Sets, Reps, Weight: How Many?

If you’re confused about sets, repetitions (reps), and the amount of weight to lift during resistance training, you’re not alone. Not only is this confusing for many who are new to training, those who are familiar with training have different opinions.

We usually talk about about “training volume” (number of Sets x the number of Repetitions x Weight moved = Sets x Reps x Weight). Some believe there is a volume to focus on regardless of which number you adjust. However, as you increase the frequency of lifts, you’ll naturally lower the amount of the lift. So lifting 3 x 8 x 100 … or … 5 x 5 x 80 gets you about the same training volume.

Here’s a general breakdown of the different pieces of training volume and what they mean for you.

  • SETS How many sets? Sets are a way to get a break for muscles to regain energy after you have fatigued them with reps. This is perhaps the most specific to an individual. In other words, find out what works for you. Lots of moderate sets or one intense set with heavier weight. You can avoid plateaus, as well, by changing this every 4-6 weeks.
  • REPS How do you choose the number of reps? Generally, you do reps until your technique suffers or until you just can’t do anymore. At this point your muscle’s chemical energy has been depleted and your body needs to create more energy through one of the metabolic pathways (phospagen, glycolysis, or aerobic, depending on the exercise you have been doing). Although there is some overlap, you can generalize as follows:
    • If you pick a weight that you can only do 5-8 reps with before your technique suffers, you’re building mostly strength.
    • If you pick a weight that you can do 8-12 reps with before your technique suffers, then you’re building mostly size.
    • If you’re lifting a weight that you can do 12-20 reps with before your technique suffers, then you’re building mostly endurance.
  • WEIGHT How much weight (dumbbells, barbell, medicine ball, resistance band, etc) should you use? If you want to do 12 reps, you should pick a weight that is light enough to complete that many with proper technique, but heavy enough that adding one more rep compromises your technique or is just flat out too heavy. This will be different for different people as well as different for you as you progress.

Twice a week, and you’ll achieve good results that can be maintained over time. Or, if you want to gain specific size, strength, endurance, or performance, your trainer can help design a program to meet your goals.

If burning fat is your primary goal, focus on building the muscle groups that consume the most calories, such as your legs and back. Working smaller muscles, such as your biceps or calves, will have less impact.

Always follow proper technique and be sure you’re doctor has cleared you for exercise.


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