How Many Sets and Reps Do You Need To Do? [For Muscle & Strength]

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Today you’re going to learn exactly how many sets and reps you should do every time you workout.

In fact:

I am going to show you how changing the number of sets and reps you do over time will help you build more muscle, gain more strength, and improve your fitness.

Let’s get started.

how-many-sets-and-reps

How Many Reps Should You Do?

First, let me define what reps are.

Repetitions (or reps for short) refers to the number of times you perform a specific exercise.

If you press a dumbbell over your head 10 times before resting, that is considered 10 repetitions.

So what is the ideal number of reps you should do for each exercise?

This is where it gets cool:

You can change the number of reps you do to get very different effects.

So the first question you must ask yourself is:

What is your goal?

 

The Four Different Types of Rep Ranges:

In general, you should be training for one of four different goals.

  1. Are you working out to build muscle?
  2. to get stronger?
  3. to develop maximum strength?
  4. or to improve your endurance?

It is important that you know what you are training for, as trying to accomplish more than one of these goals simultaneously will lead to mediocre results.

In addition, you don’t want to do too many reps, as it’ll become counterproductive.

More on that later.

So let’s define each of the four fitness goals, as each one will have their own separate rep ranges.

 

1) Muscular Endurance:

Muscular endurance is the ability to make your muscles work for a long time without fatigue.

You know, the kind when your muscles begin to burn with lactic acid.

This is ideal for you if you enjoy long duration/ long distance activities such as CrossFit, rowing, and swimming.

  • The best rep range for muscular endurance is 12-15 reps per set

 

2) Muscular Hypertrophy:

Muscular hypertrophy is the process of growing and developing your muscles.

If you want to develop bigger glute muscles or show some cuts in your back, then you need muscular hypertrophy.

Do not get me wrong.

I am not talking about getting bulky like the bodybuilders you see in magazines.

If you want any amount of definition to your muscles, then you need to train for hypertrophy.

  • The best rep range for hypertrophy is 7-12 repetitions per set

 

3) General Strength:

General strength refers to the ability to lift higher amounts of weight relative to your own body weight.

I believe that everyone should achieve a certain baseline level of strength.

General strength training is important because it can:

  1. Help build strong bones and decreases your risk of osteoporosis
  2. Make it easier for you to do everyday activities
  3. Can lead to an improvement in body image, even without physical changes in your appearance

So don’t be afraid to lift heavier weights from time to time.

  • The best rep range for strength is 4-6 repetitions per set

 

4) Maximal Strength:

Maximal strength is the ability to lift the most amount of weight as you possibly can.

If you are a beginner, this is not for you.

You should train for maximal strength once you have been working out for at least 1 year, and you want to participate in strength sports such as powerlifting, Olympic weight lifting, and strong man.

Or, if you’re curious – you can dabble in this rep range 2-3 times a year.

  • The best rep range for maximal strength is 1-3 repetitions per set

how-many-sets-and-reps-you-should-do

The Relationship Between Reps And Weight: How Heavy Should You Go?

So now that you know how many reps you should aim for, how heavy should you go?

In general, you should lift a weight that is heavy enough that you cannot exceed the number of reps in your goal rep range (by a large margin), but light enough that you can accomplish the minimum number of reps you are aiming for (with good form)!

We discuss weight selection in detail in this post.

In addition, you should aim to leave at least 1 rep in the tank on every set.

What does this mean?

It means that you shouldn’t be taking your sets to absolute failure.

For example:

Let’s say you are training in the hypertrophy range, and your goal is to perform 8 repetitions.

Ideally, you should use a weight where you squeeze out a 9th or 10th repetition if you really needed to.

You won’t always be able to gauge this perfectly, and some of your sets will inevitably go to failure.

But do your best to leave something on the table.

 

How Many Reps Is Too Many? Can You Do Too Many?

Yes, it is possible to do too many reps in a set.

As with all things, too much of a good thing can be detrimental.

I personally don’t go higher than 12-15 reps, but others may find it beneficial to do so.

Anything greater than 20 reps in a set is probably far too many. 

Performing this many reps in a set will have diminishing returns.

If you can easily do more than 20 reps, then the weight you are using is probably too light or too easy to elicit any significant growth.

The only exception to this rule is 20 rep squats!

Many people have gained a great deal of strength and muscle using 20 rep squat programs, but this is not for the faint-hearted!

Going above 20 reps can also useful for beginners focusing only on bodyweight exercises.

Otherwise, stick to the rep ranges mentioned above.

 

How Many Sets Should You Do?

Okay, so now you know how many reps you should do.

What about sets? How many sets are ideal to build muscle and strength?

First, let’s start with the definition of a set.

 

What Is A Set?

A set refers to the number of times you performed a specific number of consecutive repetitions.

For example:

Let’s say you do 10 push-ups, rest for 2 minutes, and then do 10 more push-ups.

That is 2 sets of 10 repetitions, or 2 x 10.

 

What Is The Ideal Amount of Sets For The General Population?

In general, you should perform 3-5 sets of each exercise. There is an inverse relationship between sets and reps.

The higher the number of reps per set, the lower the total sets should be.

In general:

12-30 total reps per exercise is the perfect sweet spot for strength and hypertrophy.

  • If you are doing 8 reps per set, then you only need to do 3 total sets
  • If you are doing 5 reps per set, you should do ~4 sets
  • If you are doing 12 reps per set, you can get away with 2-3 sets.

 

My recommendation:

  • Stick to 3 sets for every exercise 90% of the time, and you will be in the target sweet spot.

 

Using this information, you can construct the following graph:

 

Sets and Reps Chart

GoalRepsSets
Endurance12-153
Hypertrophy7-123-4
General Strength4-63-5
Maximal Strength1-34-5

 

How many sets should you do if you are training for muscular endurance?

You can and should exceed the 12-30 rep sweet spot.  Building endurance will require you to perform a lot of repetitions and in a short amount of time.

Here are the guidelines.

  1. Perform 12+ reps per set
  2. Do 3 sets per exercise
  3. Aim for ~ 40 total repetitions of each exercise

 

How many sets should you do if you are training for muscular hypertrophy?

Stick to the sweet spot of 12-30 total reps, but stay on the upper limit of the range.

Here are the guidelines:

  1. Perform 7-12 reps per set
  2. Do 3 sets per exercise
  3. Aim for 25-35 total repetitions of each exercise

 

How many sets should you do if you are training for general strength?

If you are training for general strength, then you need to lift sufficiently heavy weight.

You must add enough weight to the bar, or perform a challenging enough bodyweight exercise where you can only do 4-6 repetitions per set.

Strength training should comprise approximately 25-33% of your training.

Here are the guidelines:

  1. Perform 4-6 reps per set
  2. Do 3-4 sets per exercise
  3. Aim for 12-25 total repetitions of each exercise

 

How many sets should you do if you are training for maximum strength?

You should only do this ~2x a year at the most.

Maximal strength training is super fun, and it allows when you get to display how strong you really are. 

Again, just make sure that you have adequate experience under your belt, and you use proper form!

Here are the guidelines:

  1. Perform 1-3 reps per set
  2. Do ~5 sets per exercise
  3. Aim for 8-15 total repetitions of each exercise

Now let’s talk about some specifics.

 

What If I Want to Lose Weight? How Many Reps And Sets Should I Do For Fat /Weight  Loss?

If your goal is to lose weight and burn fat, then you need to perform a high number of sets and reps.

Go for 12+ reps per set, and at least 3 sets with short rest periods.

Training like this will improve your muscular endurance, and also improve your aerobic capacity.

You might also benefit from circuit training (which I’ll discuss later).

The more volume you perform, the more calories you will burn.

In addition, you should also train for muscular hypertrophy. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate will be.

But don’t forget, exercise alone will likely not lead to any significant amount of weight loss. You must also make changes to your diet to maximize your fat burning potential.

 

How Often Should I Change The Number of Sets And Reps I Do?

It depends. In general, you could change the number of sets and reps that you do per exercise every workout (which is known as daily undulating periodization), or every four to six weeks (which is known as block periodization). 

My recommendation is to use a block periodization model.

Let me explain further.

If you want to maximize your fitness development, then you should vary the number of sets and reps you do overtime.

Why?

Because you won’t be able to continue making progress if you are always doing the same number of repetitions.

You make progress by providing your body with a progressive stimulus that changes in difficulty over time.

Only doing high school algebra for 5 years won’t make you a better mathematician. You have to continuously challenge yourself as you become more advanced.

One of the easiest ways for you to do this is to train for different training goals every 4-6 weeks.

For example:

  • You can do 1-2 training cycles using 10-12 reps per set
  • Followed by 1-2 training cycles using 8-10 reps per set
  • Followed by 1 training cycle using 4-6 reps per set

This is an example of block periodization.

 

What Is Block Periodization?

Block periodization is when you dedicate a specific amount of time training for a specific goal.  As we mentioned above, the four goals are endurance, hypertrophy, general strength, and maximal strength.  Using the block periodization model, you can train for hypertrophy for 4-6 weeks, followed by general strength for 4-6 weeks, followed by maximal strength for 4-6 weeks.

Any combination is possible.

If you’d like, you can alternate between strength and hypertrophy cycles and never do endurance or maximum strength blocks.

Or you can train for endurance, and then hypertrophy, and then for strength.

Your specific goals will dictate what your training cycles should look like.

My recommendation: 

  • If you are a beginner, I recommend that you perform 2 hypertrophy blocks, followed by 1 strength block
  • Alternatively, you can perform 1 endurance block, followed by 1 hypertrophy block, and then 1 strength block
  • If you are an intermediate trainee, I recommend that you perform 1-2 hypertrophy block, followed by 1-2 strength blocks, and a maximal strength block

sets-and-reps

Are There Different Types of Workout Sets?

Ok, so now you know how many sets and reps you are going to do.

The last thing that you have to decide is what kind of sets you are going to do.

In general, there are four different types of sets that you can do.

  1. Straight Sets
  2. Ramping Sets
  3. Drop Sets
  4. Pyramid Sets

 

What Are Straight Sets?

A straight set is the standard method of lifting that everyone is familiar with.  You perform all sets of a specific exercise using the same weight.

The repetitions may or may not remain the same across the sets (due to fatigue etc).

Keep in mind, this does not include any warm-up sets that you do before reaching your ‘working weight.

Example of straight sets:

  • Set 1:  150 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 2: 150 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 3: 150 lbs squat for 8 reps

If you are using body weight exercises, then the variation of the exercise remains the same for all sets.  I.e., you perform close grip push-ups for all 3 sets.

In my opinion, straight sets are the only type of sets you need to do.

 

What Are Ramping Sets?

Ramping sets are when you increase the weight of the exercise on each set, for a specific amount of sets.  The repetitions may or may not remain the same across the sets.

Example of raming sets:

  • Set 1:  140 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 2: 150 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 3: 160 lbs squat for 8 reps

Ramping sets have the advantage that they help you build up momentum for one top heavy set.

The disadvantage of this style of training is that it will decrease the overall volume that you perform as the first 1-2 sets will be “light.”

You can overcome this by performing drop sets after your top set.

 

What Are Drop Sets?

Drop sets are when you perform additional sets at a lighter weight after doing one or more sets with heavy weight.

Drop sets can help you accumulate more training volume if your working sets are too heavy to do straight sets.

Example of drop a set:

  • Set 1:  160 lbs squat for 6 reps
  • Set 2: 160 lbs squat for 4 reps
  • Set 3: 140 lbs squat for 8 reps

If you are a beginner, I rather that you perform straight sets at a weight you can sustain for at least 3 sets.

 

What Are Pyramid Sets?

Pyramid sets are when you progressively increase the weight on each set until you reach a top set, and then work your way back down, decreasing the weight back to where you started.

Its almost a combination of ramping sets and drop sets.

Example of pyramid sets:

  • Set 1:  130 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 2: 145 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 3: 160 lbs squat for 6 reps
  • Set 4: 145 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 5: 130 lbs squat for 8 reps

As you can see, pyramid sets allow you to accumulate a lot of training volume, however, they require you to do several additional sets.

This style of training is useful for those wanting to maximize hypertrophy.

My recommendation:

  • Stick to straight sets for the majority of your training, by using a weight that you can manage for at least 3 total working sets.

 

What About Supersets Vs Circuits?

There are two other types of sets I want to tell you about.

Supersets and circuits.

What Is a Superset?

A superset is when you alternate between two different exercises, performing a set of exercise A, followed by one set of exercise B and so on.

  • Set 1A:  150 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 1B: 10 reps of close grip push-ups
  • Set 2A:  150 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 2B: 10 reps of close grip push-ups
  • Set 3A:  150 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 3B: 10 reps of close grip push-ups

Advantages:

The advantage of supersets is that it allows you to perform more work in less time.

When doing straight sets, you will generally rest 2-4 minutes between sets.

With supersets, you will only rest 1-2 minutes between sets, decreasing the total time of your workout, while accomplishing the same amount of volume.

Disadvantages:

The disadvantage of supersets is that you might not be 100% fresh for each exercise since your overall rest times are decreasing.

I recommend that you use supersets only for your secondary/”minor” exercises.

 

What Is a Circuit?

A circuit is when you perform three or more exercises in sequence, one right after the other with little to no rest between each exercise.

For example:

  • Set 1A:  135 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 1B: 10 reps of close grip push-ups
  • Set 1C:  10 reps of hanging leg raises
  • Set 1D: 10 reps of pull-ups
  • Set 2A:  135 lbs squat for 8 reps
  • Set 2B: 10 reps of close grip push-ups
  • etc etc

Advantages:

The advantage of a circuit is that you accomplish a lot of work in a very little amount of time.

This is ideal for people who want to burn a lot of calories and do a HIIT style workout.

If your only goal is to lose weight, circuits can be beneficial, but just make sure you use this in conjunction with the other training methods we discussed above.

The low rest periods will also help build your aerobic capacity.

Disadvantages:

The main disadvantage of a circuit is that you are not improving any specific aspect of your fitness other than aerobic capacity.

A circuit is a poor way of building muscle or improving your general strength.

Getting good at circuits, only makes you good at circuit style training.

While this is perfectly acceptable for some people, it is not the best way to to improve your overall fitness.

 

A Training Program That Uses All Of These Principles:

That was a lot of information.

You can now piece together all of this and apply it to your current workout program, or you can create a brand new program using these principles.

But why do all of that work?

I have already created a comprehensive training manual that takes all of the guesswork out of the equation.

Get the WCT Strength Program, plug in your desired exercises, and the template tells you exactly what to do.

P.S. There are male and female versions of the template.

 

Conclusion:

So to sum it up:

  • Identify which fitness goal you would like to improve first: endurance, hypertrophy, general strength, or maximal strength.
  • Most people should stick to hypertrophy and general strength, in a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio
  • If you want to improve your endurance: Do sets of 12-15 reps per set
  • If you want to get muscular hypertrophy: Do sets of 7-12 reps per set
  • If you want to improve your overall strength: Do sets of 4-6 reps per set
  • If you are competing in a strength sport and want to improve maximal strength: Do sets of 1-3 reps per set
  • For each individual exercise, do 3-5 total sets, averaging 12-30 total reps per exercise
  • Use supersets for your secondary or accessory exercises to speed up your workout, and build aerobic capacity

The next step is to learn:

Now I’d like to hear from you.

Which of the four fitness goals are you going to work on first?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.

 

 

would You Like To Download The WCT Workout Template For Free?

Enter your email address below!

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Alex Robles, MD / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex Robles, MD / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex & Brittany Robles are OBGYN's, fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy individuals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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11 thoughts on “How Many Sets and Reps Do You Need To Do? [For Muscle & Strength]”

  1. What do you suggest for a 69 y/o. My goals are to have enough strength to enjoy golfing and hiking and staying reasonably active. Also to help maintain balance. Thanks

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      Hi Robert,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the general rules of training for hypertrophy will still be ideal for you. There is probably no need to go below 6 reps. Stick to weights where you can get 7-15 reps per set.

  2. Thank you for this excellent overview of reps and sets. I am a 60 year old male. Would you give different rep/set recommendations for someone my age?

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      Hi Rook,
      Thanks for your comment. The sets/reps recommendation should remain the same at your age, but it will probably be less beneficial for you to train below 6 reps. Stay primarily in the hypertrophy and endurance rep ranges.

  3. How you ever experimented with Reverse Pyramid Training? The first set is the heaviest set and the following sets get progressively lighter. I just recently started training that way and I so far I prefer it over the straight sets I had been doing.

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      I tried it for a short while, but I kept the follow up sets at the same weight. What differences have you noticed since using this method?

      1. My strength has been going up on the main lifts for the first time in probably a year. It feels like most of the benefit comes from hitting that first heavy set completely fresh and at a high RPE (9+). It also easier mentally to push each set hard because you know the next set will be lighter. When doing straight sets I tend to kind of coast on the first couple sets because I know that if I push my RPE too high I’ll never be able to get my reps on the last couple sets.

        1. thewhitecoattrainer

          That’s a great point. It’s similar to something I’ve tried recently as well, where I only did 2 working sets. The first set I went pretty hard (RPE 9), and the second I gave it whatever I had left. I think that’s the beauty of fitness. So many roads leading to the same path!

  4. This is all great reading. I’m curious to know what you think of the Body Pump-type classes offered at many gyms. (This is extremely high reps and low weights.) I enjoyed these classes a lot, but felt like I wasn’t progressing by taking them.

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      I think you hit the nail right on the head. Those classes are great for getting in a “workout”- wHich just means you sweat and burn calories with no real goals or objectives. I don’t think they are a great investment as you won’t necessarily get better at anything from those types of classes. You are much better off doing your own individualized training to meet your own personal goals.

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