How Many Sets Should You Really Do? It Depends on Your Goals

Dumbbell. Getty Images/Tuomas Marttila

You already know that, when you lift weights, you're supposed to do a certain number of sets, but what does that mean?  Let's learn more about weight training sets, shall we?

What is a Set?

A set describes a group of repetitions performed for different exercises. For example, when you're looking at a basic strength workout, you might see something like this: "3x10" for, say, a chest press exercise.

That means you should do 3 sets of 10, that isn't 30 reps.

  That means you lift a heavy enough weight that you can ONLY do 10 reps.  Then you rest and repeat 2 more times.

How many Sets Should you Do?

In general, the average exerciser does between 1-3 sets of each exercise, though there is some controversy about whether one set elicits the same results as multiple-set training.  In fact, there are studies out there that show that, if you're a beginner, one set is plenty, especially if you're lifting a heavy enough weight.

But, what if you're more advanced?  Or what if you have specific goals?  Here's a general chart you can use to figure out how many reps and sets to do based on your goals:

 Fitness Goals SetsReps Rest Period Intensity
General Fitness1-2 Sets 8-15 Reps 30-90 Seconds Various Intensity
Endurance2-3 Sets Up to 12 Reps Up to 30 Seconds 60-70% of 1RM
Muscle Mass3-6 Sets 6-12 Reps 30-90 Seconds 70-80% of 1RM
Muscle Strength2-3 Sets Up to 6 Reps 2-5 Minutes 80-90% of 1RM
Power - 1 Lift3-5 Sets 1-2 Reps 2-5 Minutes

 90% of 1RM or more

Weight Loss Goals

So, how many sets should you do if you want to lose weight?  For weight loss, I highly recommend incorporating some of the following techniques into your workouts:

  • Circuit Training - With circuit training, you do each exercise, one after the other without rest.  This allows you to build muscle while keeping your heart rate elevated, which can help you burn more calories during and after your workout.
  • Supersets - With supersetting, you choose 2 exercises for the same muscle group and do them one after the other.  This increases intensity, which can help you burn more calories.  Try this Total Body Superset Workout for something that will really challenge you.
  • Tri-Sets - Like supersets, this involves doing 3 exercises for the same muscle group, one after the other, with no rest in between.  Again, this is a great way to build more intensity and burn more calories during your workout.
  • Pyramid Training - With this type of training, you build on each set, increasing the weight and decreasing the reps so that you really target those muscle fibers and get the most out of each rep.  Try this Upper Body Pyramid Workout.   You'll love it!
  • Tabata Strength Training - This is a kind of high intensity circuit training that keeps your heart rate elevated even more than traditional circuit training, with 20 second work intervals followed by just 10 seconds of rest, repeating that for 4 minutes. Doesn't sound like much, but it's tough!


    American Council on Exercise.  ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 5th 2014. 

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