How many reps are best to reach my goal?

December 10, 2011

Q: I have often heard that the amount of repetitions I should do when lifting depends on what I want to achieve. For example, fewer reps and heavy weight if you want to put on size, more reps and light weight if you want to get fit, and lots of reps and very light weight if you want to get lean. What are your thoughts on this?

A: OK, let’s clear something up right off the bat: Lifting light weights in any capacity will never yield the results you’re looking for. You have to lift weights that are challenging regardless of whether you’re trying to gain size or get toned.

But before you read anything into the above statement, let me explain. There are obviously some situations when you should lift light weights, for example, when you are just beginning a program, you’re starting back after a long break or you are recuperating from an injury. In most other cases, you should be lifting weights that are heavy enough to cause an intense burn in the muscle or muscles being worked and light enough to practice great form.

Now as far as how many reps you should do, there is some truth to your initial statement. Let me break it down for you so you can see what I’m talking about.

To gain size

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need tons of sets and reps per body part to gain muscle size. That’s why the guys who spend five hours a day in the gym doing countless sets and reps never seem to make progress. This is because they are constantly breaking their muscles down, never allowing them time to recuperate and grow bigger and stronger. The end result of this kind of workout is overtraining and little to no progress.

Gaining size works much better with shorter workouts, fewer sets, fewer reps and heavier weights. This way you get an intense workout in less time and get the rest needed away from the gym for muscle repair and growth. My favorite set/rep range to help the average hard gainer put on muscle size is nine sets of six to 10 reps with heavy weights. I usually break this down into three different exercises per body part with three sets each. A good example on chest day would be barbell incline chest press, flat dumbbell chest press and dumbbell chest flies. When trying to gain size, you can loosen up your form to handle heavier weights, but be careful not go too far or you will cause an injury.

Increase muscle, lose body fat

To gain muscle and lose body fat you want to meet somewhere in the middle by doing enough work to keep your metabolism fired up and your muscles growing without overtraining. To accomplish this goal my favorite set/rep range is eight to 12 sets of 10 to 12 reps. You should still concentrate on weights that are very challenging, but be sure to use great form, keeping constant tension on the muscles and not the joints. A good example for back day would be barbell rows, seated cable rows, dumbbell rows and wide-grip pull-ups.

Get ripped and conditioned

To take your shape and conditioning to the next level, you can get rid of conventional boundaries and increase reps to the point of muscle failure. This means reps can run the gamut of anywhere from eight to 20 reps, and you lift until your muscles can’t squeeze out another repetition. Sets should stay in the range of eight to 12 with three to four different exercises per body part for best results.

So whether you’re trying to gain size or shed excess body fat, be sure to lift weights that are light enough to practice good form but heavy enough to leave your muscles exhausted. Try all of the above rep/set ranges and find the one that works best for you.


  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out