When you’re a fitness newcomer, you’ll likely come across enough unfamiliar workout terms to fill an entire dictionary. And it can feel nearly impossible to keep them all straight, especially when acronyms come into play (looking at you, 1-RM, HIIT, and AMRAP). But out of all the jargon, there are two pieces of vocabulary you should try your best to remember: repetitions and sets.
Continue reading to find the breakdown of repetitions vs. sets, plus the different types of repetitions and sets and how to utilize them in your own workout program.
What Are Repetitions?
Simply put, a repetition (aka rep) is the execution of an exercise’s movement pattern one single time, says Gerren Liles, a NASM-certified personal trainer with MIRROR and a lululemon ambassador. Typically, a rep involves three phases of muscle action: the eccentric portion (when the muscle lengthens), the isometric portion (when the muscle isn’t lengthening or shortening), and the concentric portion (when the muscle shortens), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). During one rep of a dumbbell biceps curl, for example, you’ll lower the weights down to your thighs (the eccentric phase), pause momentarily at full extension (the isometric phase), and then curl the weights back up to your shoulders (the concentric phase), he explains.
To help you meet specific fitness goals, you can slow down or speed up your repetitions, says Liles. Or, you can increase the time spent on the isometric phase of the movement. Here’s what you need to know.
By slowing down the speed of your biceps curl repetition, to continue with the previous example, you’ll increase the time under tension, or the amount of time your muscles spend contracting against an external resistance, says Liles. Upping this contraction time — specifically during the eccentric portion of the movement — increases fatigue in your working muscles, which may contribute to improvements in muscle strength and growth, he explains.
On the opposite side, accelerating your repetitions can assist you in cultivating dynamic strength, as you’ll be required to apply utmost force to execute the motion rapidly, remarks Liles.
You can also vary your repetitions by highlighting the isometric part of the movement, when tension is generated without elongating or shortening the muscle, as stated by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Just envision a squat hold: You’ll flex your knees and lower your hips to descend into a squat, then maintain this position for, let’s say, five seconds to a minute before standing back up. By prolonging the isometric phase of the movement — whether during a squat hold or another exercise — you’ll assist in enhancing your posture and joint stability, according to the NASM.
You can perceive sets as a method to group your repetitions. One set of biceps curls, for example, may comprise eight repetitions that you perform consecutively before taking a rest break, says Liles. The customary approach is to perform multiple sets of a particular exercise before moving on to the next, known as the established exercise order by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). However, it’s not the exclusive way to organize your workouts. Here, is an overview of the most prevalent types of sets to incorporate into your fitness routine.
Instead of focusing on a single exercise, a supersets entails two exercises that target opposing muscle groups, as per ACE. For instance, you might perform eight repetitions of a dumbbell chest press, then immediately execute eight repetitions of bent-over rows. By alternating between two opposing muscle groups, your muscles will recuperate more rapidly between sets. “When one muscle group is being contracted, its functional opposite relaxes, reducing the need for a break or rest time between exercises,” Edem Tsakpoe, the head trainer at Manhattan Exercise Co. in New York City, previously stated to Shape. Additionally, this technique can contribute to encouraging hypertrophy (also known as muscle growth), as per the NSCA.
A combined set is quite similar to a superset, but instead of selecting exercises that engage opposing muscle groups, you’ll utilize ones that target the same muscle groups, as described by ACE.
Think: a barbell bench press into a push-up. This kind of set increases the intensity of the workout and exhausts one muscle group at a time, Tsakpoe previously elaborated. Similar to supersets, compound sets are frequently employed to promote muscle growth, according to the NSCA.
During a session of pyramid sets, you’ll challenge your muscles with different loads and varying rep ranges for a specific exercise. For the initial set, you’ll complete a high number of reps using a light weight. Then, you’ll decrease the number of reps, increase the weight, and proceed to the next set. This process is repeated for each subsequent set, as shared by Tina Tang, a certified personal trainer and strength coach in Jersey City, New Jersey. Alternatively, reverse pyramid sets are also an option. This technique involves starting with a heavy weight and low reps, gradually reducing the weight, and increasing the reps with each set. Research indicates that this method not only adds variety to your strength workout but also enhances muscular strength and growth.
Drop sets aim to exhaust your muscles completely, without any rest breaks between sets. To begin, perform as many reps as possible using the heaviest weight you can handle. Then, immediately switch to a lower weight and complete another set for as many reps as your muscles can manage. If you proceed to a third set, transition to an even lighter weight and push through as many reps as possible until muscle failure. Natalie Ribble, a certified personal trainer and body-neutral strength coach in Seattle, explains that while this technique helps build muscle and accelerates workouts, it is typically favored by advanced lifters who have hit a plateau in their progress.
During an “as many reps as possible” (AMRAP) set, you rely on the clock rather than keeping track of reps to determine when to conclude your set. This approach is commonly used for cardio-based exercises like burpees or jumping jacks, according to Liles. For instance, instead of focusing on a fixed number of reps, beginners may perform high knees for 30 seconds. As strength and endurance improve, the duration can be increased to 45 seconds, then a minute, gradually raising the time. Monitoring the number of reps completed in each 30-second set can provide insights into changes in cardiovascular endurance over time.
Incorporating complex sets into your routine challenges both your strength and power simultaneously.
With this advanced method, you will initially execute a few repetitions of a exercise focused on strength with a weight that is heavy, have a brief respite, and then proceed with a handful of repetitions of a exercise that uses the same movement pattern, in accordance with ACE. For instance, you could undertake four to six squats using a barbell, take a break for 30 seconds, and then perform five to eight explosive jumps while squatting.
In a pre-comprehensive set, you’ll first engage in one or two exercises that tire out your auxiliary muscles — the muscles that assist your primary muscles (the main movers for a given exercise) when they become fatigued or when the external force increases, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Then, you’ll perform a compound exercise. Since your auxiliary muscles will be fatigued, you can focus more exclusively on working the primary muscles. For instance, you might start with a set of triceps extensions and lateral raises, followed by shoulder presses, as suggested by ACE.
Also known as rest-pause sets, cluster sets are an advanced strength-training technique that involve taking brief rest breaks of 10 to 30 seconds between each repetition, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). These short pauses are believed to allow the replenishment of phosphocreatine (a molecule that aids in the production of energy) and may enable you to perform higher-quality reps throughout the rest of your set, as explained by the NSCA. Moreover, this technique may help you generate more power with each repetition compared to traditional sets, as research suggests that the additional rest time can help reduce fatigue.
How Many Reps and Sets Should You Do?
The number of repetitions you should complete in each set depends on your goals, according to Liles. As a general guideline, if you want to build muscular endurance (which allows you to perform for extended periods of time), you should aim for a high number of reps using lighter weights. Conversely, if you wish to increase hypertrophy (muscle growth), the NSCA recommends performing fewer reps with a moderately heavy weight.
To get more precise, contemplate these recommendations for beginners from the NSCA. Just remember these are overall directives, and you should only execute the number of reps you can accomplish with proper form.
- Power: 2 to 4 repetitions
- Strength: 2 to 6 repetitions
- Hypertrophy: 8 to 12 repetitions
- Muscular endurance: 10 to 15 repetitions
Irrespective of your goals, as a novice, you’ll typically adhere to one to three sets in standard exercise sequence (read: performing all sets of one particular exercise before you move on to the next movement). Then, you can add on additional sets and try different set variations, suggested below, as you become more advanced, according to the NSCA.
And remember, rest periods are important. If you’re aiming to enhance muscular endurance, you’ll keep your breaks to a minimum. But if you’re seeking hypertrophy, your rest intervals will be slightly longer. “You want to give yourself enough time to recover so your muscle fibers can rebuild and you can exert maximal effort once again,” says Liles. So what does that look like in practice? Check out the guidelines below for suggested rest period times and set techniques for all fitness levels.
- Power: Standard exercise sequence for beginners and intermediate exercisers; intricate sets and cluster sets for the pros; two to five minutes of rest between each set
- Strength: Standard exercise sequence for beginners and intermediate exercisers; cluster sets and intricate sets for the pros; two to five minutes of rest between each set
- Hypertrophy: Standard exercise sequence for beginners; super sets and drop sets for intermediate exercisers; compound sets for the pros; 30 to 90 seconds of rest between each set
- Muscular endurance: Standard exercise sequence for all fitness levels; 30 seconds of rest between each set
The Takeaway On Reps and Sets
When it comes to fulfilling your specific fitness goals, the number of repetitions and types of sets you complete for a given exercise is key. And keeping track of these statistics can also demonstrate how your fitness is progressing over time, which can be incredibly motivating, says Jamie Carbaugh, C.P.T., a weight-inclusive personal trainer
I endeavor to urge individuals to discover alternative focal points besides the scale, measurements, or progression photos so they can cultivate an enduring connection with physical fitness that surpasses aesthetics,” she clarifies. “That is the reason why I advocate for keeping track of other numbers [such as repetitions, sets, or weight used]. They will adhere to the exercise regimen because they are observing alternative methods of progress.”
Undoubtedly, devising your own exercise program with the aforementioned information can feel overwhelming. Therefore, do not hesitate to engage in a conversation with a certified personal trainer or fitness expert who can collaborate with you to help you achieve your objectives, says Liles. “If you have the means to either seek professional assistance or have some resources readily available to guide you in programming and executing movements correctly, I would highly recommend that.