The Best Number of Sets and Reps for Your Workout

By Darren Stehle

The Best Number of Sets and Reps for your workout

There is no right or wrong answer for how many sets and reps you should perform in a strength training program.

Whatever protocol you decide to use should be based on your unique goals and physical abilities.

Program design, which is also called periodization, is simply a plan that should cover the number and types of exercises, number of program days per week or training cycle, sets and reps per exercise, specific lifting techniques, rest periods, and warmup and mobility drills, just to name a few things.

A program is your workout plan for a set period of weeks (or a specific number of workouts) so that you can keep track of your quantitative measures like sets and reps, load, rest, as well as qualitative observations, e.g. if you had no energy one day, or felt amazing and lifted more than usual, what you ate, sleep quality, and so on.

Whatever information you record should be used to assist in developing the next stage of your program.

If you are following a program, either one that you created yourself, or one that someone designed for you, hopefully it was designed with a direction in mind.

For example, is it a hypertrophy or muscle building program, a fat loss program, a speed and agility program, or an injury-prevention program. Is the program set up for stages?

Often you will see a program design for 12-weeks, possibly divided into 3 stages of 4-weeks each. Do the sets, reps and exercises change with each stage for a reason that makes sense and is based upon (and builds upon) the previous stage?

If you are working with a coach, hopefully s/he will want to see your training logs so that s/he can assess your results and subjective observations, which will influence their choices for the next stage.

Think of Program Design Stages Like a Funnel

The widest part of the funnel is at the top. For example, a beginner program will cover a large number of general exercises, with a focus on a larger number of repetitions, and few sets per exercise. The more inexperienced the trainee, the broader (i.e. wider) the approach

If the trainee is more experienced, or as s/he moves through subsequent program stages, s/he will need a more narrow focus in program design.

Just as the width of the funnel becomes more narrow, so does the attention to specifics in programming. For example, you might do fewer total exercises and reps on a given day, but more sets per exercise (thus more focus on specific lifts).

No matter what protocol you are following, the question of sets and reps will always be part of every single program design.

Generic Begets Generic

The more tailored the program to the individual’s needs, the better the coach who designed the plan. Ultimately the real test of a good program rests in the results attained by the person performing the program.

Just like some diets will work for some people some of the time, if you use a generic program from a magazine, one you found online, or one from a fitness app, that program may or may not work for you.

Your results from a generic program will most likely not be as good as from a customized, personalized program design. You might get lucky as a beginner (a strength training newbie) simply because your body will respond to a program because it’s an entirely new stimulus.

However, if you are experienced with strength training, your body will need more specific protocols and programming methods in order to be challenged and to adapt.

Best Number of Sets and Reps - draft program design

Working program design draft for one of my clients

While there are many (massive) academic text books written about program design and periodization, I am not going to write about how to design a program in this article. Instead I want to answer a common question that I am often asked, “What’s the best number of sets and reps that I should do?”

Note: the question immediately makes me wonder if the person asking is following a program or s/he is genuinely interested in the process of periodization.

One of my clients asked me this question in relation to the workout they are doing. Their program is designed around the big lifts like squats, deadlifts and barbell chest press.

For these main lifts I have prescribed,

  • 2 warm-up sets
    • 1st warm-up: 10 reps at 50% of your first work set weight
    • 2nd warm-up: 6 reps at 80-90% of your first work set weight
  • 3-4 work sets of 6-8 reps/set

An experienced lifter will be able to quickly determine their first work set weight (or load) to calculate their warm-up weights.

For the inexperienced lifter, or someone who has not been training for a while, they would need to start with light weights that they can manage, learn the lifts, and then determine approximate warm-up and work set loads. This can sometimes take a couple of sessions.

Why Warm-Up Sets?

Just as you need to let your car warm up for a few minutes in the extreme cold of winter before you drive, the same is true for your body.

Warm-ups do a few things:

  • The function as rehearsal for the movement;
  • They help to warm up the joints used in the exercise (increased blood flow and joint fluids via movement);
  • They stimulate the muscles and the nervous system;
  • They give you feedback (e.g. maybe your knee or shoulder is sore or tight, which means you need to consider what to do next), and;
  • They prepare the body and nervous system to be prepared for the work sets, which is where you get the greatest response to training.

How to Progress Through the Work Sets

Using the example of my client above whose program called for 3-4 works sets:

  • 1st set: Perform 8 reps. If you can’t, then the weight is too heavy. You should feel like you have the strength to perform at least two more reps.
  • 2nd set: Perform 8 reps. If you can’t, then the weight is too heavy. In this case, if you did at least 6 reps, use the same weight on the next set and aim for at least one more rep. Ultimately, you should perform 8 reps here and feel like you have the ability to do 1-2 more.
  • 3rd (or 4th) set: Here is where you challenge yourself to get 6-8 reps. You must get at least 6 or, again, the weight is too heavy (or you didn’t rest long enough compared to previous sets).

The Importance of Keeping a Training Log

How much weight you lifted and how many repetitions you performed will allow you to plan what to lift the next day when you do that workout.

If you couldn’t lift more than 6-7 reps (or whatever the prescribed rep range was for that set) on the last set, then your weights will stay the same for the next workout day. Your new goal is to achieve the total number of prescribed reps on the last set.

Once you have reached the max number on the final set increase the weights by 5% the next time you perform that exercise.

I recommend that you actually write down the new weights in your program for the next time you perform that exercise. That’s right – put down the weights even if your next chest day (for example) isn’t until next week.

This is partially psychological – you are priming your brain to expect that you will perform the pre-set weights the next time you train that exercise.

When you come to the day to perform that exercise again you will have no excuses and no questions. You know what you did the last time, and your plan for what to lift that session is directly in front of you.

Understanding and Applying Rest Protocols Between Sets

There is no single correct rest protocol. There is only a justification for why you have chosen a particular amount of rest between sets.

Factors to Determine the Amount of Rest between Sets

  • General prescription (e.g. general amount of rest for hypertrophy, speed, max strength, etc.);
  • Chronological and training age;
  • Single sets, super sets, drop sets, pyramiding down or up, rest-pause sets, etc.;
  • How busy is the gym and availability of equipment (sometimes you need to throw protocols out the window during prime time when you can’t share or get access to a bench)?
  • How are you feeling that day (are you adequately rested, still a bit sore from a previous workout, or do you feel like you need to rest a bit longer in order to maintain proper form)?

I recommend using a count-down timer on your watch or smart phone. When it chimes, stop any distractions and do the lift.

Benefits of Using a Timer

  • Keeps you on track and accountable;
  • It is a form of measure: if you want to be strict with your program (and yourself), movement form and rest are great qualities to track;
  • It keeps you in the zone: when the timer goes off and you’re chatting away with someone, usually the other person knows without you having to say a word that they need to let you lift, and;
  • If you’re resting and the timer goes off it has a Pavlovian effect – the timer signifies that it’s time to lift, to increase your focus, energy, testosterone, and so on.

Hopefully this helps you to better understand many of the variables that go into program design. The next time you use a strength training program or work with someone to design a program to fit your exercise needs you will be much more informed.

Need Help?

If you’re in Toronto I coach clients at the Adelaide Club and I offer private cooking instruction at your home.

I also offer distance coaching online for strength training program design, nutrition and meal planning.

Be well.

Darren