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  • Clem Duranseaud

how many reps and sets to do in your workouts - learn training fundamentals

Find out how many sets and reps you should do in your workouts to maximize strength and build muscle

In this article we will go over resistance training principles of sets and reps when you go to the gym. We will also look basic muscle strengthening methods, hypertrophy (muscle growth) strategies, time saving tips, what power lifting and body building have in common and the most important of all: how to implement progressive overload.

In this article:

How muscle is built

When you workout and lift weights, you contract your muscles which places tension on them. It's this tension that in turn signals your brain and your body that your muscles need to grow in order to handle more tension.

When you recover by getting a good night's sleep (8 hours +) and proper nutrition (slight caloric surplus at least 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight), your muscles get stronger and bigger.

So how do your reps and sets affect this?

The goal of a proper workout plan should be to teach your body how to create more and more tension. You want to lift weights with intent, proper form and recovery is the short term intent and generating higher muscular contractions is a great long term intent.

Create high quality contraction/tension

The best muscular contractions are those performed close to or at failure. Example: You do a set of bicep curls, you get to 8 reps relatively easily but then it gets tough. You push yourself and squeeze out three more reps. You then feel extra motivated and with a very intense effort you do one more rep (we will assume you had a decent form on all the reps).

It's those last four reps that created the best contractions and will give your the results you want.

Gauge intensity with rate of perceived exertion

Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is a subjective scale from 1-10 that measure how easy or hard you though your set was. Basically 1 is super easy and 10 is extremely hard.

The chart below goes over it in more details.

Rate of perceived exertion chart

The sets with high quality muscular tension that yield the best strength and muscle adaptions are usually done at RPE 8-10.

Let's take a look at how different reps and sets affect this ability.

Number of sets per workout

When I train myself and my clients, I organize sets into two categories:

  1. Sets to practice technique and master the exercise. Less effort required and less direct results. RPE 6-7.

  2. Sets to create as much tension as possible. Very intense, yields the best results, but require very long rest periods in between and cannot do too many per sessions. RPE 8-10.

The number of sets to do in each category varies according with your ability to perform that exercise properly. A beginner will have more practice sets. A more advanced trainee can do more intense sets and focus on creating tension.

The ultimate goal of your workouts should be to do those high quality sets.

As mentioned, this type of set is very intense and for the average person like you and me, we can aim to do two per exercise. The more you do these sets during your workouts, the more fatigue you will create and the less tension you'll create. So you have to be strategic with how you organize you workout routine.

As a rule of thumb, aiming to do 10-16 sets per workout is a good place to start. This rule has caveats and technicalities which we will touch on in the progressive overload section.

I will write another blog post on how to organize you sets on a weekly basis per body part, but since it's a more advanced idea, it's in a different post.

Doing 10-16 sets per workout allows you to do 3-5 exercises with at least one practice set and 1-2 intense sets.

How may reps to do each set

Both high reps and low reps have their roles in a thorough exercise regimen.

High reps (10 or more) are great for practice set of lower intensity. That allows the muscles to do the move repeatedly with proper form and focus on getting good form.

High reps are also good for finishers, which we shall tough on later.

Low reps (8 or less) are great to create tension on the muscles and make you contract them as hard as possible.

From there, it's really up to your goals and skill level with each exercise to choose how many reps to do.

For myself, I like to do a one or two higher rep set for warm up and then do 1-2 intense set with lower reps.

There is a plethora of valid rep schemes out there. And to get a better idea of which ones let's take a look at what two very muscular types of people have in common.

What do power lifters and body builders have in common?

Power lifters are known to do very low reps and take a lot more breaks whereas body builders typically do higher reps with short breaks.

Regardless of their training programs, I think it is safe to say that both types of athletes have a lot of muscle mass. That's due to the fact that they both train at high intensities, meaning high RPE.

This means that both high and low reps can give you similar muscular size. As always this comes with some caveats but before we look at them let's look at how you should rest during your workouts.

How long should you rest in between sets?

Rest periods between sets are going to be dictated by two factors:

  1. The intensity of the set. The more intense a set (high RPE), the more time you will need to recover. Sets of RPE 8 should have 2-3 minutes break in between them, with RPE 9 and 10 requiring even more.

  2. The intent of the set. If your goal is to create a burning sensation on the muscle and not a super high contraction, then you can go with shorter (less than 2 minutes rest).

How long you want to stay in the gym will also influence this decision. Longer breaks allow you to workout at higher intensity, but they also make these routines very long.

Depending on how long you have that day, taking 3 minutes break every time may not be feasible if you want to get through your whole session.

It will be up to you do decide if you reduce the intensity of that workout and take shorter breaks or do less exercises.

Weightlifting recommendations for strength

There are a few different ways you can get stronger. The two main factors, in my opinion, are lifting heavy weights and technique.

The better your technique, the more efficient you'll be at lifting heavier weights.

Lifting heavy weights creates a neuro muscular adaption, meaning that your nervous gets better at making your muscles contract better. This kind of adaptation directly helps you getting stronger.

Technique workout

This kind of workout requires relatively easy loads to ensure that you execute the reps perfectly.

You can also take longer breaks to make sure you feel fully rested and able to produce high quality sets each time.

Working on your technique could have many aspect

  • Working on doing the rep in the best possible manner

  • Working on feeling the right muscles contract

  • being able to handle heavier loads without your form deteriorating

  • Moving the weight fast with good form

  • Increasing a certain range of motion to allow you to do an exercise better

As you can see there are many ways to work on you technique and form.

Strength workouts

Generally speaking, to get stronger, you want to keep the reps below 5 and take longer breaks (3 min +).

This will allows you to create the highest possible contraction and tension with you muscles.

The ultimate goal is to lift heavier and heavier weights over time. By time, I mean months and years.

We'll touch on that in the progressive overload section.

More muscles more strength?

Another way to get stronger is by having more muscle mass. Let's look at muscle building strategies now.

Principle of building muscles

The basic tenet of building muscle is the same as getting stronger. As long as you consistently workout, lifting heavier weights over time, your muscles will grow.

Just like there are ways that are more beneficial for strength, there are strategies to build muscle.

Remember that any kind of reps, taken close to failure will help your muscles grow. Having said that, I find that keeping them in the 8-15 range helps me I am truly close to failure.

for example, if I'm doing sets of 8 shoulder presses, it's very easy for me to gauge if I am almost done or not. I also have a really good idea of which RPE I'm at.

If I am aiming to 20 reps on the other hand, it's a little harder to gauge RPE. Am I really at RPE 8, or could I actually squeeze out five more reps? With lighter weights comes a burning sensation in the muscles but that doesn't necessarily mean that we are close to failure.

Depending on your ability to work through the burn, you may be leaving some gains on the table.

Furthermore, the more reps you do, the more fatigued you get and your form may deteriorate.

These sets are intense, but not quite as hard as the very heavy strength focused set we saw earlier. For that reason, you can take slightly shorter breaks. Two minutes is a good place to start, but remember that it's ok to take longer if you need.

We still want our sets to be very high quality to produce as much tension as possible.

Workouts to gain muscle

Any workout you do with quality reps taken close to failure will help you gain muscle.

Sets of 6-15 reps are easier to keep good form on, with the range 6-10 being better at placing more tension on your muscles.

Shorter rests (around 2 min) are enough for your body to recover between sets.

Isolation vs compound movement, which is best?

Isolation exercises only work one joint. Think about all the bicep curls exercises, tricep extensions (elbow joint), lat raises (shoulder joint), leg curl and extension machines (knee joint). Anything exercise where you only move one joint.

A compound exercise moves two or more joints. Chin ups or pull ups (shoulder + elbow), squats and deadlifts (knee + hip joint), chest presses (shoulder + elbow).

Here is a chart with the pros and cons of each.

Pros and cons of isolation and compound exercises
Pros and cons of isolation and compound exercises

Depending on your goals and level, each of these types of workout can offer great benefits.

On the long term, getting better at compound exercises is the best strategy to get stronger and build more muscle.

Think about it, how much can you progress a bicep curl versus a deadlift? The deadlift offers much more room for growth on the long term.

Having a workout program that focuses on compound lifts and uses isolation exercises for weak spots is a decent strategy in my opinion.

All these recommendations are good to start out, but if you really want to get stronger and build muscles, you need to apply the progressive overload principle.

Progressive overload

Progressive overload is making your workouts tougher and tougher as time goes by.

This will continuously place new stimulus of your muscles which will create more adaptations.

If we think about from a logical perspective, if you do workouts your muscles can already handle, there is no need to them to adapt and grow.

Making your routine tougher is done over weeks and months, not days.

It is also very small incremental progressions that we are looking for. Getting 1% better every week all year is much better than getting 5% better over a month and then hitting a plateau.

Becoming 1% per week could mean doing just one extra rep in a workout. Or adding 2.5 pounds to your squat and doing the same amount of reps.

Look for those small improvements and do not discard them!

You can increase the difficulty of you workout by doing one of four things:

  1. Lift heavier weights

  2. Do more reps

  3. Doing more sets

  4. Take less breaks

It's very important to do one of these at a time! Trying to do to much at once is not a good solution and may hinder you fitness progress.

Let's take look at how you can implement each of these.

Lifting heavier weights

Let's say I did three sets of 10 reps of chest presses with the 50 pound dumbbells. I do it for two weeks straight and feel like I could probably go heavier when I show up on my third week.

I amp myself up and pick up the 55 pound dumbbells. That is a 10% increase in weight already which is a huge jump.

When I use a heavier dumbbell set, I cannot expect to do the same amount of reps on my first try.

So I do my three sets and notice I only did 6 reps on each. That's ok. I use 10% more weight than last workout, which made me contract my muscles more and create slightly more tension.

The following week I use the 55s again and now I can do 8 reps on my first set and then 6 reps on my second and third set. The week after that I may be able to do 8 reps on all three sets.

Once I can do three sets of 10 reps with the 55s for a couple weeks in a row, I'll repeat the process of making my routine tougher by picking the 60 pound dumbbells.

Doing more reps

Same example as before, I've been doing three sets of 10 reps of chest presses for a couple weeks.

I show up the following week and notice that there aren't any heavier dumbbells in my gym. I still want to bring my sets close to failure (RPE 8+) so I decide to really push myself and see how many reps I can do.

Low and behold, I do three sets of 12 reps! That represents a 20% increase over last week which is huge.

The week after this I feel tired but still manage 12 reps on each set.

The week after I feel better and do 13 reps on my first set and 12 on my last two.

I repeat this process until I can do three sets of 15 reps, after which I should really go to a gym that has heavier weights.

Doing more sets

This is very similar than the previous strategy in which the goal is to do more reps of the same exercise in the same workout.

Instead of trying to do more reps, I could just add a fourth set of 10, which would be 30% over the previous weeks.

Taking less breaks

This one is a less common strategy as it lowers the intensity of the workouts. I can be a fun way to practice your mental toughness and resiliency though. Instead of taking 2 minutes breaks in your workouts, see if you can do the same workout with only 1 minute and 45 seconds breaks.

Using these different progressive overload consistently with your exercise routine will make you slowly progress over time, making your stronger and fitter.

The trick is to look for very small improvements frequently over large improvements less frequently.

Different exercises different workout strategies

Different exercises require different approaches. You can't progress a lat raise the same way as a deadlift.

Generally speaking, compound exercises are best progressed with heavier weights and sets and isolation exercise with more reps and less break.

The goal of the lat raises shouldn't be to use super heavy dumbbells, but to find other ways to create meaningful tension by either doing more reps or condensing the workout by reducing the breaks and creating more of a burn.

Similarly, I'm not going to try to endlessly do more reps with my deadlifts but lift heavier weights. If I see that I need to do more reps, I'll add a set or two.

Larger muscle groups like back, chest and legs can handle more weight and smaller muscles like arms, shoulders and calf can handle more volume and density.

How often should you change you exercise routine?

Altering your workout plan is something you do to keep progressing. If your current plan works, you can see slow consistent progress, there's no need to change it up.

It's when you notice no progress is being made that you may need to rotating workout parameters around.

Generally speaking, a good workout plan will help you progress over 3-6 months. Any time less than that and progressive overload will have a tough time to materialize.


Sets and reps and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to setting up your workout regimen.

Different rep ranges are more beneficial beneficial for strength, others for muscle mass.

You can use various methods to make your workouts tougher over time which will keep your body adapting and progressing.

Your goals, exercise selection and fitness level will dictate which progression model is best for you.

Overall, the goal is to keep making your tougher on the long term.

Contact me on instagram @clem_fitness_ if you have any questions about this article or come train with me online if you want me to take care of all of this for you!

Happy training!



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