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Beginners Guide to Sets, Repetitions, and Rest Intervals

Build Your Workout for Best Results

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Updated November 15, 2012

Pullups

Pullups

(c) Paul Rogers / Cooloola Fitness

Sets and repetitions are the basis of weight training programs. You need to know what they mean and how to mix and match them for best effect for your goals.

Sets and Repetitions

A repetition (rep) is one completion of an exercise: one deadlift, one bench press, one arm curl. A set is a group of repetitions. For example, 8 repetitions for 1 set of bench presses. The rest interval is the time between sets, although various exercises have minor rest between reps. A 1RM or repetition maximum is your personal best or the most you can lift once in a single repetition of an exercise. Then, 12RM is the most you can lift for 12 repetitions. For example:

Barbell Overhead Press, 50 pounds 3 X 10 RM, 60 seconds

That would mean 3 sets of 10 (maximum) presses with a weight of 50 pounds incorporating 60 seconds rest in between sets. How many reps, sets and what rest time is best for your goals? Here’s how it works in broad terms. The finer details depend on your goals and current fitness.

  • Strength training uses the most weight, least number of repetitions and longest rest. This optimizes strength development.
  • Hypertrophy, muscle size or bodybuilding training utilizes lighter weights, more repetitions and less rest time.
  • Strength endurance has less weight again, with more repetitions and even less rest.
  • Power training involves somewhat lighter weights (than strength training) and longer rests while concentrating on the speed of execution the lift.

In general terms, rest between sets is in this range:

  • Strength - 2-5 minutes
  • Muscle Hypertrophy - 30-60 seconds
  • Muscle Endurance - 30-60 seconds
  • Power - 1-2 minutes

These are general principles, yet you can devise many combinations of sets, reps, rest and exercise type to find the best combination. A qualified strength and conditioning trainer can help you plan the best program for you.

Speed of Exercise Execution

Contraction velocity is the speed at which an exercise is performed and this also has an effect on training goals and results. Here are general guidelines.

How to Calculate Repetition Maximums (RM)

According to the US National Strength and Conditioning Association, the theoretical distribution of repetitions against a percentage of 1RM, your maximum lift, is distributed as follows, using the bench press as an example:

  • 100% of 1RM -- 160 pounds -- 1 repetition
  • 85% of 1RM -- 136 pounds -- 6 repetitions
  • 67% of 1RM -- 107 pounds -- 12 repetitions
  • 65% of 1RM -- 104 pounds -- 15 repetitions
  • 60% of 1RM -- 96 pounds -- warmup reps

This suggests you should be able to do 1 lift at your personal best, 6 lifts at 85 percent of your personal best and 15 lifts at 65 percent of your 1RM personal best – and with percentages for any lift in between.

Don’t consider this an absolute reference; it’s a guide and a basis from which to choose appropriate weights for working out in conjunction with the information on sets and reps above.

Training Programs

A training ‘program’, is a schedule of type of exercise, frequency, intensity and volume -- whether for weight training or any other fitness training.

Below is a list of variables that can be adjusted in any weight training program. Almost unlimited combinations are possible, most of which will be functional at some level but not necessarily ideal for your immediate goals.

  • Exercise selection
  • Weight or resistance
  • Number of repetitions
  • Number of sets
  • Velocity of movement
  • Time between sets
  • Time between sessions (training days/week)
  • Time between periodization cycles

In all, you have a lot to choose from when starting your weight training workout journey. Get good advice, progress slowly, and be consistent and patient.

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