Reps, Sets, and Rest... OH MY!

Reps, Sets, and Rest... OH MY!

Reps, Sets, and Rest... OH MY! The gym can be an overwhelming and intimidating place to enter for some. Showing up to the gym as a novice lifter can quickly make you realize that you "aren't in Kansas anymore!" Not only is there weights clanging and people grunting to grind out that new personal best, but there's also an entire jargon of exercise language that can have you feeling lost in the conversation. Allow me to break down some of the most common words that you'll hear in the weight room and discuss what each of them should look like in regards to your specific goals and programming. 

The first term we'll tackle is "reps", short for repetitions. Repetitions are the recurrence of an action, in this particular case, how many times you're lifting the chosen weight. Choosing a "rep range" for any given weight is 100% dependent on what your goals are. The following rep ranges are a general rule of thumb when it comes to choosing your desired routine. 

  • 1-5 reps: This range is typically used for maximal strength gains. This is the rep range you'll see powerlifters using to get absolutely as strong as possible. 1-5 reps are usually around 85-90% of your 1 rep maximum in that particular lift. It's always a good idea to get an idea of your 1 or 3 rep max before beginning any training routine to get an idea of your starting point. If you're a beginner, I would not suggest training in this rep range until your technique is on point. Many people are under the misconception that lifting is always about setting personal bests every day and lifting as much weight as possible. This approach is not wise and will most likely end in you getting injured. 
  • 6-8 reps: This range is appropriate when you want to gain strength but also want to dip your toe into some hypertrophy (the enlargement of your muscle) training. It’s the happy medium between wanting to hulk smash the weights while at the same time looking like Arnold. In this rep range, you’re still going to be using decently heavy weight, so technique is still very important to avoid hurting yourself.
  • 9-12 reps: This rep range is probably the most common. This is what most of your “bodybuilders” and basic lifting programs will be doing to allow for maximal hypertrophy/muscular development. If you’re looking to fit into your clothes better and really begin transitioning your body composition, this is the pond you’ll be swimming in. This is a great rep range for those just getting into lifting because it’s a lot about getting the reps instead of just lifting heavy weight.
  • 13+ reps: Coming from a powerlifter, this rep range sounds too much like cardio! There is definitely a place for this rep range, particularly if you’re training for endurance or maybe performing a “burnout” set (lifting to absolute exhaustion.) You’ll obviously be using a much lighter weight. This rep range can be good for perfecting your form in any given exercise.

To close the discussion on reps, I would strongly recommend that you utilize every one of the above ranges to achieve your goals. Your body is an incredible machine, and it doesn’t take long for it to get used to a “routine.” If you’re doing the same exercises and the same reps week in and week out, you will find yourself plateauing very quickly. You must constantly be throwing your muscles curve balls a.k.a. muscle confusion, so that you can continue improving. So mix it up! Do heavy squats followed by higher rep leg press. Keeping things fresh is the best way to see results for all of your hard work.

Let’s talk about sets. Just like reps, this is another area you need to be changing up now and then. Don’t be afraid to experiment! If you’re a rookie to lifting weights, then 1-2 tough sets per body part will normally do the trick. But remember, your body adapts incredibly quickly, so once you’re knocking out 1-2 sets per body part, step in up a bit. The easiest equation I can think of when it comes to this concept is this… more reps = fewer sets. The whole purpose of resistance training is to create micro-tears in the muscle so that when the muscle heals, it’s stronger and more efficient. Those micro-tears are also what makes you sore. That’s why it’s important to listen to your body. Doing too many sets and reps can cause overtraining injuries that are so unnecessary and totally preventable. Doing 15 sets of 20 reps of bench press five times a week is the exact opposite of smart. Use this chart as a rule of thumb for sets per exercise, keeping in mind the need for variation:

  • 1-5 reps: 4-6 sets
  • 6-8 reps: 3-5 sets
  • 9-12 reps: 3-4 sets
  • 13+ reps: 2-3 sets


Lastly, let’s discuss rest. For those of you that are in the gym for three hours, my revelation to you is that you’re either talking too much (we all know that guy) or you’re resting too long between sets. How much time should you rest between exercises? I know I sound like a broken record, but this is yet another area that depends on what your goals are. Here are some general guidelines when it comes to resting in between sets.

  • When training for strength (1-5 reps) you’re lifting some serious weight. With this in mind, you should be resting 3-5 minutes after each set to allow for almost a full recovery. This will allow you to exert maximum effort for your next set.
  • With Strength/Muscle building(6-8 reps) you’re still moving heavy weight so a 2-3 minute rest interval would be appropriate.
  • Muscle building/Hypertrophy(9-12 reps) is looking at a rest period of 90 seconds. If that’s too easy, then a minute rest would be good as well.
  • Muscular endurance(13+ reps) has the least amount of rest and can be anywhere from 10-45 seconds. You can vary this depending on how much time you have for your workout that day, your current conditioning, and your goals.


I hope this helps as you embark or continue your journey at becoming the best version of you that you can be! Feel free to post any questions or even give ideas on other topics you would like me to cover!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published