The number of sets and reps you do in a weight training exercise should depend on your fitness goals. Two primary reasons why many people lift weights are to gain strength or muscle hypertrophy. While you can still get bigger muscles while you focus on strength gains (and get stronger while focusing on hypertrophy), you can maximize your time and energy by focusing on the number of sets and reps.
There is no one-size-fits-all number for everyone, but research finds an optimal range that you can do maximize strength gain or muscle hypertrophy.
What is a set and rep (repetition)?
A rep is the number of times you perform a movement, usually within your full range of motion. For example, if you do a regular push-up, you start with your hands on the floor with your arms straight and your feet together or slightly apart. Then you lower your body toward the ground until your chest almost touch the ground, and you push your body away from the ground to the starting position. That counts as one rep.
A set is the total number of reps you do. If you complete 10 push-ups, that counts as one set. You would often see the sets and reps written as 3×10 or 2×6. The first number represents sets and the second number represents reps.
In relationship with intensity, lower number of sets with a higher number of reps usually corresponds with lower intensity, and vice versa.
So if you are aiming for a maximum strength adaptation, your weight training sets and reps might look like this:
Barbell squats: 5×5 or 6×3
Bench press: 5×5 or 6×3
Lat pulldown: 5×5 or 6×3
What does research say about how many sets and reps?
A 2017 systematic review may unravel some of the controversy among personal trainers and strength coaches about how many sets and reps you should do to gain maximum strength or hypertrophy. The researchers in this study, led by exercise physiologist Brad Schoenfeld of Lehman College in New York, examined 21 qualified studies and found that lighter loads can increase both strength and muscle hypertrophy as well as heavier loads. (1)
Using one rep max (1RM) as a marker (2) for the percentage of resistance, high-load training is considered to be greater than or equal to 60 percent of 1RM, and low-load training is anything below 60 percent.
They wrote that both heavy and light loads showed large effect for 1RM increases” by about 35 and 28 percent, respectively. However, most of the subjects are mostly “untrained” and may not apply much to experienced weightlifters. Schoenfeld et al. did say that seasoned weightlifters can benefit from high-load training for maximum strength gains.
While this study does not dictate the range of sets and reps of weight training you should do, understanding the intensity can help you find that range. Higher-load training should have lower number of reps than lower loads, yet its number of sets should be higher.
For example, if you are doing a barbell squat at 70 percent of 1RM, you could do 4 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps. At 50 percent of 1RM, you could do 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Volume matters in weight training sets and reps
Training volume refers to the net number of sets and reps per body part or movement pattern that you do. The amount you per week over three to six months can affect how much strength and muscle mass you gain. However, your body adapts to the training regimen during that time period, which can lead to a plateau. This is where the exercises becomes easier to do—which is a good thing—but you would not likely see much more gains in strength or muscle growth.
So, you need to change your workout. One easy way to do so is to adjust the number of sets or reps while keeping the intensity and exercise selections the same. For example, if your goal is muscle hypertrophy and you have been doing 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps at 60 percent of 1RM, increase the number of reps to 10 to 14 reps or while decreasing the number of sets to 2 or 3. Likewise, you can increase the number of sets to 4 to 5 while decreasing the number of reps to 6 to 10. (4)
Of course, you can also keep the number of sets and reps the same while increasing the load, reduce or increase resting periods between sets, or change the exercise for a specific body part. If you are not sure about where to start, consult with a qualified personal trainer or strength coach.
1. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200.
2. One-repetition maximum. Wikipedia.
3. Mattocks KT, Buckner SL, Jessee MB, et al. Practicing the Test Produces Strength Equivalent to Higher Volume Training. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2017; 49:1945-1954.
4. Morton, Robert & Colenso-Semple, Lauren & Phillips, Stuart. (2019). Training for Strength and Hypertrophy: An Evidence-based Approach. Current Opinion in Physiology. 10.1016/j.cophys.2019.04.006.