Exercise Programming – On Choosing Repetitions and Sets

How many repetitions of an exercise should one perform? And how many sets?

Good question. And let’s start by clarifying those terms. ‘Repetitions’ are how many times a weight is lifted, or a movement is performed. If I get on the ground and do five push ups, then stand up again, I have performed five repetitions of push ups. A ‘set’ is how many separate bouts of a given exercise one perform in the same workout session. Now if I get down on the ground again and do another five push ups (yes that is five repetitions) then stand up again, I have now performed two sets of five repetitions.

As to how many repetitions one should perform, 8-15 repetitions is considered the range to effectively promote muscle growth and strength. And 15-20+ repetitions will promote muscular endurance, which relates to the time duration under which a muscle is able to work, with decreasing effectiveness for improving muscle growth and strength. The catch here is that we are referring to repetitions until failure, meaning the point at which a muscle is unable to continue performing a given action. For example if the goal is muscle growth, and you are using weights, and can do 15 repetitions with no struggle, then it’s time to use a slightly heavier weight so you reach muscle failure somewhere in that 8-15 repetition range. However if the exercise involves your own body weight, which cannot be adjusted, then doing fewer repetitions to stay in that 8-15 range doesn’t get you any stronger or any more growth, because the muscle is just doing less work and therefore is getting less stimulation for growth. With body weight exercise, the only ways forward are either continually increasing the repetitions, or doing more sets of that body weight exercise in a given workout.

In regards to how many sets one should do, it depends on how many are needed until muscular failure occurs, or at least nearing muscular failure and recognizing that the correct technique (also known as form) is unable to be maintained. If you can’t maintain good form, then it’s time to end the set. For beginners, 1-2 sets should be sufficient to thoroughly work a muscle to fatigue and thus stimulate growth. For more regular exercisers, 3-4 sets should be enough work to thoroughly stimulate a growth response.

If you'd like help on figuring out your exercise program, feel free to contact us via email alex.ccpt@gmail.com or phone 303 666 4151.

Alex Glades PT, DPT