Sets and reps are probably the most commonly used terminologies in weight training. The definition of a set is the number of repetitions performed without stopping, the definition of a rep (repetition) is the number of times you move a weight through the range of motion, then back again one time. An example of a repetition using barbell bench press would be lowering the weight to the chest, pausing for about one second at the bottom, then pushing the bar back to the start position.
Throughout the history of bodybuilding there have been many theories as to how many sets and reps you should complete in order to build muscle, increase strength or improve muscular endurance. It is commonly agreed between professional bodybuilders, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sergio Olivia, Jay Cutler, Lee Priest and thousands of others to use the classic multi set system of training, which usually consists of 2-3 sets per exercise. That is not to say you must use this system, you should pick whatever system works for you, because if you don’t enjoy it or start seeing benefits you obviously won’t continue with it.
There are many different training methods, the most popular ones being: The multi set system, high intensity training, 5X5 training and German volume training. Below is a description of each type of system, so please use it as a guide to discover which training method will work best for you.
The Classic, Multi Set System
The multi set is the most popular training system in weight training, its where you perform 2-3 sets of an exercise, typically lifting the same weight for all sets. The number of repetitions you perform for each set will depend on your goals, but to give you an idea the most popular rep ranges are between 8-12 repetitions. If you are new to lifting weights and unsure of which program to start with, the multi set system is the safest option for you.
High Intensity Training
The late bodybuilder Mike Mentzer was a true believer in high intensity training, this is where you perform an exercise (typically one set) to absolute failure. This type of training is very hard to do, hence the name “high intensity”. The basic principal is to perform one set of an exercise exhausting all three levels of strength: concentric, static and eccentric, once all three levels have been exhausted, whereby you cannot physically continue lifting the weight in all 3 positions, you have completed the exercise.
Whilst I agree with the principles of high intensity training and use some of them with my multi set training, there are disadvantages: You are using vast amounts of energy every time you perform an exercise, preparing yourself physically and mentally every time you workout is going to be tough and can lead to exhaustion, especially if you don’t stay on top of your diet. Secondly, by pushing your body to its limits greatly increases the chances of injury, so great care must be taken to warm-up properly and use correct technique. For more information on this see my section on high intensity training.
5×5 is an old training principle that has become popular again, especially within the last 12-18 months. 5×5 training is when you perform 5 reps for 5 sets of an exercise, the idea is that you choose a weight that you can only manage 5 reps for 5 sets. It’s a good training principle and of course will work for everyone. You will definitely see improvements in strength with this system, however it will be quite tough for beginners so please bear this in mind.
German Volume Training
German Volume training originated from Germany in the 1970′s, the principal behind German volume training is to perform 10 reps of 10 sets for each body part (so 100 reps in total per body part). Because you are performing such a high number of repetitions you will need to stick to a maximum of three body parts per workout, and because you are limited to only three body parts per workout it is strongly recommended that these consist of larger muscle groups, which means compound exercises.
This type of training will be tough, requiring a lot of mental focus and dedication throughout the workout, you will however see vast improvements in muscular endurance & size by following this training method.
The Different Types of Sets
Now you have an understanding of the most popular set and rep types, you should understand the different ways in which you can execute them.
Straight sets are the most commonly used, this is where you lift the same weight throughout all your sets. For example you would perform 3 sets of 10 reps using 300 pounds doing deadlifts.
Pyramid Sets is when you perform between 4-6 sets, increasing the weight and lowering the repetitions as you go through the sets, once you reach the heaviest weight and smallest number of reps (top of the pyramid) you then decrease the weight and increase the reps again. If for example you were performing six sets of pyramid lifting, you would usually be lifting the heaviest weight on the fourth set, allowing you to decrease the weight and increase the reps again during the fifth and sixth set. Here is an example using barbell biceps curls:
Set 1: 35lbs x 20 reps
Set 2: 45lbs x 15 reps
Set 3: 55lbs x 10 reps
Set 4: 70lbs x 6 reps
Set 5: 55lbs x 10 reps
Set 6: 45lbs x 12 reps
Pyramid lifting isn’t really designed for every day weight training, I often use pyramid lifting if I need to break free of any training plateaus. It’s best to use pyramid lifting for compound movements and bigger muscle groups.
Reps and Sets To Build Muscle Mass
If you’re looking to increase muscle mass you should perform 2-3 sets per exercise, you should aim for between 8-12 repetitions per set, the weight you lift should allow you to perform this amount of reps, once you reach the higher number (in this case 12 reps) on both sets, you should increase the weight. The most suited systems for increasing muscle mass will be the multi set system and the 5×5 training system.
Reps and Sets For Strength
If your goal is to become stronger you need to perform a low number of reps with a heavy weight until you reach momentary muscular failure, the best systems for this will be high intensity training or the 5×5 training system.
Reps and Sets For Endurance
If your goal is to increase muscular endurance you need a system that allows a lot of reps with a lot of sets, the best system for this will be German volume training. The other option would be to perform the multi-set system but instead of performing 8-12 reps, perform 15-20 repetitions per set.