How many reps per set should you be doing

10 seems to be the “normal” and the common number of reps per set that people use during their gym-based strength training. However, 10 is just another number, it isn’t a magic number. When clients I’ve trained have become accustomed to doing sets of 10 reps per exercise, they tend to get a little thrown when the reps are changed to a 15, 20 or perhaps dropped down to a 5 rep set. This article is designed to shed some light on why you could or should be using different repetitions during your training.

Why should you change the reps per set for your training?

Different rep ranges will allow for different loads to be lifted and therefore different training adaptations to be made. For example, a weight that you can lift for 15 reps would be really easy if you stopped at 10. And a weight that you can only barely lift for 5 reps, won’t allow you to reach the 10 reps you might be accustomed to. This is OK!!  Generally, it should also be a planned occurrence. To keep your body making adaptations we need to be constantly changing the training stimulus, and an easy way to do this is to change the rep range you are working to.

What are the common training goals and how many reps to maximize each of them?

Absolute power – 1-3 reps per set followed by 5-10 mins recovery between sets
Absolute strength – 1-3 reps – 5-10mins recovery between sets
Strength – 2-5 reps – 3-5 mins recovery
Hypertrophy – 8-12 reps – 45-90 seconds rest
Muscular endurance – 15-30 reps per set – minimal recovery

1. Absolute power/ Absolute strength – 1-3 reps

As you can see with the first few goals, the rep ranges are really low which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If your goal is to develop absolute power or strength, which refers to your ability to lift huge amounts of weight for a single rep, then it makes no sense to be doing higher reps which would require you to significantly reduce the weight lifted. Your body improves specifically at what you train it for, so to get maximally strong you need to lift your maximum weights.

You’ll also notice that the rest times between sets for the absolute strength and power goals are very, very long. The idea of this being that you have full recovery between sets so you can again generate maximum force on repeated efforts. If you want to lift the heaviest weight you can, then you can’t do it with any residual fatigue from the previous sets. This type of training requires a lot of patience, sitting around and waiting for that one all-out maximum effort.

A lot of the strength gains for these goals come down to neural adaptations. This rep range applies predominantly to Powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters but if your goal is to improve your 1 repetition maximum. (1RM) on any of your lifts then you should spend some time working in this range.

2. Strength – 2-5 reps

I have listed this as a separate category from the absolute strength as it is more applicable to being able to lift really heavy loads, but for repeated efforts. A lot of the best programs from strength development work between 3-5 rep sets. One of my favourite programs that I use regularly in my training is a 5×5 program, which is 5 sets of 5 reps for multiple different compound exercises in the session.

This type of training will help to strengthen both your muscular system as well as your neural system. Working in this rep range is ideal for people whose main goal is to increase their strength, without adding large amounts of muscle to their physique.

Specifically, it is a great training range for weight restricted athletes such as Boxers and Mixed Martial Artists who wish to be as strong as possible while remaining light enough for their desired weight class. Again with this goal, your rest times between sets will be long, as fatigue is the enemy of your ability to generate force.

Dropping your reps down to 5 per set and increasing the load you are lifting will be a fun and a challenging way to change up your workouts.

3. Hypertrophy – 8-12 reps

This is the rep range that most people will find familiar. 8-12 reps is a really good solid range of reps to be working each set, as it will lend itself to the development of each of the training goals in a small way. Primarily though, it is regarded as the best range in order to change the look of your body, or aesthetics.

For a great number of men who train, their principal goal is to get bigger, fuller muscles to look great. For women, this rep range is equally as important as for men, although “muscle growth” rarely ranks highly on a woman’s goal list, being “toned” is always on there. This training range is the best way for women to develop the muscle tone to achieve their ideal body.

10 reps are often used as it fits neatly into the middle of this rep range, however generally when I program for this goal I will actually write 8-12 reps for 4 sets. I tell my clients if they can get 4 sets of 12 without failing, the weight is too light and they must increase it for the next session. If they can’t achieve 8 reps per set, the weight is too heavy and they should lower it for the next session.

This allows for a window of gradual progression and the reps per set may look like this one session, 12, 12, 11, 9, and then the next session it could be 12,12,12,10 which shows some improvement in their work capacity.

Once that final set reaches 12 reps, the weight is increased and the reps could look like 10, 10, 9, 8, which still falls within your desired goal. The reps will usually decrease on the final set or 2 as the rest time between sets is shorter than with pure strength training and doesn’t allow for full recovery between sets. Therefore, some compounding fatigue will occur.

4. Muscular endurance – 15-30

Once the rep range gets up above 15 reps per set we start working in our muscular endurance range. This is something that is usually used in circuit style training and can be a great way of putting some metabolic stress on the body i.e. burning lots of energy!

The weights we lift to achieve 15+ reps are quite a small % of our 1RM but the idea is to teach the muscle to be able to continue to work with small to moderate loads under high levels of fatigue. One misconception with this type of training is that it builds “long, lean muscles”. Just to clear this up, your muscles are only as long as your bone structure and your tendon attachments allow them to be, and all muscle is lean.

There is no possible way to have an “unlean” muscle, it is in its essence lean tissue. If you wish to build muscle, then the hypertrophy range is where you should work.

If you seek to burn a lot of energy, improve your muscles ability to fight fatigue, keep your heart rate up, get a sweat on, or have minimal rest breaks and not overload yourself with heavier weights, then this is the rep range for you. Endurance athletes will often work their strength training in this rep range in conjunction with their cardiovascular training.

5. In betweeners – 6-8 and 12-15

You may have noticed there are a couple of small gaps between the 4 major training goals. These gaps indicate a crossover rep range, where you will achieve some improvements for each goal, without specifically targeting one or the other.

For example, 6 or 7 reps per set will cause some improvements in strength and some improvements in hypertrophy without being specifically targeted to one or the other.

This does have overall benefits but also minimizes the improvements you make to either one. The same can be said for working between 13-15 reps, some hypertrophy and some endurance gains.

The repetitions you perform during any training session are purely dependant on what goals you have for that training period. Decide on your goals, and then program accordingly, or seek the help of a professional to help you periodize your training programs so you are always reaping the most rewards for your hard work.

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