Everything You Need to Know About Reps and Sets

woman on weight machine at Planet Fitness with trainer
It's important to choose the right amount of reps and sets in order to meet your unique fitness goals.

by Mary Lambkin

Like most things in life, a successful workout starts with a plan. Before you set foot in the gym, it's a good idea to think about what you're going to do while you're there. This can help you make the most of your time.

Wondering where to start? Begin by defining the number of reps and sets you're going to tackle for each exercise.

But What's a Rep and What's a Set?

A "rep," short for "repetition," is a single execution of an exercise. One pushup is one rep, and 10 pushups are 10 reps. A "set" is a collection of reps. If your goal is to complete 20 pushups, you might break your workout up into two sets of 10 reps. This can help you effectively pace yourself.

Many fitness enthusiasts debate the different benefits of focusing on reps (versus sets) during a workout, especially when it comes to weighted exercises. Depending on your goals, you might benefit more from a low-rep, high-weight workout versus a high-rep, low-weight workout. No matter which style of workout you choose, you'll then have to determine how many sets you want to complete for each exercise.

With so many decisions to make, designing a workout might seem difficult. But it's really not! Once you have a clear goal in mind and start experimenting with different rep/set combinations, you'll get a natural "feel" for what kinds of workouts challenge you the most. You just have to listen to your body.

How Many Reps Should I Do?

Your fitness goal is the most important factor to consider when determining how many reps to complete in a set. Although it's important to choose between a high-rep and low-rep workout, remember that the end result should basically be the same for both. You should feel challenged and fatigued, whether from the high number of repetitions you completed or the amount of weight you lifted.

Generally speaking, an average gym-goer might complete anywhere from four to 12 reps per set. Curious which end of the spectrum you should fall on? High-rep, low-weight workouts are a good fit for people looking to "tone up" and focus on muscular endurance. They are also great for beginner gym-goers who need to refine their form before attempting high-weight workouts, as well as people who are injury-prone and need low-weight workouts. Low-rep, high-weight workouts are a good fit for people looking to "bulk up" and build strength and power.

How Many Sets Should I Do?

Determining the number of sets you should complete is fairly easy compared to determining the number of reps. No matter how many reps you're completing per set, most fitness experts recommend performing between two and six sets for each exercise. Anything below two sets may not challenge you enough; anything over six sets could lead to overworked muscles. If you're just beginning, a good starting point is three sets of 10–15 reps.

Another key consideration when "setting" your "set" expectations is the amount of time you have for your workout. With anywhere between 30 seconds to three minutes of rest between each set, completing more than three sets per exercise can lead to a lengthy workout.

How Do I Get Started With a Rep and Set Strategy?

If your fitness goals are focused on staying in shape (not becoming an ultramarathoner), building lean muscle (not huge bulk), and staying flexible (but not becoming an acrobat), then you probably want to stick to a basic reps and sets strategy that includes moderate weight and a medium number of reps. For example, you might choose five-pound dumbbells and perform three sets of 10 reps.

Try a high-rep, low-weight workout, a low-rep, high-weight workout, or even a mix of both. Take note of how challenged you feel during the workout as well as how sore you are the next day. After a couple of weeks, you'll learn what rep and set approach best fits your body!

As always, please consult with a physician prior to beginning any exercise program. See full medical disclaimer here.