One of the most common workout questions fitness enthusiasts have is “How many reps should I do?” The shortest possible response with the most accuracy is: 4-5 reps to get stronger, 8-12 reps to build muscle, and 15-20 reps for endurance. The longer more accurate answer is that reaching your fitness goal will depend on a variety of factors including the order in which you use those rep ranges throughout the year, training frequency, nutrition, fitness level and the amount of weight used.
Let’s pretend you are someone who wants to get stronger, build muscle, improve endurance and get more athletic in general. To accomplish all of these goals, and thus be a healthy individual, you’ll need to utilize a concept called periodization. Periodization is the logical and systematic sequence of training styles in order to achieve peak performance at a specific point in time. In other words, it’s how you train year after year. To get the most out of training, it’s crucial to set up a yearly workout plan, during which the reps and sets will change over time.
Here’s how to form the shell of your all-around athletic workout plan.
YOUR YEAR OF TRAINING
To start designing your workout calendar, divide the year into four different sections: preparatory, pre-season, in season, and post-season. You’ll switch up your training during these times to achieve your best condition during the “season,” whether that means actually competing in a sport (eg: bodybuilding, CrossFit, obstacle racing, running) or just getting in fitness model shape.
This phase will be further divided into two goals: hypertrophy (muscle-building) and strength.
HYPERTROPHY: Use 50-75% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for 3-6 sets of 8-20 repetitions. If you’re more of an endurance athlete, focus on 15-20 reps at 50-60% 1RM. Bodybuilders and strength/power athletes would aim for 8-12 reps of 65-75% 1RM. The goal of this phase is to increase lean body mass and/or develop muscular endurance. The “or” means that you can alternate between hypertrophy and endurance workouts week after week, during the week, or even during the workout. Someone looking to get the best of both worlds would vary the intensity (weight) during this phase. The hypertrophy portion of this phase will last about 1 month.
STRENGTH: the strength section of the offseason has one goal: increase strength of the muscles involved in your sport. Squats, overhead presses, deadlifts, and bench presses are great exercises to include here. Use 80-95% 1RM for 2-6 sets of 2-6 reps for these compound lifts followed by hypertrophy work in the 6-8 rep range. This section will last another month. In total the offseason is about 2 months. Next is the pre-season.
The preseason, which lasts between 3-5 months, will focus even more on strength and power. You’ll use the muscle you’ve built to make more strength gains while also doing plyometric exercises to work on power. You’ll definitely want incorporate a “deload week” into the end of each month or perhaps every eight weeks where you’ll do fewer reps and sets and use lighter weights. Try 85-95% 1RM for 2-5 sets for 2-5 reps in the aforementioned compound barbell exercises. Within this phase, incorporate power exercises like box jumps, leaping bounds, lateral jumps, and power skips. For weighted power moves, use 30-70% 1RM for barbell snatches, barbell power cleans, smith machine bench press throws and other exercises.
After the preseason, you should be approaching peak strength, power and speed.
This competitive period will last months for team sports like football, basketball and volleyball but for a bodybuilder/powerlifter, true peaking occurs over the course of 1-2 weeks. The bodybuilder or powerlifter will generally decrease the loads they lift and decrease training frequency over time. For example, a powerlifter may use 1-3 reps for 1-2 weeks, varying weight from 50-90% 1RM depending on the day of the week and how they feel. Bodybuilders will be striking a perfect balance between enough cardio and adequate lifting to keep a pump leading into their show. Nutrition is of upmost importance during the 1-2 weeks leading into a physique contest.
As for team sports, there’s a maintenance approach where weight and sets/reps are varied within workouts, between workouts and between weeks to allow for proper recovery from games and practices. Try 75-85%1RM for 2-4 sets of 3-6 reps.
Lasting about a month, this phase is for recovering from injuries and generally taking it easy. It’s the time for group fitness classes, practicing new exercises, intramural sports, vacations, and trying out a new hobby. Don’t use loads more than 90% as you’ll be lifting heavy again during the offseason. Once your month off is done, repeat the phases starting with the offseason, then the preseason, in season and post-season again.
ABOUT FREQUENCY AND VOLUME
Now that you have a guideline to creating a workout program based on using sets, reps and weight to be more functional, let’s take a look at some general research. Volume is the number of reps multiplied by the number of sets. Relative volume (RV) is the number of sets x reps x intensity (%1RM). According to a 2016 Applied Physiology, Nutrition, & Metabolism study, it’s relative volume, not sets or reps, that accounts for fitness results. The study had participants train 3 times per week for 6 weeks using either low reps or high reps but the load varied each workout as follows:
Low Rep Group
Day 1: 8 sets of 6 reps at 75%1RM = 36 RV
Day 2: 9 sets of 4 reps at 80% 1RM = 28.8 RV
Day 3: 10 sets of 2 reps at 85% 1RM = 17 RV
Weekly total relative volume = 81.8
High Rep Group
Day 1: 4 sets of 12 reps at 60% 1RM = 28.8 RV
Day 2: 4 sets of 10 reps at 65% 1RM = 26.5 RV
Day 3: 5 sets of 8 reps at 70% 1RM = 28 RV
Weekly total relative volume = 82. 8
The result was both groups increased muscle size, strength and endurance similarly suggesting that the amount of reps per workout doesn’t matter as much as the combination of load, reps and weight does. This is just one small study but overall there can be a benefit of varying weight, sets and reps every workout to keep the body guessing.
Bodybuilders/strongman/powerlifters looking to gain size should start with a split that targets the chest, back, shoulders, quadriceps, and hamstrings twice per week.
When it comes to it, the amount of attention to detail you place on sets and reps will dictate just how precise your results will be. It’s important for trainers to design workout plans based on different phases that contain specific goals. Generally, absolute peak fitness isn’t sustainable throughout the year so a “peak period” is the goal of the year for elite athletes. Fitness enthusiasts should focus on being healthy by doing aerobic exercise and resistance exercise. Within the resistance exercises, strength, muscle-building and endurance will result in a well-rounded physique.