If you have already been introduced to working out and have some basic understanding of what it means to lift heavy weights or even just body weight for that matter, then I assume you already know the two metrics that most people use: reps (repetitions) and sets.
Reps and sets are actually just two out of several important variables that you can adjust and manipulate when you are doing your training.
Other variables include but are not limited to intensity, rest intervals, volume (which reps and sets normally are included in) speed of the movement/time under tension, exercises and the order of which they are performed.
For this post though, I am just going to focus on reps and sets.
Just to make sure everyone is following along, reps are the number of times that one exercise is performed continuously or with a very small break before having a rest.
This will then be one set and sets simply refer to how many times you complete the given amount of reps.
The Reps and Sets For Strength Training
The main goal of anyone engaged in strength training should be to become stronger.
From this perspective, strength training can be said to differ from bodybuilding, endurance training, and other aerobic exercises.
Now, when these other types of exercise are brought up, the reps and sets for strength training can be said to be in the “lower end” in comparison.
Reseach has shown that doing very heavy lifting with few reps (3-5 reps of 90 % 1RM “one-rep max”) is significantly better compared to lifting moderate-heavy with higher reps (10-12 reps of 70 % 1RM).
Not only does it enable you to make better strength gains, but it also increases muscle mass more.
This is because lifting heavier puts more stress on the muscles and requires higher activation of muscle fibers resulting in a larger adaptation.
So by focusing on becoming stronger, you also get the benefit of gaining more muscle mass.
There are two good rep ranges that I would recommend for both beginners and experienced lifters: 4 – 6 reps per set and 5 – 10 reps per set of both 3 sets total.
As a general rule, the 4 – 6 rep range could be applied to heavy compound lifts and 5 – 10 for isolation movements. But depending on the situation, it might be better to modify.
For this kind of training, in general, it is important to have long rest periods between sets. 2-3 minutes rest between all sets is ideal and will ensure you can lift at full potential.
You can increase the sets a bit if you want, e.g. up to 5 sets. But you should know that if you are doing several different heavy exercises, then you cannot increase all your exercises to 5 sets. That would just be too much.
There is a popular program called 5×5 by Stronglifts, where you do 5 reps of 5 sets for all exercises.
That works because the program only requires you to do 3 exercises per workout.
The program works well and you will gain a lot of strength and muscle. In my opinion, the program focuses too much on squatting.
Going Lower With The Reps
Some people train frequently with even lower reps. They lift extremely heavy (1RM or very close) for perhaps 1-3 reps per set and go up to high as 10 sets or even higher.
This is normally referred to as powerlifting. The world records are held by powerlifters, and the amount of weight they are able to lift is mind-boggling.
However, training exclusively this way is not optimal for becoming stronger because it is much harder to progressively overload.
Additionally, while it can be fun to find out your maximum lift for one rep (1 rep max) I would not recommend training this way regularly because it does not stimulate a lot of muscle growth.
There seems to be a need to extend the time under tension for more than 1-3 reps for optimal muscle growth.
Training this way seems to on the other hand promote what is often referred to as neurological strength more than lifting with higher reps.
Neurological strength covers many things like the part of the nervous system that is responsible for recruiting muscle contraction and frequency of contraction, also the refinement of lifting technique and coordination. The skill component should not be underestimated!
Personally I cannot recommend training with such low reps because I am interested in both becoming stronger and build ample amount of muscle. I assume you feel the same.
Going Higher With The Reps
Going higher with the reps e.g. 10-15+ also increases the difficulty of progressively overloading your muscles.
Metabolic fatigue is more likely to set in, which is when energy can’t be provided fast enough to the muscle to perform the lift.
In this case, muscle glycogen stores are one of the limiting factors rather than the amount of tension and force the muscle fibers can produce.
This does not mean you should shy away from doing higher rep ranges. It just means that your main focus should be lower.
Progressive overload is the most powerful drive for strength and muscle growth.
It means to increase tension in muscle fibers over time and is arguably done easiest by increasing the weight and/or reps performed up to a certain degree.
When you are lifting in either of the two rep ranges I recommend above (4-6 and 5-10), progressively overloading your muscles while still lifting very heavy becomes easier than alternatives.
Assuming you are doing everything right, your muscles can only adapt to small increases at a time.
Changing the Amount of Weight Between Sets
When performing heavy lifts, some people will load a bit more weight on the bar for every set, e.g. loading 5 kg for every set completed and perform the heaviest lift in the final set.
This is normally referred to as pyramid training.
“Pyramid” because you load heavier weight every set and that resembles the pyramid structure.
While pyramid training definitely can be a good way to perform your exercises, I would argue that if you want to focus on becoming stronger, then it is not optimal and that you should avoid using this as standard.
The reason is that it is simply harder to become stronger when you are trying to lift the heaviest weight after performing several sets of the given exercise.
You are lifting the heaviest weight when you are already fatigued.
For this reason, lifting the same weight in all sets or even reverse the pyramid (reverse pyramid training) and lift the heaviest weight on the first set is a much better option.
Don’t Know How Much Weight You Should Lift?
When starting out or if you are unsure of how much weight you should lift, I recommend lifting a little lighter than what you think you can do. If you are able to complete the exercise within 4 – 6 /5 – 10 reps for 3 sets with good form, then you know that you can go a little heavier next time.
If you liked reading this, I have written another post on general tips for building strength that might interest you.