How many sets and reps for exercise goals…
Do you find yourself wondering….
- How many reps should I do?
- How many sets should I do?
- What exercises are the best?
If this is you, wonder no more!
In this article I will break down exactly how many sets & reps to perform and what types of exercises are best based on your goals.
But that brings the next question…..
WHAT IS YOUR GOAL?
Training with no goal is like a 3-way with two lesbians …
You’re there, but you’re not really doing anything
Your goals will drive how many sets, reps and which exercise to pick.
So how do you choose a goal?
Let’s take a look at what a goal is…..
A training goal is not simply, “I want to get ripped” or “I want to lift more weight”
A good training goal would be, “I want to drop my bodyfat to 10% by June 1st, 2019” or “I want to bench 315lbs for 2 reps by January 31st, 2019”.
These goals are SMART!
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant & Time-bound
Specific: Very clearly what, why or how
Measurable: Objective way of knowing the goal has been hit
Achievable: You are capable of actually getting there
Relevant: Makes sense for you to shoot for this goal
Time-Bound: There is a time frame to hit the goal by
Set up goals for yourself based on this process.
Now there are different types of goals too;
Short Term Goals –
These goals are for a short period of time. In the programming I lay out below, set one for each of the 6-8-week segments. Of course, a short-term goal can be for each individual workout session too.
Long Term Goals –
This is your over-ridding goal for the entire year. There are many short-term goals that keep you on track for your long-term goal.
So you have your goal(s)….
now how many sets, reps and what exercises?
Well that depends;
Where are you in your exercise routine?
Table of contents
Periodization is a concept of doing year-round training in various phases and cycles throughout the year. Training in this style maximizes results and reduces chances for things like over training and injury (1).
In fact; every athlete uses this style of training. Except probably baseball players, because they’re not real athletes
This is the basis of choosing sets, reps and exercises;
Your lifting program guides your goals.
Most phases in a periodization program are 6-8 weeks in length. There should be different goals for each phase as well as a large over-ridding goal for the entire year/season.
I’ve laid out general goal categories in a typical periodization flow. Of course, your goal(s) may be nothing like any of these, but chances are you are training for some purpose. Even if you’re not training for something, you should cycle through the phases to avoid injury.
Say your goal is to bench press more weight.
Make that the “long term goal”. Then look through the below phases.
If you’re going to bench press more, you need to build up your base. Than you can start adding muscle and cycle through until you hit the power phase where you are doing lower reps and really see the fruits of your labor.
Of course, you can vary up the order of the phases, length of phases, delete some phases entirely or whatever needs to happen to make it fit your goals.
Base building is exactly that, building your muscular base. The time of year most people go into a base building phase is AFTER they hit “peak season” or compete or the season they want to look their best; usually Speedo season for me.
START HERE!! People who are new to exercise or have taken some time off.
If you are going into a base building phase here is a good layout for how many sets and reps:
- Sets = 3-4
- Reps = 12, 10, 8, (6)
Exercises for base building should be chosen by the muscle groups they work and variety of ways they work those muscle groups. However, there should be NO “definition” movements that work a muscle group in a way to add detail to the muscle rather than function and mass.
For your pecs, use varieties of the bench press with barbells, dumbbells, machines, etc. But do not do pec flys of any kind. This movement is not functional to much of anything and will not help your base muscles prepare for the training to come.
Typically, I set up a base building phase over a 5-day split routine focusing on each muscle group individually.
Day 1: Legs, Day 2: Chest, Day 3: Back, Day 4: Shoulders, Day 5: Arms, Repeat
The reason for this is because I want to get a lot of focus on each individual muscle group, have plenty of rest between sets and assure I build a solid foundation. The intensity is lower, rest periods around 60 seconds and tempo of lifts typically fall in the 2-1-2 range. Do 4-6 exercises per muscle group during this phase.
Hypertrophy means building muscle. The hypertrophy phase is one many people like to hang out in for long periods of time, or even forever. DON’T! You can only be in each phase for 6-8 weeks before you start losing benefits and begin increasing chances for injury (1).
If you are going into a hypertrophy phase here is a good layout for how many sets and reps:
- Sets = 5
- Reps = 8-12
Exercises for hypertrophy should also be chosen by the muscle groups they work and variety of ways they work those muscle groups. No definition movements here either. Think about working the muscles in different planes of motion.
You can do a seated row for your back, you can also do a lat pulldown for your back. Both of these movements are working similar muscles in different planes of motion. As a result, the muscle gets further stimulated and grows more (2).
You can set up the hypertrophy program as a 5-day split, just like the base building phase, but I like change, so here I’ll recommend a 3-day split.
Day 1: Legs & Shoulders, Day 2: Chest & Triceps, Day 3: Back & Biceps, Day 4: Rest, Repeat
Doing a 3-day split allows you to still get the time in for each muscle group and being paired this way “pre-exhausts” the secondary muscle groups (in days 2 & 3) so they are forced to work that much harder.
A 3-day split allows you to get each muscle group in twice per week.
Choose 3-4 exercises per muscle group for this phase. The intensity should be higher, push the limits on each lift to force growth, make sure you have a spotter. Tempo should be a 2-1-2 and rest 60-75 seconds.
Strength phase is training the new muscle how to respond to demands and let it know, this new home is in a hard worker and it’s going to have to pull its weight….Literally, to stick around.
If you are going into a strength phase here is a good layout:
- Sets = 4
- Reps = 6-8
Exercises for strength should mostly be mass type exercises, but you can throw in some definition movements as finishers to the muscle groups. Assure you keep varying planes of motion through this phase.
I would recommend against using the 5-day split here as intensity needs to be higher, so the previous 3-day split could work, or the following 3-day split:
Day 1: Legs & Shoulders, Day 2: Chest & Biceps, Day 3: Back & Triceps, Day 4: Rest, Repeat
This is a unique split. It uses the principle of reciprocal inhibition….
Okay, you probably don’t know what that is?
Is a neurological phenomenon that happens when you move any part of your body. The opposing muscle group relaxes and is actively stretched (3). This active stretch of a neurologically shut down muscle actually makes it function better on the following set.
Your bench pressing, you then do a superset with bicep curls. During your curls your triceps are neurologically shut down and get this stretch. When you return to bench again your triceps are stronger and can assist better in your bench set!
Really cool!! Right??
Perform 3-4 exercises per muscle group for this phase. Intensity should be high, pushing to failure. Tempo should be a 2-1-1.
And Rest periods….
I do this as supersets. A superset means you do one exercise and immediately follow it with the next. There is no rest between the two, but after the second exercise rest about 60 seconds.
This phase is just that, your adding power to your movements, think fast movements of heavy weights. You can begin getting sport or life specific with movements in this phase too. Like Rotational movements for sports that swing something like a stick, or club.
This is where real explosive power comes from for sports or throwing the lady around the bedroom….
If you are going into a power phase here is a good layout for how many sets and reps:
- Sets = 4-5
- Reps = 3-6
Exercises for the power phase can now get away from the typical muscle split routine type exercises and get more into full body movements. Although, there is nothing wrong with sticking to a split routine and just doing the moves in a “power” way.
Rather than doing “shoulder day” you would now have “vertical pushing day” and this will incorporate some shoulder specific moves, like military press, but also full-body push movements like a push-press or squat press.
You can set up the power phase as a 3-day split, just like the previous two, or use a movement-based program like the following:
Day 1: Full-body movements, Day 2: Pushing, Day 3: Pulling, Day 4: Rest, Repeat
Incorporating full body movements like a clean & jerk and or a snatch will by nature bring the intensity way up! When doing movements like a bench press, still keep the intensity high by doing a 2-0-1 tempo. Choose 4-6 exercises total and rest periods up to 2 minutes. If doing supersets with abs cardio type movements then its 8-12 exercises, but you get the picture.
When referring to sports this is a “pre-competition” phase. When talking about life, this is a “pre-bathing suit” phase. This phase is where people train to literally get “cut up” or be at their best.
If you are going into a cutting phase here is a good layout:
- Sets = 3-4
- Reps = 10-12
Exercises for the cutting phase should be movement and sport-specific based. Such as; chopping & lifting movements, resisted jumping and so on.
Again, there is no problem with doing a regular split routine here with typical exercises and just changing the other variables to match the phase.
You can set up the cutting program as a 3-day split just like the power phase, or you can try something new and do:
Day 1: Full Body Power-type Movements, Day 2: Sport Specific Movements, Day 3: Cardio, Day 4: Rest or begin cycle repeat here depending on how your body feels.
Intensity should be at its highest here, pushing to failure with every set. Choose 5-8 exercises per day. Tempo should be a 1-0-1 or 2-0-1 and no longer than 30 second rest periods.
I know, no one likes to talk about this, but it came up and it would be awkward to ignore it….
Cardiovascular activity needs to be programmed into every phase. At least twice per week. It is an essential part of health and you will be a better person if you do it…
Well maybe that last part isn’t true?
This is exactly as it sounds, maintaining that level. For sports this is “in season”, for life this is typically summer. Unless you live in a place where it’s year-round bathing suit season….Then I don’t know what you would do….guess you’re screwed?
If you’re going into a maintenance phase here is a good layout for how many sets and reps:
- Sets = 3
- Reps = 12-15
Exercises for maintenance are going back to the muscle group focus. But feel free to incorporate some of those fun movements from the cutting phase too. I really like doing a routine as follows during this phase:
Day 1: Chest & Back, Day 2: Legs & shoulders, Day 3: Functional/sport-specific movements, Day 4: Rest, Repeat
Of course, while “in-season” or strutting on the beach in your banana hammock keep the routine fun and do supersets with things like agility and balance exercises. Day 3 in the above routine can be a variety of things but make it fun and work hard!
Choose 6-8 exercises per day. The intensity should be medium, rest 30-45 seconds and tempo should be a 2-1-2ish…
Endurance phase is about training the muscle for long-term use. Like a competition that requires endurance such as a boxing match or basketball game or a 45-minute bang sesh…. Your choice, but I’m sure the specific training for the later would be much more fun!
If you are going into an endurance phase here is a good layout:
- Sets = 3
- Reps = 12-20
Exercises for endurance can be chosen as specific movements relating to your activity of choice, or they can be standard exercises like bench press and curls. Definition movements like pec flys and tricep pulldowns are encouraged here. Regardless the exercises, you will be going for lots of reps, so it will burn!
The routine for an endurance phase can be any of the above, or one you enjoy.
Intensity will be lower for this phase as the reps are so high and weights will be lighter. Choose 3-4 exercises per muscle group/movement for this phase. Tempo should be a 1-0-1 and keep the rest short, 30 seconds or less.
Well this is a boring goal….Sorry, but it is.
If your goal truly is weight loss you need to be following a periodization program anyway, so please adopt the above. People training for weight loss still need to build a solid base, adding muscle is key to ongoing metabolic benefits and every phase thereafter is also vital to a well-done exercise program.
Weight loss can be challenging;
Consistency is key. So focus on just showing up and doing something, especially in the beginning.
As time progresses, make sure you are following a year-round program and kickin’ butt!
So there you have it.
The simple answer to how many sets, reps and which exercises to choose for your program.
I understand this can be overwhelming, but it’s actually a very simple concept to follow once you lay it out.
Feel free to mix up your own program differently than how I have things laid out. My way is not the only way to do a program or the only way to figure sets and reps. It’s just what has worked well for me and many, many of my patients.
Dr. Dave Hopper
1. Stone MH. Muscle conditioning and muscle injuries. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990;22(4):457–62.
2. Comparison of integrated and isolated training on performance measures and neuromuscular control. Lindsay J. Distefano, Michael J. Distefano, Barnett S. Frank, Micheal A. Clark, Darin A. Padua. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr; 27(4): 1083–1090.
3. Hanna-Boutros B, Sangari S, Giboin LS, et al. Corticospinal and reciprocal inhibition actions on human soleus motoneuron activity during standing and walking. Physiol Rep. 2015;3(2):e12276. Published 2015 Feb 25. doi:10.14814/phy2.12276