Learning to Fail – Reps, Sets, Weight, Splits

It’s easy to get a work out that says “3 sets of 10 reps” and go to it with the same pair of dumbbells you’ve been using for 3 months. Always — ALWAYS — you need to be thinking about progressing your weight and eventually your sets.

The variable in any strength work out is the weight. The reps and sets are chosen for whatever your primary goal is: gaining mostly strength, gaining mostly size, gaining mostly endurance. It’s a sliding scale, however, with plenty of overlap.

  • Doing 4-6 reps for 3-5 sets is a strength-focused exercise.
  • Doing 8-12 reps for 3-4 sets is a growth-focused (hypertrophy) exercise.
  • Doing 12-15 reps for 4-6 sets is an endurance-focused exercise.
  • You’ll find general fitness benefits from all of these, as well.

The average exerciser wants appearance gains, which puts their interest in the hypertrophy range. Power lifters and triathletes will work the ends of the ranges mentioned above. Body builders work hypertrophy, but as athletes, they will increase the sets and tweak nutrition to achieve their competitive appearance goals.

Maybe you think you can do 10 sets of 3 reps and it’s the same as doing 3 sets of 10 reps, right? It doesn’t work that way. Nor does it mean that you can do all 30 reps at once and figure it’s the same as doing 3 sets of 10 reps.

The reason is the weight.

10 sets of 3 reps should be a VERY heavy weight. 3 sets of 10 reps should be a MODERATE weight. If you’re able to do all 30 reps without rest, then you’re wasting your time; the weight is much too light.

The reps per set is telling you how much weight to use. It’s telling you where you should FAIL. If you don’t fail, you’re not challenging yourself. The number doesn’t matter, so don’t compare it to others. All that matters is that it challenges YOU.

I’ve seen very few non-athletes have the discipline to sustain work outs in the strength or endurance ranges for long. Such work outs can be good for 4 week transitions during your training year, but what’s going to be palatable to most of us is the hypertrophy region — a moderate weight that challenges us to fail at 8-10 reps.

I’ve seen many people burn themselves out doing the high volume/high intensity training. Slow & steady wins the race.

Picking Your Weight

When the work out says do 10 reps, it’s telling you to pick a weight with which you can perform the exercise NO MORE THAN 10 times. I can’t tell you how many times I see someone pick up a weight, curl it 10 times and stop, despite that they could have continued curling it another 5-10 times. THIS is the important point. You must choose the correct weight, and the reps is what tells you how much weight to use.

But to choose the correct weight, you have to be willing to push yourself, to challenge yourself. You have to be comfortable with discomfort. If you pick a weight that is too light, you’re wasting your time.

Conversely, you can sometimes choose a weight that is too heavy. Maybe your target is 8-10 reps and you can only lift the weight 3 times before failing. Definitely go lighter next set.

The only one that knows how much you should lift is you.

Don’t quit because you see a number on the sheet. If you can keep going, then keep going! Raise your weight the next set. At your next session, be sure to start where you ended. Progress every week if you can. In time, you’ll hit a plateau. Then it’s time for adding on sets or changing the routine.

Choosing Your Routine


5 Day Split (PDF File. Right-click and open in new tab.)

We’ve done many kinds of routines in the studio, from 5×5 strength work outs, to HIIT, to specialized routines for injuries and conditioning. Most of my clients do a 2- or 3-day hypertrophy split.

How many days do you have to exercise 45-60 minutes? How much volume do you want to do? I currently have a few clients doing a 5-day split I designed. It’s my own 12-week summer work out, too, and it kicks ass. Because it’s 5 days, each body region gets a high volume of work.

I recommend your week be: Shoulders – Back – Rest – Chest – Arms – Legs – Rest. Core is included in each work out in the compound exercises I tend to favor and a finishing 100-rep set ab exercise.

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