How many sets and reps are best for getting in shape?

January 28, 2012

Q: I’ve read many articles on weight training and have spent my fair share of time in the gym, but the one thing I’m still unclear on is how many sets and repetitions are best for getting in shape. There seem to be a lot of different opinions out there, so I am wondering what your thoughts are on this issue.

A: There are many things to consider when designing a winning program, such as experience level, genetics, nutrition and lifestyle, but before you can make any intelligent decisions on how many sets and reps would be best, you must first determine your goals.

Most people focus on goals for strength, size or general fitness. Determine which category works best for you and try the following suggestions, but before we get started, let’s make sure everyone knows what sets and reps mean.

A set is a group of consecutive repetitions performed in an exercise without rest, and a repetition or rep is simply how many times you lift the weight in a set.

Strength (power lifter)
Range: 6-9 sets per body part and 1-5 reps per set

If your sole purpose is to get strong and you could not care less how you look, you’re better off concentrating on 6-9 sets per body part and 1-5 reps per set. This set-rep scheme can be divided into a variety of different combinations to allow you to lift heavier loads to increase strength; it generally focuses on core lifts that work larger groups of muscles such as bench presses, squats, deadlifts, barbell rows and dumbbell presses. Since strength athletes are only concerned with how much weight they can move, it’s better to break sets into smaller rep ranges (5x5, 4x3, 3x3, 2x2). Rest periods between sets can be as long as 2-5 minutes so that one can properly recover to maintain strength. A good example would be 3 sets of bench presses for 3 reps each with a 5-minute rest between sets.

Size (bodybuilder)
Range: 8-12 sets per body part and 8-10 reps per set

Most people associate size and strength together, but those who have spent time doing some serious strength training realize there is definitely a difference. Don’t get me wrong; strength training will definitely get you bigger, but it’s not the best way to put on size. To gain quality muscle mass, you have to up the set-rep range to 8-12 sets and 8-10 reps per set.

This set-rep range works great for building bigger muscles for two main reasons. First, it allows for more time under tension, causing the muscle being worked to recruit and break down more muscle fibers and force them to adapt by growing larger.

Secondly, the higher volume of sets and reps increases the body’s testosterone and growth hormone production. These key hormones help feed and repair muscles, allowing them to grow to optimum size. Rest periods range from 1-2 minutes between sets on average.

Fitness (athlete/fitness buff)
Range: 9-12 sets per body part and 8-15 reps per set

If you’re looking for a combination of size, strength and fitness, you’ll want your set-rep scheme to fall between 9-12 sets per body part and 8-15 reps per set. This allows you to work through a variety of different set-rep ranges while training for size, strength and endurance, keeping your body off balance and continuously achieving results. For example, you can cycle your repetitions by doing 3 weeks of 8-10 reps, 3 weeks of 10-12 or 3 weeks of 12-15 reps. I do, however, suggest keeping sets mostly between 8-10, as anything more than 12 sets for long periods of time can cause overtraining.

As mentioned previously, there are many other factors that contribute to a successful program, but it makes good sense to find the set-rep range that matches your goals and design a program 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