Sets, Reps, and Training Outcomes in Weight Training

The Fundamentals

Woman weight training at the gym
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A weight training repetition (rep) is one completion of an exercise: one chin-up, one squat, one arm curl. A set is the selected number of repetitions before you rest. Let’s say 10 repetitions to 1 set of arm curls. The rest interval is the time between sets. The 1RM or repetition maximum is your personal best or the most you can lift once in any exercise. So 12RM is the most you can lift for 12 repetitions.

Barbell Arm Curl, 40 pounds 3 X 12 RM, 60 seconds

That would mean 3 sets of 12 maximum arm curls with a weight of 40 pounds with 60 seconds rest in between sets. So how do you know how many reps, sets and what rest time is best for you? Here’s how it works in broad terms. The finer details are for you and your trainer to work on.

  • Strength training uses the most weight, least number of repetitions and longest rest.
  • Hypertrophy or muscle size training utilizes lighter weights, more repetitions and less rest time.
  • Strength endurance has less weight again, with more repetitions and even less rest.
  • Power training involves lighter weights and longer rests while concentrating on the speed of the lift.

Now these are general principles, yet people do all sorts of things with the combination of sets, reps, rest between sets, and exercise type to find the best combination for them.

Here’s how an exercise program for the bench press might look according to different goals starting from a theoretical personal best of 160 pounds (73 kilos):

Bench Press - 1RM = 160 pounds

  1. Strength. 140 pounds, 2 X 5, 180 seconds
  2. Hypertrophy. 120 pounds, 3 X 10, 60 seconds
  3. Strength Endurance. 100 pounds, 3 X 15, 45 seconds
  4. Power. 100 pounds, 3 X 8, 120 seconds

One point to note here is that it is mandatory to take adequate rest between heavy loaded sets in strength training in order to achieve best results, In power training, a sufficient rest interval is also important because each lift has to be done at high explosive velocity for best effect.

So in strength and power training, make sure you get the required rest in between sets. In hypertrophy and strength endurance it’s not as crucial to use shorter intervals, although perhaps optimum.

Speed of Exercise Execution

Contraction velocity is the speed at which an exercise is performed and this also has an effect on training outcomes. Here are some general guidelines for weight training goals.

  • Strength -- 1-2 seconds concentric and eccentric
  • Hypertrophy -- 2-5 seconds concentric and eccentric
  • Endurance -- 1-2 seconds concentric and eccentric
  • Power -- less than 1 second concentric, 1-2 seconds eccentric

Calculating 1RM

According to the US National Strength and Conditioning Association, the theoretical distribution of repetitions against a percentage of 1RM, your maximum lift, is distributed as follows, using the bench press example:

  • 100 % of 1RM -- 160 pounds -- 1 repetition
  • 85% of 1RM -- 136 pounds -- 6 repetitions
  • 67% of 1RM -- 107 pounds -- 12 repetitions
  • 65% of 1RM -- 104 pounds -- 15 repetitions
  • 60% of 1RM -- 96 pounds -- warmup reps

(Based on: Baechle and Earle, NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training, 371, 2004.)

This means that you should be able to do 1 lift at your personal best, 6 lifts at 85 percent of your personal best and 15 lifts at 65 percent of your 1RM personal best – and with proportional percentages for any lift in between, and probably below.

Don’t consider this an absolute reference; it’s only a guide and a basis from which to choose appropriate weights for working out. You can see how you can estimate your personal best or 1RM from your 12 RM -- multiply 107 by 100 divided by 67.

A training ‘program’, is a schedule of frequency, intensity, volume, and type of exercise, whether for weight training or any other fitness training. In weight training, various methods and techniques are used.

Here are the variables that can be adjusted in any weight training program. Almost unlimited combinations are possible, most of which will be functional at some level but not necessarily optimum.

  • Exercise selection
  • Weight or resistance
  • Number of repetitions
  • Number of sets
  • Velocity of movement
  • Interval between sets
  • Interval between sessions (training days/week)
  • Interval between periodization cycles

Here are some prominent applications and techniques in weight training and bodybuilding programming.

Full body training. Training all major muscle groups in a session. You choose a series of lifts, perhaps up to ten, ensuring that all major muscle groups are exercised at some level

Split system. Alternating sessions for major muscle groups. Training, say, arms, shoulders and back one session, then legs buttocks, abdominals the next session.

Periodization could be described as progressing or cycling phases of training over a set time in order to achieve results at a scheduled time. Dividing a yearly program into different training modalities with different sequential goals is an example. This is common in sport-specific programs and in competition forms of weightlifting. For example: off-season maintenance, pre-season strength, early season hypertrophy and power, active season maintenance, post-season recovery.

Supersets. Supersetting is the practice of exercising two opposing muscle groups in quick succession for the purpose of stimulating muscle growth and providing rest in either group alternately. Leg extension and leg curl for quadriceps and hamstrings is an example.

Compound sets. Rather than alternate different muscle groups, compound sets alternate different exercises or equipment for the same muscle group. An example is following the triceps kickback with triceps pushdown -- the idea being to push the muscle far enough so that it recruits additional motor units.

Pyramid. This type of program includes sets that progress from lighter to heavy weights of the same exercise, or even the reverse from heavy to light depending on the program. The number of sets is specified. For example, dumbbell curl:

  • 20 pounds X 10 repetitions
  • 30 pounds X 8 repetitions
  • 40 pounds X 6 repetitions

Drop sets are like a reverse pyramid and there are many variations. In one example you lift to failure regardless of the number of reps in the second and third sets. Start with a heavy weight and do a calculated number of repetitions; reduce the weight by, say 20 percent, perform the next set to failure; then reduce again and go to failure again with little interval rest. This is very high intensity training. An example is the dumbbell curl as follows:

  • 40 pounds X 8 repetitions
  • 30 pounds X failure
  • 20 pounds X failure

Superslow. Superslow encompasses the idea of slow and measured concentric and eccentric contractions. The proposed advantages of this are disputed by many. Superslow enthusiasts recommend more or less 10 seconds for each phase of the lift.

Eccentric training. This emphasizes the return or lowering action of any lift on the basis that this produces better hypertrophy because more muscle damage and fiber recruitment is achieved. Arm curls are a good example. You usually need assistance to get the concentric or lifting part completed.

Sport specific programs are designed to enhance performance in particular sports by strengthening muscle fitness specific to those sports, especially through periodized weight training.

Diet, Nutrition, and Supplements

Appropriate diet and nutrition are very important in maximizing results from any athletic training program, and weight training is certainly no exception. Read my article: The Weight Trainer's Bodybuilding Diet and watch for an upcoming review article on weight training supplements.

See also: The Fundamentals of Weight Training and Resistance Training - Part 1 and Part 2.

Sources

Kraemer WJ, Adams K, Cafarelli E, Dudley GA, Dooly C, Feigenbaum MS, Fleck SJ, Franklin B, Fry AC, Hoffman JR, Newton RU, Potteiger J, Stone MH, Ratamess NA, Triplett-McBride T. American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Feb;34(2):364-80.

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