The Casual Lifter’s Guide to Sets and Reps

Two questions I get asked a lot are “How much should I be lifting?” and “How many should I be doing?”

And, when I first started weightlifting, I had no idea either.

In fact, I kinda winged it for a good 5 years because every time I would poke around online to figure it out, I’d end up in some bro’y fitness forum with a bunch of condescending, meaty dudes who all had conflicting opinions (and very strong feelings about said opinions).

It was overwhelming and seemed complicated. And I was far too intimidated to ask questions.

So, my “strategy” was: Select random weight. Do random number. Hope for best. REPEAT.

Looking back, knowing what I know now, I wasted a ton of time only to get mehhh results — it’s no wonder I was bored, frustrated, and inconsistent.

So, in the spirit of helping you lift efficiently and avoid bro’y forums … let’s discuss 🙂

First up — lingo. Most people use the term strength training to describe what is actually resistance training. Strength is one of the things you can train for while resistance training. You can also specifically train for endurance, muscle growth, or power.

And the way you target these different things — endurance, muscle growth, strength, or power — is by altering the number of reps and sets you do, and thereby, the amount of weight you’re lifting.

Reps, which is short for repetitions, is the number of times you can do a movement in a row. Sets is the number of rounds you do of that.

So, say I grabbed a 15lb dumbbell to do bicep curls (DISCLAIMER: I rarely do bicep curls, but I feel like most people know what those are, so just stick with me here), and was able to do 10 bicep curls in a row before I fatigued and took a short rest. Then, I was able to do 9 curls in a row before resting. Then, I was able to do 7 curls in a row before resting and moving onto the next exercise.

In that scenario, I did three sets of bicep curls — 10 reps in set #1, 9 reps in set #2, and 7 reps in set #3 (so, 26 total reps for this particular exercise; I’ll get into why that’s important later).

As you’ll see below, with that amount of sets and reps my primary goal was probably muscle growth …

And once you decide on your goal (more on that farther on down the page), you can reference this example of ways I’ve trained before to help you determine how many sets and reps you might want to do for any given resistance exercise in a training session (I’m excluding power because it’s likely not relevant to your wants or needs)

Primary Goal

# of Reps

# of Sets

TOTAL # of Reps

Endurance 12-16 2 24-32
Hypertrophy
(a/k/a muscle growth)
6-12 3 18-36
Strength 4-6 5 20-30

Generally speaking, you’ll want to select a weight that’ll have you struggling on the final rep in each set.

So, the higher your target rep count, the lighter the weight, and the lower your target rep count the heavier the weight so that you’re reaching fatigue at the appropriate time.

You’ll know you’re ready to raise the weight on an exercise once you’re able to hit the top of your target rep range in every set consistently.

I suggest raising it by about 10% when that happens, or whatever weight is available to you that’s closest to that.

Also, check out the last column, which notes total reps. I tend to follow what I call the “30s rule” — no matter what your goal is or what exercise you’re doing, I have found that there’s really no point in going beyond the 30s in terms of TOTAL reps (i.e. the number you get when you add up the reps you did in each set of the exercise in that training session).

Any potential added benefit of going above that would be too minimal to justify it unless you’re prepping for a particular athletic event or do fitness/bodybuilding competitions.

And, as you can see in the chart, you can certainly keep it below 30 — the 30s is just where my upper limit is.

So, how do you choose your primary “goal?”

Well, first off, know that no matter what you choose to focus on, you’ll benefit in all other areas too! For instance, if you’re training for endurance, you’re still going to grow muscle and get stronger — it’s inevitable.

That said, if you’re new to resistance training or if you’re just after general fitness, endurance is a solid place to start.

You’d also probably want to focus on endurance most of the time if you’re, say, a marathoner because muscle endurance is what you’ll really need if you’re doing things like running for 4 hours straight.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a 100m sprinter or do 1-rep-max lifting competitions, both of which require shorter, more intense bursts of energy, strength or power might be the priorities.

Personally, I land in the middle and train primarily for muscle growth (a.k.a. hypertrophy).

Hypertrophy is also what I recommend for many of my clients, especially my older clients because it does a better job of improving bone density than endurance due to the heavier weights.

At the end of the day though? Don’t overthink it, and do what you know you’ll stick with.

I rarely deviate from the hypertrophy focus because that’s where I’m happiest and don’t get bored — I like lifting heavy but not *too* heavy, and it’s the perfect number of sets and reps for me and my schedule.

One exception though is with core. I recommend you stick with endurance for core/ab exercises as endurance is what the core really needs to protect your spine from the demands of just living your daily life. Remember, you’ll still get muscle growth and strength there even if you’re focusing on endurance.

Another exception is joint-specific mobility training like you’ll find in my Mobility for Desk Workers routines (which you can also grab if you’re on desktop or if you’re on mobile).

With joint mobility work, frequency is way more important than intensity, so one set is usually plenty, and I recommend you choose one or two of your most problematic areas and work on those multiple times per week.

Bottom line — the above chart is just an example of three effective ways to do resistance training.

If you run an online search, you’ll find way more options that’ll have ranges of sets you could do for each, but I wanted to keep things as simple as possible because overwhelm is a barrier to action.

Also, obsessing over numbers will make lifting a miserable experience (take it from a former number-obsessor!). I don’t always hit my target rep count, and sometimes I’ll eliminate a set if I’m short on time or my body tells me it’s done. Other times, I decide to add a set or two to certain exercises if I’m feeling it. And that is all a-okay.

The only number you might want to remember is an upper limit which, for me, is somewhere in the 30s.

Going much above 30 (40, max) total reps for any given exercise in any given training session — no matter if you’re training for endurance, muscle growth, or strength — just isn’t necessary for the average person. I’m alll about efficiency, and I’m telling you … don’t waste your time.

And, most importantly, remember: More or heavier isn’t always better, and you should NOT aim to push yourself to your max every workout …

Proper form and joyful movement take precedence over numbers. Every. Single. Time.

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