Ever asked yourself, ‘Why am I doing 8 reps and 3 sets of hip thrusts?’ If yes, this article is for you.
I’ll be helping you explore the underlying science of how many reps and sets you should use for exercises. Understanding this crucial concept helps you build your own science-based workout routine.
Or, at the very least, understand why you’re training the way you are.
And it will then give you the freedom to tweak the plan to better fit your goals. Also, it helps you determine if a workout plan is truly evidence-based. Or just thoughtlessly put together.
This will definitely save you time, money and effort on useless workout programs.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Reps and sets explained
If you’re entirely new to lifting, you may not know what ‘reps’ and ‘sets’ are.
No worries! They are incredibly simple concepts.
‘Rep’ stands for ‘repetition.’ And it defines one complete motion of an exercise.
So, let’s say you do 12 bodyweight squats. You can then think of those as 12 reps of squats.
And one ‘set’ is simply a group of consecutive repetitions (without stopping).
For example, you can say, ‘I did two sets of 12 reps on the bodyweight squats.’
That means that you did 12 consecutive squats, rested, and then did another 12 squats.
See, what did I tell you? Easy, right?
‘Rep’ stands for repetition and defines one complete motion of an exercise. While a ‘set’ stands for a group of reps done in succession.
What is workout volume?
Got the hang of both terms? Good. It’s time to move on to an important concept: workout volume.
Hint: workout volume is based partly on reps and sets.
This is a particularly important idea to grasp. Because, in general, larger workout volumes signify a higher dose of training. And, therefore, better stimulate the muscle fibers (1, 2, 3).
You know what that means: more muscle growth!
How can I measure workout volume?
Workout volume is typically measured in three different ways by researchers (4):
- Total number of sets to failure
- Total number of reps (sets x reps)
- Volume load (sets x reps x weight)
I’ll stick with option 3. That’s because it takes into account weight, in addition to sets and reps. Think of it as the most beginner-friendly introduction to the concept of workout volume.
So, any time I mention ‘workout volume,’ you can assume that I’m talking about (sets x reps x weight).
How does workout volume translate to my training?
Let’s imagine the following two scenarios when you’re performing hip thrusts:
As you can see, tweaking the number of reps, sets, and even weights used directly impacts your workout volume.
Pop quiz time! Given that scenario 1 and scenario 2 produces the same workout volume, does that mean that they’re both equally effective in building muscle?
To find out, we’ll have to dive deeper into the science behind the optimal number of sets and reps in a workout.
- In general, the larger your workout volume, the greater your muscle growth.
- ‘Workout volume’ will be defined as sets x reps x weight in this article.
Number of sets you should perform
As mentioned earlier, there’s typically a dose-dependent relationship between workout volume and muscle growth.
The greater your workout volume, the more muscle growth you’ll experience.
By now, you know that workout volume is calculated by sets x reps x weight. Does that then mean that you should perform as many sets as possible?
Well, not exactly. And there are two reasons why.
Reason 1: Your volume requirements scale proportionally to your lifting experience
The truth is that when you’re just starting, your muscles don’t need a whole lot of stimulus to grow.
Beginners only need 6 to 10 sets per muscle group weekly
Beginners shouldn’t utilize high volume training right away (5).
More specifically, if you haven’t strength-trained consistently for the past year (not just on-and-off), you only need around 6 to 10 working sets weekly for each muscle group.
And if you’re in the gym three times a week, you’ll only need to do 2 to 3 sets for each muscle group to see optimal lean mass gains.
But what if you’re a more advanced lifter?
Advanced lifters will need 16 to 20 sets per muscle group weekly
Well, 6 to 10 working sets may no longer provide sufficient stimulus for your (trained) muscles.
Once you transition into a trained state, you’ll need 16 to 20 sets per muscle group weekly.
Going to the gym just 3 times a week is not going to cut it here.
You’re going to need to do anything from 6 to 10 sets per muscle group in a single session!
That said, this is going to draw out your workout session. (Probably making you cranky by the time it all ends.)
Imagine spending 3 hours in the gym, instead of a quick 1 hour.
Not to mention, research shows that later sets and exercises in a workout will contain fewer productive reps than earlier sets.
Why? Because you’re already tired (6)!
So, how should you workout once you gain more lifting experience and your workout volume requirements increase? You should look into distributing that volume throughout the week by adding in additional training days.
Instead of trying to cram them within three days.
And you can do so by choosing a training split that’ll best allow for this. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the term ‘training split,’ I’ll cover it in a later section. Keep reading!
Reason 2: Doing more than 10 sets at one go is counterproductive
If you’re good with numbers, you may have noticed a ‘hack’ that can drastically cut down on the number of days you head to the gym.
Not sure what I’m talking about?
Let’s imagine we have two women, with the following workout programming (of only 1 exercise, the hip thrust, for simplicity’s sake):
Both Kelsey’s and Lisa’s weekly workout volumes are the same. So, they should experience the same amount of muscle growth. Right?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Kelsey.
That’s because there appears to be an upper limit of sets per muscle group that you can do in a single workout. Past that, and you compromise muscle growth. Instead of boosting it. I have explored this in an article on overtraining vs. overreaching.
But what’s this ‘upper limit?’
Research places it at roughly 10 sets per muscle group (7, 8, 9).
So, for Kelsey, performing over 10 sets dedicated to her glutes will likely provide diminishing returns on her #bootygains.
Worst of all, she’s going to impair her recovery and would likely have to cope with sore muscles that could further affect performance.
Accordingly, the conclusion of this is in line with that of reason 1.
If you’re increasing the number of sets you’re performing in the gym, it’d be best to distribute the volume evenly throughout the week.
- Your workout volume requirements scale proportionally to your lifting experience.
- Beginners only need 6 to 10 sets per muscle group weekly.
- Advanced lifters need more: 16 to 20 sets per muscle group weekly.
- There’s an ‘upper limit’ of useful sets per muscle group in a single workout session (10 sets).
- Distribute your volume equally throughout the week. Regardless of lifting experience.
How many reps in a set should I do?
Google ‘how many reps should I do,’ and you’re likely to come across several articles talking about something called the ‘strength-endurance continuum (10, 11, 12).’
Low reps equal strength; high reps equal endurance?
It’s commonly thought that:
- Training with low reps (2 to 6): Best for increasing strength, but not ideal for muscle growth
- Training with high reps (12 to 15+): Best for building up muscular endurance and again, not ideal for hypertrophy
Many people have thus concluded that a hypertrophy rep range of roughly 6 to 12 reps exists.
But is there any substantial evidence behind this claim?
Well, here’s the truth. Recent research indicates that this supposed ‘hypertrophy rep range’ is greater than previously thought (13, 14, 15, 16).
More specifically, many papers have concluded that muscle growth will be similar – no matter the rep range you choose, given the following 3 conditions:
- Workout volume is equal
- You’re training close to failure
- You’re using a weight that’s at least 30% of your 1RM (One-rep-max)
So, does this conclusion then disprove the ‘hypertrophy rep range?’ Can you, therefore, use any rep range you prefer?
The primary driver of muscle growth is still workout volume
Always remember that the primary driver of hypertrophy is still workout volume.
And when you think about it logically, the 6 to 12 reps range is simply the most effective rep range when it comes to accumulating workout volume.
Well, just imagine what happens when you stick (mainly) to using lower reps.
To achieve the same workout volume, you’ll have to:
- Use heavier weights, and
- Do more sets
This is, of course, entirely doable.
But with the increase in the number of sets, you’ll probably take much, much longer to complete your workout sessions at the gym.
Not to mention, going heavy will put a ton of stress on your joints. And this will most likely take a hit on your recovery rates.
What about higher reps?
If you stick primarily to higher reps, you’ll find that it’s incredibly taxing. Both physically and mentally.
To understand why, it’s worthwhile mentioning the concept of CNS fatigue. This refers to the inability of your central nervous system to activate your muscles such that they contract (17, 18).
When you’re feeling exhausted, there’s a high possibility that you’re also suffering from CNS fatigue.
This CNS fatigue will cause you to reach failure in a set. This is even before you achieve full motor unit recruitment of that muscle.
As such, later reps in your workout will be less stimulating and productive than the earlier ones. And all that effort of going beyond the 30th rep is unlikely to be worth it.
If you can’t get access to training equipment (e.g. training from home during a lockdown), this is the problem you’re likely to face as you’re limited to bodyweight exercises. Fortunately, there are many ways to make home workouts more effective.
Hopefully, you can now see that the 6 to 12 rep range can be still practically referred to as the ‘hypertrophy rep range.’
It’s the range that enables you to accumulate sufficient workout volume most effectively without overtaxing your body. Either mentally or physically.
Does this mean you should stick to 6 to 12 reps exclusively?
No, of course not!
Low reps and high reps can bring about unique training benefits.
Benefits of training with low reps:
- Superior for maximum strength gains (19)
- Necessary for sport-specific lifts, where strength is emphasized (e.g. weightlifting or powerlifting)
Benefits of training with high reps:
- Boosts your ability to push through metabolic fatigue during other workout sets in different rep ranges
- May stimulate muscle growth through added metabolic stress (20)
- Certain exercises, like lateral raises and Y-raises, are simply better when done with lower weight and higher reps (minimizes joint stress)
Ultimately, you’d reap the most benefits by getting the:
- Majority of your working sets (60% to 70%): 6-12 rep range
- The remainder with a mix of both:
- Lower reps and heavy weight (15% to 20%)
- Higher reps with light weight (15% to 20%)
- You can achieve equivalent muscle growth with all rep ranges. But the 6 to 12 rep range is the most effective way for you to accumulate sufficient workout volume.
- That said, you’ll want to make use of both high and low rep ranges to harness their benefits:
- Low reps are useful for strength gains
- High reps are useful for endurance
Build an optimized workout plan
That was a lot of information to digest.
But trust me. Once you’ve understood this portion of workout programming, you’re likely more educated than 80% of the typical gym-goer. So, congrats!
How do you then apply all these concepts to evaluate your existing workout plan, or build a new one from scratch?
Let’s recap everything we’ve covered so far:
Optimal number of sets for muscle growth:
- If you’re a beginner: 6 to 10 sets per muscle group weekly
- If you’re an advanced lifter: 16 to 20 sets per muscle group weekly
Optimal distribution of rep range for muscle growth:
- Low reps (2 to 6): 15% to 20%
- Hypertrophy reps (6 to 12): 60% to 70%
- High reps (12 to 15+): 15% to 20%
And here comes the exciting part.
With all the pieces of the workout programming puzzle coming together, we can now determine which training split. This simply refers to which muscle groups you do on a given day over a week.
If you’re a beginner
When you’re a beginner, you don’t need a whole lot of workout volume.
And that means the whole-body split is perfect for you. Here, you’ll train every major muscle group in a single workout:
Because the volume of work is low, this workout should ideally be repeated 3 times a week.
For instance, you would be working on your back muscles three times a week – one exercise you could definitely try is the bodyweight pull-up. I have an article on just how you can start doing your first pull-up or get better at it.
Here’s what a typical, optimized whole-body split looks like:
And to effectively vary the rep range to reap both strength and endurance benefits, you can make use of workout periodization. Which simply refers to the strategic implementation of specific training phases.
Here’s how you can potentially do it (in months):
- First Month: Moderate rep range, moderate weight (6 to 12 reps)
- Second Month: Low rep range, heavy weight (2 to 6 reps)
- Third Month: Moderate rep range, moderate weight (6 to 12 reps)
- Fourth Month: High rep range, low weight (12 to 15+ reps)
- Fifth Month: Moderate rep range, moderate weight (6 to 12 reps)
If you’re an advanced lifter
Things become more complicated when you’re an advanced lifter.
Given the increase in the number of sets per muscle group you’d need to do, the following training split will work better.
The upper- and lower-body split
Here, you’ll separate the body into:
This programming allows you to perform two exercises per group (e.g. barbell hip thrusts and glute-ham raise for glutes). If glutes are a focus for you, you might want to check out this article on training for a bigger butt.
Instead of just one exercise in a whole-body split.
Here’s what a typical, optimized upper- and lower-body split looks like:
And as per the whole-body split, you can optimize your training rep range by making use of workout periodization. (Refer to the section above if you’ve skipped all the way here).
- If you’re a beginner, go for the whole-body split.
- If you’re an advanced lifter, consider the upper- and lower-body split to increase your workout volume.
- Use workout periodization to reap the benefits of all rep ranges. Use high reps for endurance, moderate reps for hypertrophy, and low reps for strength.
Now, here’s the important bit.
Keep in mind that your training split, and number of reps and sets used, are just some of the many factors that play a part in maximizing the results you see from strength training.
For instance, how much protein you eat daily – an often overlooked aspect – plays a crucial role in your overall progress in fitness.
Arguably, the most important thing that’ll help you progress fastest in the gym is consistency. If you manage to hit the gym four times a week last week but fail to get there this week, you’ll be doing yourself a great disservice. Stick to your workouts consistently, and your results will definitely show.