Strength Training Repetitions Sets

Have you ever asked yourself, whether 3 repetitions are better than 6 and if 5 sets will give you greater gains than 3 sets?

Well, sorry, to be frank, it all doesn’t matter until you understand how all factor interplay with each other.

How Many Repetitions In Strength Training

Depending on your desired goal, what you want the outcome of your training to be, you chose the repetitions or repetition range.

Remember, there is an inverse relation between repetitions and intensity, which means the higher the intensity the lesser the repetitions that can be performed. A recommendation on repetitions should always be related to the exercise intensity.

So, what could be possible training goals and how to train for it?

How many repetitions if I want to become stronger?

When your goal is to become stronger, you should perform 1 – 3 repetition at 85% of your 1RM (1 repetition maximum, the weight that can be lifted correctly for 1 repetition).

This type of training is classified as maximum strength training.

How many repetitions if I want to become bigger?

If you are looking to increase size or better build some muscle, you should perform 4 – 6 repetitions at 80 – 85% of your 1RM or 6 – 12 repetitions at 65 – 80% of your 1RM.

I have always been confused with these recommendations, essentially there are two distinct adaptations when it comes to hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Functional hypertrophy (or myofibrillar hypertrophy / myofibrillar growth) refers to the growth of the muscle via increases in the active contractile tissue of the muscle. These adaptations go along with increases in strength and is trained with higher intensities and lower repetitions (4 – 6 repetitions at 80 – 85% 1RM).

Non-functional hypertrophy (or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy/ sarcoplasmic growth) refers to the growth of the muscle via increases of the non-contractile portions of the muscles due to an increase in glycogen stores and higher water retention in the muscle. The adaptations typically go along with fewer increases in strength (due to the increases in non-contractile portions) and is trained with lower intensities and higher repetitions (6 – 12 repetitions at 65 – 80% 1RM).

But be careful, the world isn’t black & white! Understanding the concept behind these differences is important! If you are interested in more in-depth information on the topic of myofibrillar hypertrophy vs sarcoplasmic hypertrophy read this excellent piece from Strengtheory Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy: The Bros Were Probably Right

How many repetitions if I want to endure longer?

Strength training doesn’t only help, if you want to become stronger or bigger, it’s also for those who want to endure longer or increase their fatigue resistance in sports that last for longer durations, such as distance running, road cycling or mountain biking, swimming, etc

If you are looking to endure efforts, you should perform more than 15 repetitions at 60% of your 1RM or less.

How many repetitions if I want to be more powerful?

If you are interested in becoming more powerful and run faster, jump higher, hit harder, etc there are several different methods you can use and each method has slightly different adaptations. As we discussed in the article The 101 of Power Training for Beginners there is a broad range of intensity ranging from 0% 1RM up to 70% or 80% 1RM. However, the repetition should be kept low, around 2 – 6 repetitions.

‘The last repetition is the most important repetition!’

You probably heard that, since it seems to be common wisdom around the whole world. The idea behind that statement is that only in the last repetition when you are faced with making the repetition or not making the repetition you work maximally against the load.

In order to answer that question it needs a more sophisticated consideration and we need to think whether we want to train with so-called ‘RM-loads’ or not?

RM-loads refers to repetition maximum loads and means a 3RM, for example, is a load that allows you to do 3 repetitions, the fourth repetition is not possible. So, the typical characteristic of RM-loads is, that the last repetition is the last possible repetition.

RM-loads have certain advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages of RM-loads is a high muscular tension until the end of the set and high muscular fatigue, which provides a high stimulus for hypertrophy. So if you want to increase size training with RM-loads can be helpful.

The disadvantages of RM-loads are that force and power output decrease from one repetition to the next, so if you are interested in becoming more powerful, working with RM-loads might not be the best choice.

It has been shown that when working with RM-loads the hormonal profile changes. Resulting in increases of stress hormones (such as cortisol) and decreases in testosterone and growth hormones. These changes in the hormonal profile are not beneficial for increases in strength and power.

What is the bottom-line?

If you are an athlete or training like an athlete and want to become stronger, more powerful or endure longer, working with RM-loads is not the best choice.

The missing link in the strength training repetition discussion

When discussing repetitions and how many repetitions to do in strength training, the discussion normally revolve around the number of repetitions per set, while very little thought is spent on the total repetitions performed for an exercise and for a training session.

The total amount of repetitions refers to adding up all repetitions and can then be segmented into the total repetitions performed for each exercise and total repetitions performed for a session.

Interpreting the total number of repetitions can be a bit tricky since not all exercise are either equally important or have the same impact on the body.

With regards to importance, a training usually consists of main strength training exercises and assistance strength exercises or auxiliary strength exercises. Some also go a level deeper and have 3 or more different categories.

With regards to the impact on the body, a total muscle mass involved in an exercise, the bigger the impact on the body. So a Back Squat has a bigger impact on the body than a Biceps Curl (if both are done with the same relative intensity).

When looking at the total repetitions per exercise or session, it’s important to put the total repetitions in relation to the exercise intensity. The higher the exercise intensity, the lower the total repetitions.

IntensityRepetitions per setTotal repetitions per session
95% 1RM or above1 – 215 – 20
90% – 95% 1RM2 – 320 – 30
85 – 90% 1RM3 – 530 – 50

 

This table serves as a guideline and the total repetition can change depending on the season and the goal of the training.

 

How Many Sets In A Strength Training

A few years ago, while I was in my studies a debate was held whether one set is sufficient for training adaptations. This debate was a re-born debate that originated from a starting point in the late 1970s, Arthur Jones, the founder of the strength training equipment manufacturer Nautilus started the discussion that one strength training set to complete exhaustion is equally effective or more effective than multiple training sets. The whole controversy started by Nautilus included a few other controversial points, such as strength training machines are  more effective than free weights.

Nevertheless, could Arthur Jones and Nautilus prove with a few athletes that their single set approach yields good results. These results were measured in gains in muscle mass and decrease in body fat.

Since gains in muscle mass or muscle hypertrophy are just one little aspect of strength training and not always applicable if you are an athlete or work with athletes, these early studies need to be treated with caution.

Later in the early 2000s when I was in the middle of my studies, new research came out comparing single set training versus multiple set training. Some of these studies could show that single set training leads to greater adaptations and gains in muscle mass and strength.

Whether these results prove that one single set is sufficient and makes training with multiple sets obsolete as some researchers claimed can be doubted. As we discussed before, training to exhaustion with RM-loads is just one of the possibilities we have and not always the best choice. In our training with athletes, very rarely we work to exhaustion since we are much more interested in

  • maintaining high force output high power output throughout the set
  • contraction velocity
  • the maximum voluntary effort

What the results of the studies do indicate, is that one set can be sufficient to maintain strength levels for a certain period of time. This can be very important in competition periods, instead of dropping strength training completely as it is a common practice in ay sports, the volume could be reduced to a minimum. The benefits of that are that the athletes wouldn’t have to deal with the negative consequences once they start to take-up the strength training again, for example, substantial loss of strength levels and severe muscle soreness which can impair quality training for a few days to weeks.

Bottom-line, ‘one set doesn’t fit all’.

Training volume and training intensity, as well as modulating training volume and training intensity, are the most important factors in planning the strength training. If we would now reduce the training sets to one single set we would limit the ability to modulate training volume substantially.

So, how does the modulation of training volume look?

One of the easiest and most straightforward approaches comes from Charles Poliquin who started classifying periods into ‘Accumulation’ and ‘Intensification’. While accumulation is geared towards higher training volumes with lower intensities, intensification is characterized by an increase in training intensity followed by a reduction of training volume.

So, the question still stands out, how many sets do you need to do in a strength training?

Let’s expand on the table from above and have a look how this can unfold in practice.

IntensityRepetitions per setTotal repetitions per session
95% 1RM or above1 – 215 – 20
90% – 95% 1RM2 – 320 – 30
85 – 90% 1RM3 – 530 – 50

A typical training session for intensities of 95% 1RM or above could look like this:

ExerciseIntensitySetsRepsTotal reps
Power Clean95% 1RM515
Back Squat95% 1RM428
RDL95% 1 RM326

This maximum strength training session has 19 total repetitions (5 + 8 + 6 = 19).

If we now take the same session structure and reduce the training intensity to 90% of the 1RM, we can gradually increase the training volume by increasing repetitions.

The same session could look then like this.

ExerciseIntensitySetsRepsTotal reps
Power Clean90% 1RM5210
Back Squat90% 1RM4312
RDL90% 1 RM339

This maximum strength training session has 31 total repetitions (10 + 12 + 9 = 31).

If we would now further decrease the training intensity on two of the exercises, we could consequently increase the training volume by a combination of adding sets and reps.

This training session could look like this.

ExerciseIntensitySetsRepsTotal reps
Power Clean90% 1RM5210
Back Squat85% 1RM5420
RDL85% 1 RM4416

This maximum strength training session has 31 total repetitions (10 + 20 + 16 = 46).

These examples show the interplay of sets, reps and training intensity and how the modulation of one of the factors will influence one of the other factors.

 

Holy Grail Conclusions

The selection of repetitions and sets depends on the desired training goal and cannot be viewed in isolation.

Training volume (sets and reps) is dependent on training intensity and an increase in intensity will consequently demand a decrease in training volume.

Understanding the interplay of training volume and intensity will allow you to plan your strength training more effectively and result in better training adaptations, whether it increases in strength, size, power or strength endurance.

 

More information on strength training

The Fundamentals of Strength Training 

The Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for Beginners

The Importance Weight Training Has On Power

Power Training vs Strength Training – what is the difference?

What is Strength Training

How Strength Training works

Why Strength Training is important

Why Strength Training is important for athletes

How often should you do Strength Training

How long should a Strength Training Session last

How Strength Training works – accommodating resistance

How often should you do Strength Training to lose weight

How many Strength Training sessions per week

How to do Strength Training at home

How much Strength Training

or the Strength Training video library