Beginner lifting series: Sets and reps

Beginner lifting series: Sets and reps

In part one, I covered the number of days you should be training. In part two, we looked at what exercises should make up the base of your workouts (squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses) and what exercises should naturally complement these (rows, presses, single side training, other compound movements). Now that you know what to do, and when, today I will talk about how many repetitions and sets you should be performing of each exercise.

Assuming you are a complete beginner, let’s first break down the difference between a repetition and a set. A repetition is how many times you lift the weight consecutively, while the number of sets is how many times you repeat all of the repetitions. Consider the standard 3 x 8 protocol; this means you are performing three sets of eight repetitions, for a total of 24 repetitions. Generally, as the number of reps increases, the number of sets decreases, and vice versa.ย Ideally, your workout will consist of 20-25 sets in total. Unless you’re on steroids, don’t do more than 30 sets.

Repetitions are the single most important variable you can modify in your training:

  • If your main goal is improving strength, keep your reps below 6. Because you are doing less reps, you can do more sets (5+).
  • For hypertrophy (increased muscle size), keep your reps between 6 and 12 and your sets between 3 and 5.
  • To improve your muscular endurance, perform 12-15+ repetitions, but only 2-3 sets.
  • High repetitions will make you tone up, but low repetitions will make you bulky. HA. Just kidding. This is a complete myth, and if anything it is the opposite – high repetitions exert more of an effect on your cardiovascular system, and don’t do much for building muscle (which creates that ‘toned’ look). But high reps are still important in the long run, as I explain below.

If you are a beginner, I always recommend targeting muscular endurance first. There’s no point in trying to improve your one rep max if your muscles have never lifted anything heavy before. I typically recommend 6-12 weeks of a higher volume program to start with, where your muscles can get used to the feel of a weight and build some stamina.

Not this kind of high rep training!

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There are certain exercises for which the guidelines above do not apply to. Once again, it comes back to those main compound lifts. This will vary from person, but I generally always perform five or less repetitions of the compound exercises. However, I would not have been able to reach this point without a solid base of muscular endurance. I wrote a post earlier this year (which I highly recommend you read if you doubt the effects of high rep training) about how I improved my bench press following months of high rep training.

I will warn you in advance: I find high rep training extremely boring. If you are starting out, don’t be discouraged if you don’t enjoy it. Keep your rep range for the main lifts low to keep things interesting, and remember that there is a reason why high volume is necessary in the beginning.

Deadlifts are the exception: 99 per cent of the population should never need to perform more than eight reps of this exercise per set.

Keep the reps low during deadlifts

Once you have completed one or two phases of building muscular endurance, I usually recommend incorporating pyramid training – which gives you the best of the strength, hypertrophy and endurance worlds. I’m a big fan of this method of training, and it is still how I approach my training to this day. Pyramiding involves gradually increasing the weight after each set while simultaneously decreasing the number of repetitions. For example, your first set of squats might be 15 repetitions at 30kg, your second set is 10 repetitions at 40kg, and your third set is 5 reps at 50kg.

To give you an idea of how I put this into practice, I perform my main lifts first – generally for 4-5 sets of 5 or less repetitions. I then move into other compound exercises such as split squats, hip thrusts, barbell rows, push ups and so on at a more moderate rep range of 8 to 10. For anything that is strictly an isolation exercise, such as lat raises, bicep curls or leg extensions, I keep my rep range higher at 10 to 15.

Reverse pyramiding involves starting at a high weight and working down, but I do not recommend that approach for beginners as it has a higher risk of injury.

Last week I wrote a post about choosing an initial weight to lift. To remind you, the last two to three repetitions should be a real struggle. If you’re performing an eight rep set but could easily do 12 or more reps, you’re not lifting heavy enough. Weight lifting is not supposed to be easy: if you’re not fighting to finish the last rep, you’re not doing it right.

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The great thing about being a newbie is your body will adapt and progress extremely quickly. I wish I could see as many gains now as I did when I first started lifting. If you have been lifting for less than six months, you should be able to increase the weight on most exercises at least every other week.

What rep range do you like to follow?

PS. I’m planning on doing one more beginner post, so please let me know if you have any remaining questions!

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