Sets and Reps
How Many Sets & Reps Should You Do?
It is a very common question to ask: How many sets and reps should I do? To understand how to answer this question in the most appropriate way relates to some very basic personal information. Some simple questions have to be asked of anyone who is training.
They are in order of importance. Whether you are a trainer, coach, or a client, or if you are just training on your own, it is very important that you completely understand these basic principles for developing your own workout protocol.
If you are an experienced exercise enthusiast, do not become discouraged with the slow pace of this article. I would challenge you to read this beginning information to allow you to have a scientific basis for helping other people with their exercise programs. Let's face it, if you are in the gym, or if people know that you exercise, you are likely to get asked some questions by someone with less experience than yourself.
It would be nice if you could direct that person towards this article, but it would really be fantastic if you understood the context of this article and could help explain it to them.
Each of these has a direct bearing on the answer of how many sets and reps you should do. I will start with the very first statement and analyze each one to help you better understand its importance.
During the context of this article it is important that you understand that the intensity will increase as you ask each question. Make sure that you have accomplished the minimum of each level before advancing.
1 How Long Have You Been Training?
This is a very straightforward question. Common sense has a lot to do with your response. To consider that you have been training would indicate that you have been participating in an active exercise program for at least 45 minutes a day for at least 3 days per week.
If you have not been participating for that time period, then you must consider that you have not been training at all. To begin any exercise program it is important to have some aerobic/breathing capacity. For most individuals it is important to begin walking or doing some activity that is repetitive for at least 5 minutes everyday.
You can think of that as one set for how many reps it takes for 5 minutes. In most healthy individuals, you can add 5 minutes every 3 days, and continue on until you have established a daily exercise program of 30 minutes per day for two weeks.
It is important not to become too eager and jump into an exercise program to quickly. Many times, individuals become very distressed because their training has caused them to become too sore to participate.
Exercise is beneficial because it allows the body to adapt to physical stress. If you over-exercise, then you will become injured. This happens more commonly than many people realize. Some uninformed and uneducated trainers may train an individual to the point that walking is almost impossible.
Some soreness may be manageable, but excessive soreness is unnecessary for the beginner. Small microscopic tears may form in your tendons and ligaments and begin the irreversible damage that may later lead to a more significant injury. The body requires time to rest and recover.
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Submaximal effort is necessary for the beginner to recover from the physical stresses exerted on their bodies. For the first 3 to 4 weeks of exercise, it is important that you leave the gym with the attitude; "That was nothing, I could have done more." Too many people begin an exercise program and expect overnight results, but only produce overnight injury.
2 What Is Your Age?
Again common sense is the rule of thumb here. And don't lie. The extremely young athlete can recover from a significant amount of exercise in most cases.
Someone who is elderly will likely enter into the exercise program with a completely different set of needs to achieve their fitness level. For example, if someone is over the age of 40, 50, they will likely need to spend time building up some cardiovascular fitness. Flexibility is lost at an alarming rate when someone passes the age of 35.
If someone is over the age of 60 or 70, balance, flexibility, coordination, and cardiovascular fitness become obstacles that must be overcome prior to that individual beginning a weight resistance program.
For anyone who has joint problems, and most individuals who are over the age of 50 have some form of joint problem; it is better to focus on higher repetitions and use less weight. Advance your exercise program by reducing the rest time needed between sets instead of trying to use more weight.
Learn to flex your muscles while you train, or exercise on a vibrating surface. Both of these techniques will result in more muscle stimulation with less pressure on your joints.
For most people, it is best to start with one set. The repetitions should be high on any exercise. That means somewhere between 20 to 30 repetitions for approximately the first two weeks. This is necessary to build muscular coordination and allow specific chemical reactions to occur in the supporting tissues.
You should always choose a weight that provides resistance but allows for all of the repetitions to be completed. Make sure that you can do one set of every exercise for every body part for 20 to 30 repetitions for at least two weeks before advancing to the next level.
Children under the age of 18 should never lift over 50% of their bodyweight until they have achieved their tallest parents' height. Children who do lift heavy weight, risk the chance that they will traumatize their bones growth plates and likely stunt their height growth.
3 What Is Your Basic Fitness Level?
Have you been participating in an exercise program at least 3 times a week for 45 minutes daily? If your answer to the following question is yes, then you will be described as a beginner. If your answer to the previous question was no, then you will be considered untrained. It is important that you go to the paragraph about how long you have been training and begin there.
If you train, 4 to 6 days in a row, for approximately 45 minutes a day, then you are someone who be referred to as a novice exercise enthusiast.
If you are participating in exercise greater than 4 to 6 days a week for longer than 45 minutes a day, or you are participating in a competitive sport, then you are considered an advanced exercise enthusiast.
If you are training 4 to 6 days a week longer than 3 hours a day, you are likely suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. That may seem rather harsh, but it is likely very true. The human body does not respond favorably to exercise that is longer than 60 minutes on a daily basis. It will elevate your stress hormone levels and likely cause more harm than you are aware of.
At this point you should be able to determine what fitness level you are currently participating:
It is important that you also consider a few other important statistical pieces of information. Approximately one third of all children in the United States are considered overweight. Most individuals who are over 40 years of age require a stress test to determine their cardiac fitness level.
If you have any type of physical condition that requires an ongoing medication, it is important to speak to both, your doctor and pharmacists, prior to beginning an exercise program. This statement does not qualify the allopathic/MD, Osteopathic/DO, Chiropractic/DC physician as an expert; however, they do help you understand your risk factors before beginning exercise.
Most children who are simply overweight can participate in any exercise program; however, children that are overweight should consider nutritional guidance prior to beginning an exercise program. Most trainers can offer general suggestions for eating habits, but they cannot indicate a specific diet for someone to follow. Only the above physicians and/or a registered dietitian are licensed to be able to carry out this duty legally.
It is important to understand that diet has more influence on your body's appearance than exercise. A half of a bagel is approximately 200 calories. Most individuals would have to run a mile at an intense rate to burn just 200 calories. Don't take a pill to make up for poor eating habits.
The biggest mistake that most people make when they begin an exercise program is that they do not increase their daily diet of protein. Remember that your diet and rest should directly reflect the amount and intensity level of the exercise that you are participating in.
Consider that world-class bench press athletes eat approximately three times their body weight in grams of protein every day and only train heavy on the bench press four to five times a year, everything else is submaximal. The basic person exercising should eat at least 3/4 of their body weight in grams of protein per day. If you weigh 160 pounds = 120 grams of protein per day minimum.
4 What Is Your Body Type?
Our bodies come in 3 basic shapes: skinny, muscular, and plump. They actually have 3 scientific names, but for the purpose of this article, we will keep it simple.
Most individuals who are muscular will benefit from performing 6 to 8 repetitions. Most individuals who are skinny will benefit by only by doing 6 repetitions. Most individuals who are plump will benefit by performing 12 to 20 repetitions.
It is important to understand that your body type is a genetic code and that specific factors influence how many repetitions you should be doing for the improvement of your general physique.
5 What Are Your Goals?
When setting a goal it is best to consider achievable changes that you would like to see over a 30 day period of time. Gaining or losing 2 pounds per month is considered a safe level. Individuals who are just beginning or are untrained are likely to notice a much more drastic change in the first 60 to 90 days.
As time goes on, the percentage of change is much more difficult and the adherence to the 2-pound per month rule will take on a much more realistic meaning. Consider that if you want to lose 20 pounds, it is likely to take you approximately 10 months to achieve that goal.
If you are trying to gain 10 pounds, and are a novice or advanced lifter, you will not likely gain that weight as lean body mass in anything less than 5 months. No matter what your goals, keep them realistic and realize that it is safer in the long run to achieve them slowly.
6 What Sport Do You Plan On Participating In?
The age-old question about how many sets and reps to do is best answered by what sport you participate in. If you play tennis, consider the average time spent for each point. If you are a high school wrestler, consider that each period last approximately 2 minutes, whereas if you are a college wrestler, these will last approximately 3 minutes each.
If you play football, the average length of any play is approximately 6 to 16 seconds. Depending on the speed of the exercise that you are performing, the number of reps that you should be doing should directly relate to the amount of time required by your particular sport.
Football players will often train with 6 to 10 repetitions, depending on the time of the season and their particular position on the field. A tennis player will usually play between 10 and 20 seconds before a short pause. This means that the exercise should last between 20 to 30 reps.
A wrestler may participate in an exercise that will require 25 - 100 repetitions, this is why calisthenics are often the exercise of choice for the in-season grappler. Advanced training techniques will produce a series of exercises that are performed at different speeds, and the offer some dynamic explosive movements, while others will produce a more static and stable format.
For most people who have been training for a while and are considered a novice or advanced lifter, the common format of 8 to 12 repetitions is standard. Depending on your body type, age, health conditions, and other factors we have discussed here today, variations of that standard will be noted.
Exercise Quantity And Speed
Another question is related to how many exercises for any particular body part? If you are a bodybuilder, then it is likely that you will need 4-6 exercises per body part. If you are participating in any other sport, usually two to 3 exercises per body part are sufficient. If you are untrained or a beginner, then one or two exercises per body part is sufficient.
One of the final topics that we will discuss is related to how fast you will perform each repetition. Contracting the muscle is considered the positive movement, and returning to the starting point is known as the negative for most exercises.
If you are performing the bench press for example, the weight typically is held away from your chest, and the negative part of the movement relates to a lowering of the weight to your chest.
Barbell Bench Press
It gets kind of confusing, but consider that any time you shorten a muscle it is considered the positive portion of the exercise, stretching the muscle back out is considered the negative portion of the exercise. Most exercises are performed with two seconds for the positive direction and two seconds for the negative direction. This is a good safe speed that most individuals who are untrained or beginner's should follow.
Various health conditions may require an individual to use a slower speed. The faster that you train, the more of an effect you will have on the tendons and the ligaments associated with the associated joints. Variations of intensity may be experienced by altering the speed of the positive and negative motions in the exercise.
Finally, the intensity of the exercise will also be based on the amount of rest in between sets. The untrained individual should rest approximately 60 to 90 seconds between sets. The beginner should rest approximately 45 to 60 seconds between sets. The more intense a set is, determines the amount of rest necessary to recover to perform the next set.
Some powerlifters have been known to rest approximately 5 minutes between sets. Most individuals who perform at a novice or advanced level should rest approximately 30 seconds between sets. Football players who participate in, "hurry up offense" will often rest no more than 10 to 15 seconds between sets.
Rest time is always a variable to reduce to a minimum before attempting to do additional exercises or to increase the weight from the previous exercise session. Weight lifting with rest is the true form of interval training. If we didn't rest, it would be one big set with about 1000 reps for a bodybuilder.
If you are just starting out, you can do one set per body part, performed 20 to 30 repetitions per exercise, and train all your body parts in one day.
To achieve general fitness, there is no need to separate body parts on any given day. You can train your entire body, 3 to 4 times a week, performing two to 3 exercises per body part, with 12 to 15 repetitions per set. This will produce a trained fitness individual and give you the basic level of fitness that you would need to maintain or establish, prior to obtaining higher fitness goals.
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I am a little confused about how many sets.
I have readn an article in this site that suggest a maximun of 5-6 sets to small muscle groups, and 7-9 sets for large muscle groups???
Very helpful article to me, answered a lot of questions I had. Gave me a conclusion that I am doing my routine nicely, but tweaks in my rest time and rep numbers should be made. Thanks for the clarity, Dr. Ryan!
I am 49 and this is the first article that suggest to not lift heavy weights for 50 and over. That was confusing to me since all articles I have read so far say that heavy weights are beneficial for middle aged people since we start losing muscle tone.