One of the most common questions that I receive as a personal trainer seems like it would be a pretty simple question to answer: How many sets of each exercise should I do, and for how
many reps? Most people are familiar with the traditional 3 sets of exercises for 12 reps,
however, one size does not fit all when it comes to weight lifting, and this might not be the
optimal path towards our goals. So the question is, what is right for you?
To answer that question you must first ask yourself, what is your goal in The GYM? Is it trying to build as much power as possible? Or are you looking to lean out and build more toned
muscles? Depending on what you are looking to do the amount of reps will vary as will the
amount of sets you should do for each exercise. Are you looking to most effectively increase
your strength? Then you are going to be looking at a lower rep range of around 1-5 reps for sets for 2-3 sets. This will result in the most ideal method of building raw strength as you will be able to lift heavier, and lifting heavy is what you need to build strength. However, muscle growth is tied to the amount of time the muscle is under tension, and considering that the muscle isn't under tension for more than 15 seconds or so per set, we aren't going to see a large amount of muscle growth.
So what if we’re trying to build as much muscle mass as possible? Well here is when we enter
that “traditional” weight training of around 8-12 reps for 3-4 sets. The science behind these rep ranges is that at these rep ranges, our sets are lasting around 40-60 seconds. At this point, our muscles are having to utilize our glycolytic energy system, which means that we’re going to have lactic acid forming in our muscles. When this happens, it results in the release of both growth hormone and testosterone which will result in the stimulation of muscle growth and fat burning. Sounds pretty fantastic, eh? Wells there's a catch: you won't be building nearly as much strength as you would if you were doing less of a rep range.
At this point, we’ve covered how to get strong and how to get big, but what about sets that go
beyond 15 reps? At this point, you aren't really activating the fast twitch muscle fibers that will
see you get a lot of muscular growth, and you aren't lifting heavy weights, so you won't be
seeing yourself get much stronger. So why bother doing more than 15 reps? Because at this rep range, you are building up your muscular endurance. This means that if you’re somebody such as a marathon runner or somebody who is physical at work for a long period of time, being able to build up your muscular endurance will make your life significantly easier, as your muscles will be used to doing prolonged bouts of work.
The astute readers out there might have noticed that there is no one rep range that is the magic number. The “traditional” 3 sets of 12 has been the standard as it is middle of the road: Mild strength building, muscular mass increase, while still building more endurance than doing less reps. However, if you're looking for a truly balanced strength training program, cycling through the different types of reps and sets covered will add variety, help you avoid stagnation, work on form, and ultimately get you the results that you're working hard for.
Still not too sure about all this? Don't be afraid to reach out to one of The GYM’s personal trainers and they will be more than happy to help you work out what is the best for you!
Personal Trainer, The GYM @ Norton
B.S. in Exercise Science