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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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:
Using the example of my client above whose program called for 3-4 works sets:
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.
There is no single correct rest protocol. There is only a justification for why you have chosen a particular amount of rest between sets.
I recommend using a count-down timer on your watch or smart phone. When it chimes, stop any distractions and do the lift.
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.
I also offer distance coaching online for strength training program design, nutrition and meal planning.