How many reps/sets should I do?
How much weight should I lift?
These are two of the most common questions I hear as soon as people learn I am a personal trainer. For some, it's as if those are the only questions; they seem to think that if they figure out those, everything else will fall into place.
It's only partly true. The number of reps/sets and amount of weight are definitely key components that will make the difference between success and frustration. Of course, there is far more to a successful workout, such as choosing the right exercises and properly performing them, incorporating cardio, and following proper eating habits.
Yet in terms of the how many/how much questions, because no two people are the same, there are no one-size-fits-all answers.
The first thing to consider is your goal. Men and women usually have different goals. The most common goal for men is to build muscle and strength; women usually want to build muscle tone, but not too much. (We'll cover other scenarios too.)
The second thing to determine is how your body responds to exercise. This is an oft-neglected but essential factor in putting together a personalized program that will work. If your goal is to gain muscle, but you have difficulty doing so, your program will be different from that of someone who develops muscle easily. Likewise, if you want to tone but tend to bulk up when lifting weights, your program will differ from that of someone who does not tend to bulk up.
By taking into consideration your goal and how your body responds to exercise you can modify reps/sets and weight/intensity in order to achieve the results you want.
Strength level is subjective. Weight that feels heavy for one person might feel light for another, especially considering different fitness levels. Also as you exercise and get stronger, of course, weight that was once challenging might become easy. So the easiest way to determine how much weight to lift is by breaking it down into five levels.
"Light" is when the weight is so low you don't even feel like you're exercising. If you are working out and it feels light, pick things up.
At the " Moderately Light" weight, by the time you reach your final reps you will feel as if you have been doing some, but not too much, work.
At the " Moderate" weight, after the set you feel like you are definitely making effort but are giving 70 percent to 80 percent and thus could still go for a few more reps.
" Moderately Heavy" is the weight for most people. You feel like you are making an effort to finish the set, about 90 percent of all you've got, but you could actually do one or two more reps with perfect form .
"Heavy" is a weight that takes 100 percent of your strength. You can do all the reps with perfect form but couldn't do even one more without breaking the form.
In order to determine how many reps to do, it is helpful to review the latest findings about reps and development: Research has shown that you can get muscle tone and development by doing any number of reps between 1 and 20. Anything more than 20 reps will give mainly endurance benefits; you won't see more improvement on muscle tone. Between 1 and 5 reps, you are training for what is called "power." An example of power is a "power lifter" raising 700 pounds. It's an amazing proof of strength, but he couldn't lift that amount for several reps. For most, the ideal is between 6 and 20 reps. I know that's a wide range. That's why knowing your goals and how your body responds to exercise will help you select the best number within that range.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
If you are a beginner, start with two sets of 15 to 20 reps each at a " Moderately Light" weight. After a few weeks, increase to " Moderate" weight for two sets of 15 to 20 reps each . These are the guidelines for both men and women who haven't worked out for a while, regardless of how your body responds to exercise. Your goal at this stage is to gently communicate to your body that you are doing something new that demands it to work harder, thus encouraging your body to adapt.
Females trying to tone should do two sets of 10 to 15 reps each at a "Moderately Heavy" weight. You will build muscle tone, but the high number of reps will keep you from loading on excess weight, which would make you bulk up. If you are a female who tends to bulk up, increase the reps to 15 to 20 per set . The extra-high number of reps will force you to lighten up the weight, but will still give you the "burn". If trying to gain strength and muscle, increase the number of sets to 3 , drop the number of reps to 6 to 10 and increase weight to "Heavy." If you are doing 6 to 10 reps and going all out, you're lifting a pretty good amount of weight.
If you are a male trying to develop your body in a moderate way, stay between 8 to 12 reps each and do 3 sets at a "Moderately Heavy" weight. If your goal is to get as strong as possible and develop as much as you can, or if you have a hard time developing muscle, stay between 6 to 10 reps for 3 to 4 sets at "Heavy" weight. (In other words, the weight is so heavy that you can't do more than 10 reps without breaking form. If the weight is so heavy that you can't even do 6 reps, you are lifting too much; decrease the weight till you can do at least 6 reps.)
Beginners (both men and women): two sets, 15 to 20 reps each. Moderately Light weight.
A few weeks after you begin (both men and women): two sets, 15 to 20 reps each. Moderate weight.
Women who want to tone: two sets, 10 to 15 reps each. Moderately Heavy weight.
Women who want to tone but tend to bulk up: two sets, 15 to 20 reps each. Moderately Heavy weight.
Women trying to gain muscle and strength: three sets, 6 to 10 reps each. Heavy weight (to failure).
Men who want moderate muscle mass: three sets, 8 to 12 reps each. Moderately Heavy weight.
Men who want a lot of muscle mass or have a hard time developing: three to four sets, 6 to 10 reps each. Heavy weight (to failure).
So there you have it. Now you can walk into any gym (or work out at home) knowing for sure the right-for-you intensity and number of reps/sets.
Stick with it, and you will achieve the results you desire.
Eduardo Dias, For Health, For Fitness, For the Body You Want
Eduardo Dias is a personal trainer and nutritional advisor based in Toluca Lake, CA. eduardodias.com