Strength Training – How Many Sets and Reps?

When mapping out your strength training program, two important factors you’ll need to consider are the number of sets and repetitions (a.k.a. – reps) to do for your exercises.  Here are a few guidelines to help you figure out the right amount for each of them.


How Many Sets Should You Do?

Strength Training 2First off, a set is simply a group of completed repetitions of a particular exercise.  For instance, if you do 10 pushups – rest for a minute and do 10 more – you just did 2 sets of 10 repetitions.  Got it?   But here’s where it gets confusing.  The research out there tells us that significant strength gains can be made by doing as few as 1 set per exercise and as many as 4 (or more) sets per exercise.  Hmmm . . .  that’s quite a range!  So how many sets should you do?  Answer: it comes down to your exercise goals and your training level.  Let me explain:


If you’re just starting out or haven’t done any strength training in a long time, I recommend doing 1 set for each strength exercise.  As long as you challenge yourself on the last repetition, performing 1 set per exercise will do the trick for building strength and improving body composition for most people.  Besides being effective, it’s also the most time-friendly approach, making it easier to fit into most workout schedules.


However, if you get to a point in your workouts where you want to take your strength training program to the next level, adding a second set per exercise will do it.  Will you see twice the results compared to doing 1 set per exercise?  Probably not – but it’ll definitely take things up a notch or two.  What about doing 3, 4 or even more sets per exercise?  With that many sets, now you’re entering into the bodybuilding and power training world.  My guess is that most of you aren’t very interested in going there and the 1 to 2 set strategy will work just fine – but if that’s not that the case, don’t let me talk you out of anything – go for it!


How Many Reps?

Just like the number of sets, the number of reps you should do is also determined by your training goals and conditioning level.  However, there seems to be much less of a debate in the scientific literature when it comes to the recommended number of reps for achieving different training goals, as compared to the number of sets.                 


In their revised publication on exercise recommendations for healthy adults, The American College of Sports Medicine provides the following guidelines regarding the optimal range of repetitions for achieving various strength training outcomes:


“For each exercise, 8 to12 repetitions improve strength and power, 10 to15 repetitions improve strength in middle-age and older persons starting exercise, and 15 to 20 repetitions improve muscular endurance.”

(Source:  ACSM Issues New Recommendations on Quantity and Quality of Exercise, 2011.)

Note: These recommendations are for average, healthy adults and not for advanced power athletes or bodybuilders.


As you can see, they suggest doing anywhere from 8 to 20 reps for strength training exercises.  To emphasize strength and power, you need to keep your reps lower (8 to 12) and your weights heavier.  ToStrength Training 5 improve muscular endurance, you would perform more reps (15 to 20) with lighter weights.  Keep in mind, however, that you need to use a weight heavy enough so you’re challenged on the last few reps, regardless of your goal.  For example, if your training goal is strength and power and you just completed a set of 15 reps, you would need to increase that resistance so you become fatigued between 8 to 12 reps.


For most people, especially those just starting out, I generally recommend staying in the 12 to 15 repetition range – the perfect hedge!  With that range, you can expect improvements in both muscular strength and endurance.  But if your main goal is to build muscle and get as strong as you can, you’ll need to use heavier weights and do fewer reps (8 to 12).  If it’s muscular endurance you’re after, lower the weights and knock out 15 to 20 reps.  Again, it all comes down to your training goals and conditioning level.



Performing 1 to 2 sets (1 if you’re just starting out) of 12 to 15 repetitions per strength training exercise is sufficient to help most people attain their strength training goals.  However, it’s not a magical formula by any means, but it’s a good place to start.  As your training goals change, be sure to adjust the number of your sets and reps to the appropriate levels mentioned above.

Note: Finding the right combination of sets and reps to achieve any desired strength training outcome is not an exact science – the “one size fits all” concept doesn’t apply.  However, these are good guidelines (at least I think!), but you might need to experiment a bit to find out what combination works best for you to meet your strength training goals.  Just be patient – you’ll figure it out!


I hope that helps,


P.S. Please leave a comment below – all opinions, questions and rants are welcome!

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