largely because it is what appears most in fitness magazines. This is the traditional muscle gain focus.

12-20 Reps develops strength endurance, although is also useful for hypertrophy.

You will obviously get some overlap in stimulus between rep schemes. For example you will obviously get some strength gains within the hypertrophy – that is 8-12 reps – especially in the beginning, however it’s not the most efficient at developing strength.

Would it be wrong to periodically move away from the rep scheme specifically targeting the training effect that you’re after? No. Say you are doing 8-12 reps as you want to add some muscle mass for example, it would be beneficial to go through a strength phase for instance.

Rep ranges only have a limited shelf life before the body starts to get bored with the stimulus and you will start to experience limited adaptations. Dropping down the 1-5 reps for a block of training has been shown to increase motor unit recruitment (more muscle fibres), meaning that when you go back to a more hypertrophy based rep scheme you will lift more weight for the same amount of reps. This creates overload which is another very basic training principle and will lead to increased adaptation.

If you have been using a specific amount of reps for a while then change it up. You don’t need to completely overhaul your programme to see results. Stick with the exercises you are doing, manipulate the reps and see how you get on.

Just because the reps you are using are technically the “best” reps to be using for a particular goal, doesn’t that mean utilizing a different rep scheme would not be useful in helping to get you where you want to be. In fact, it almost certainly will.

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