Sets, Reps and Rest: is there a magic number?

September 30 2015

A common question that athletes ask their strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches is ‘What’s the best number of repetitions to complete?’ And the reply is generally, ‘What’s your training goal?’ The challenge is that there is no magic number of set repetitions to complete that will cover all your fitness objectives. Duncan French is Technical Lead of Strength and Conditioning Coaching at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) and we spoke to him about matching your sets and reps to best meet your specific goals – from increasing your strength and size right through to general conditioning.

All training adaptation is 100% specific to the training programme you want to complete. What this means is that, if you intend to train for maximum strength, but your programme is biased towards strength endurance, you are very likely to improve more at strength-endurance tasks than at maximum-strength tasks. 

The table below is a general guide for how to organise your set and repetitions, including a few other variables to consider:

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Maximum Strength

Most sports need a degree of maximum-strength training. The ability for a muscle or group of muscle to overcome external load is hugely important for functional tasks, whether that is in a sporting context or in our daily lives.

Maximum-strength training requires a small number of repetitions (1-6) and to work near your limit with load and intent. 

This requires more time to recover (3-5 minutes or longer) due to the large load, but also to make sure you can maximally load within the next set.

Explosive Strength

Explosive-strength training is commonly termed power training. While sets, repetitions and rest are almost identical to the maximum-strength training, it is the speed at which the exercise is executed that separates them. 

It is critical to have the intention to move the object that you are lifting (or move your limbs) as quickly as possible. 

For example, aggressively throwing a medicine ball against a wall will help develop explosive strength. You can also develop heavier loaded explosive strength with barbell or dumbbell jumps. The intention of moving the bar very quickly is the same.

Hypertrophy

Hypertrophy training is used to increase muscular size and density. This is very fatiguing as there are high repetitions (10-25+) and a short recovery (1-3 minutes). It is the very nature of the fatigue which makes it a potent stimulus for muscle-size increase, but the loading still needs to be moderate to high. 

This type of work is often completed within the winter months of training, when athletes return from competition and recovery, and may have lost significant muscle mass during this period.

sets-reps

General Condition

The final area is general condition, which athletes often use to help restore muscle and joint function post-inactivity or injury. It also helps maintain a level of tolerance to training. 

The volume is often high (10-25+ reps with many sets), but the intensity is low. This allows you to complete this type of work more regularly than other training types.

The above information should give you an idea of how to organise your resistance training. Sessions can include multiple exercises from each of the groups or a single session focusing on the specific area. Following the guidelines will help you optimise your training adaptation and outcomes.