DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO REPS, SETS, REST, AND TEMPO

A man squatting a barbell with another man spotting him from behind in side a Crossfit gym

Justin, I really have no idea what the hell I’m doing when it comes to reps, sets, rest, and tempo.

This is what a close friend asked after starting to work out again after a few months off. He’s been consistent but isn’t seeing much progress. I asked him what he’s been doing and this led to a 2-hour talk about the fundamentals of working out.

I’ve condensed that 2-hour talk into the definitive guide to reps, sets, rest, and tempo. You’ll learn the correct reps and sets for your goals. Plus, how long you should rest in between sets based on those goals. And why you should move weights slower every once in a while.

Let’s go!


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HOW MANY REPS?

It really depends on your goals. Are you looking to be able to move a house and just be strong as sh*@? Do you prefer a balance between strength gains and muscle-building?

  • Are you looking to add as much muscle as possible with not as much emphasis on strength?
  • Or are you looking to improve muscular endurance with limited strength and muscular gains?

There really is no wrong answer here. Just personal preference. It should be noted that the number of repetitions is the variable in the fitness equation that is adapted to most quickly. So a rule of thumb is to vary this often.

In order to ensure you are making continual progress towards transforming from Clark Kent to Superman progressive overload will be needed.

Without this, it’s virtually impossible to get stronger or build muscle. In order to get stronger, build, or maintain muscle – The stimulus has to be more than it is used to. If you do the same thing over and over again nothing will change.

There are multiple ways you can do this.

  • Intensity: Lifting more weight in your next training session.
  • Volume: Doing more reps, sets, or exercises.
  • Frequency: Doing more training sessions than the week before.
  • Tension: Increasing the duration of each repetition within an exercise. For example, taking 5 seconds to lower yourself in a push-up.
  • There are just a few

So keep a journal handy to track your progress and pay special attention for when it’s time to switch it up.

DIFFERENT REP RANGES FOR DIFFERENT RESULTS

Your goals will determine the rep ranges you use. I recommend mixing these up every 6 to 12 weeks. Below is a brief outline of different rep ranges and how they help you.

1 TO 5 REPS

Typically used for maximal strength gains. If you’re looking to pick up Oak trees and throw them at someone I would highly suggest taking this approach. 1-5 reps are usually around 85% of your 1 rep maximum (1RM) in any given lift.

A good approach before starting any training routine may be to test yourself in a few of the basic movements in order to have some data to work with. If you are a novice lifter I would not suggest training in this rep range until your form is on point.

6 TO 8 REPS

This is a standard rep range for most to follow because it elicits a nice balance between building lean muscle and strength. 6-8 reps usually fall at about 79-84% of your 1RM. So if you have not already, think about testing those 1RM’s. Just make sure you have proper form and a partner on standby.

For female trainees worried about bulking up. You will not get bulky working in this rep range. Mix it in every once in a while. The fact is that your body does not have enough natural testosterone to make you bulky from moving heavyweights. 

9 TO 12 REPS

This is the rep range that the majority of trainees use. However, they train in this range with not much intensity. By that, I mean moving weight for 12 reps when they could have done 20. This rep range will usually be around 70-78% of your 1RM. This rep range will allow for optimal muscular development.

Rate of perceived exertion chart

If you are looking for serious body composition changes… aka… looking good naked then think about dabbling in this pool. With that said, don’t forget to experiment with rep ranges. Your body will adjust very quickly and those gains will start to decrease.

13+ REPS

This is usually anything under 70% of your 1RM. Most novice lifters can experience tremendous gains when working with these higher rep ranges. This is also an excellent rep range for beginners in order to develop proper form and control of the movements. Bodyweight movements will allow for rep ranges in the range. If you’re new to all of this think about starting with a bodyweight routine until you develop some muscular strength, coordination, and confidence.

Note: It is not necessary to find your 1RM to work within these rep ranges. An easy rule to follow when working in each rep range is that the last rep you do (say 8) should be difficult but not the last one you could do. It should feel like you “might” be able to do one more. “Might” is the keyword here.

Personal coaching

HOW MANY SETS? MORE REPS EQUALS FEWER SETS

If you are new to the superhero training game and have really never touched a weight before or much alone looked at one then 1-2 tough sets are usually enough to elicit a positive response. However, it will not take your body very long to get used to that.

Much like reps, varying your sets becomes important as well.

After introducing yourself to the weight training game 3-6 sets per exercise is usually sufficient to see consistent results.

MORE REPS = FEWER SETS

Your muscle needs to perform a certain amount of work in order to see results. Lifting a super heavyweight 2 times for 1 set is not going to do you much good. We also do not want to make sure we do not train a muscle too much. 15 reps of a bench press done with 15 sets are just not smart. You’re most likely just over-training a muscle group. When we look back at the rep ranges provided above a good protocol to follow can be seen here.

  • 1-5 reps: 4-6 sets
  • 6-8 reps: 3-5 sets
  • 9-12 reps: 3-4 sets
  • 13+ reps: 2-3 sets (depending on training maybe 4)

WHAT DOES 3 SETS OF 15 (10, 5, ETC…) REPS MEAN?

A set describes the group of repetitions completed for an exercise without stopping. For example, if you do 1 set of 15 squats right now, you just did 1 set of 15 reps. If you do 2 more sets of 15 reps that would be 3 sets total of 15 reps in each set.

Another example would be if you did 5 push-ups right now. That would be 1 set of 5 reps. If you rested a little and did 5 more reps you now would have done 2 sets of 5 reps.

IS 20 REPS TOO MUCH? DO 20 REPS BUILD MUSCLE

It depends.

All reps build muscle and when you add progressive overload to your workouts you will build muscle and strength. However, low load with higher reps has been shown to mostly improve muscular endurance. Lifting weight for 20 or more reps makes it difficult to lift heavier weight, which could make it difficult to get stronger and build muscle.

HOW MANY REPS IS BEST FOR TONING?

The only thing you can do with a muscle is to make it bigger or smaller. You can’t tone, shape, sculpt, or define it. But, I do understand what you mean when you ask those questions.

Basically toning, shaping, and any other term like this means building some amount of lean muscle and losing some fat so that you can see it. For example, muscle – fat = tone. It also equals shape, sculpt, and defined. 

A better question to ask yourself might be, “why are you not as toned as you’d like?” Do you not have enough muscle, too much fat, or a combination of the two? Once you’re clear on that you can fix the issue.

If it’s fat you need to lose read our free getting started with nutrition guide.

If it’s muscle you need to build read our free getting started with strength training guide.

WHAT REP RANGE IS BEST FOR FAT LOSS?

There really isn’t a “best one.” 

The most important part of fat loss is creating a calorie deficit over an extended period of time through your diet. Without this, it is virtually impossible to lose weight or body fat.

But, if you really want a rep range to shoot for 5 to 12 would be a good place to start.

IS 2 SETS ENOUGH?

Another annoying, it depends on answer.

But honestly, it really does the demand on you and your goals. Yes, 2 sets are enough if it gets you to exercise consistently. 2 sets are also enough if that’s all you have time for that day. 2 sets are enough if you’re doing high repetitions.

Multiple sets have been shown to produce improvements in building muscle. According to a study by Brad Schoenfeld, higher volumes of training (10+ sets per muscle a week) seem to maximize muscle growth. 

To keep this simple 2 to 5 sets for an exercise is a great place to start. If you’re doing fewer sets, do more reps with a challenging weight. If you’re doing more sets, do a lower to moderate amount of reps with a challenging weight.

HOW MUCH REST?

I would ask you what your superhero goal is.

  • Strength?
  • Endurance?
  • General hotness?

There are a ton of factors that come into play but let’s simplify it.

TRAINING FOR STRENGTH

Usually, training for strength means you are working in that 1-5 rep range. Resting 3-5 minutes after each set is ideal in order to allow for almost a full recovery.

STRENGTH AND MUSCLE BUILDING

The 6-8 rep range will usually call for a 2-3 minute rest interval.

MUSCLE BUILDING AND GENERAL HOTNESS

If you are looking to see major body composition changes and an overall improvement in your “Look good naked” quotient then resting 90 seconds – 2 minutes is where you’ll want to be. As you get comfortable with the exercises and your stamina improves you should be able to keep the rest between 60-90 seconds.

MUSCULAR ENDURANCE

13+ reps and your rest can be anywhere from 10 seconds to 90 seconds. You can vary this depending on how much time you have for your workout that day, your current conditioning, and your goals.

MORE REST FOR MORE STRENGTH

You will find that working out the larger muscles is much more taxing than the smaller ones. Performing a back squat is significantly more difficult than doing a dumbbell curl. More rest is often needed more after working for larger muscle groups as opposed to smaller ones.

TEMPO: HOW TO MOVE WEIGHTS

Ok, coming towards the tail end of this piece. I know it has been a long way. If you are still there, thanks for staying with me.

When I bring up-tempo most people look at me with a WTF face. You can achieve great results without focusing on temp but if you want to bust out of plateaus, or you have been training for many years, or want to enhance your gains and body composition then tempos should be used.

31X1  is an example of what a tempo may look like when training.

  • The first number (3) represents the lowering or eccentric part of the movement. Think, bringing the bar down to your chest while benching.
  • The second number (1) represents the amount of time you pause in the stretched position. Think about when you are squatting when performing the back squat.
  • The third number (X) represents the actual lift of the weight. So in the bench press, this would be how fast the bar moves from your chest to straight above you. In this case, the X means as fast as possible.
  • The fourth number (1) is the amount of time you pause at the top of the movement or contracted position. In the bench press, this would be when you are holding the weight above you.
  • To simplify things I recommend using a tempo of 31X1 for most exercises. Tempo can be a little confusing for many. Play with it a little.

Ok. So now that I have rambled on at around 1,500 words (it tells me at the bottom as I type) I want to hit you off with a couple of final tips.

  • Keep track of your workouts. Buy a notepad and write everything…EVERYTHING down. Exercises, reps, sets, rest, tempo
  • Keep a routine but don’t keep a routine. Come up with a plan then throw it away after 3-5 weeks. Your body is smart. Stick to your plan for a few weeks. Then switch it up yo!
  • Make it fun: Do exercises you enjoy. Workout with a friend. Just don’t bullshit. Workout at home, park, gym. Whatever. Just do it.
  • Plan: Prioritize your workouts. make them important. You wouldn’t cancel a meeting with your boss last-minute, would you? Don’t cancel this meeting with yourself.

I know some of this info can be a bit confusing. I am more than happy to explain anything you may need clarification on. Just contact me here.

Justin

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