Read ahead for tips on picking how many reps and sets to do for your exercises.
One question that I will sometimes get from patients is about how many reps and sets of a particular exercise they should be doing. The answer is that it usually depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. In my particular setting, we are typically aiming to increase strength more than anything, so let’s talk about how to do that!
The basic rule of thumb for strength training, whether it be for squats, presses, deadlifts, etc. is to aim for heavier loads with less repetitions. Generally speaking to accomplish this, we want to be performing 3 to 5 sets of somewhere around five reps of our target movement.
The problem with this is that people will often pick loads that are too heavy, or end up doing additional sets and overexert themselves. While I will agree that it is sometimes okay to test your limits from time to time, training to failure seems to be less effective for gaining strength than maintaining moderate loads.
In order to keep our rep/set schemes in that moderate category, it is important to pay attention to a couple of things while exercising. One is called Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE and it ties into the other with is called Reps in Reserve or RIR. RPE is a scale that is personalized to the individual doing the lifting. What it asks you to do is assess the overall effort that you felt that a training session took and rate it on a scale from 1-10, with one being lowest to ten being the highest levels of effort. I usually like to keep this number no more than about a 6-8 for myself, starting on the lower in when beginning training new movements, or returning from injury and working my way up over time.
RIR is a bit different, as we want to focus more on it during each individual set. This metric is very helpful for guiding us to select the appropriate amount of weight for our exercises. Typically, when aiming for moderate training loads, I find it best to aim for a weight that would allow me to do somewhere between 5-7 reps each set, knowing that I could probably actually have done 7-9 of them if I needed to. In this instance, my RIR number would be 2, because I felt like I could do 2 more reps, but I cut it off early.
When focusing on these two things, it becomes clearer when it is time to start increasing loads with any particular movement, which leads to strength gains. Often what I find that people will do is that when an exercise starts to feel easier, they will just add more reps. While this may help with endurance, and is something you should do if that is the goal, when it comes to strength training, it is best to just use a heavier weight that brings you back to where 3-5 sets of 5-7 reps feels challenging again.
I also like using RIR during a workout to know if it is time to stop exercising for the day. What I will personally do is judge subsequent sets based on the first set. Once I can not hit that same number of reps with the same RIR of 2, I stop adding sets at that point. For example, if I were to do my first set of squats and I were able to hit 5 reps at a particular weight with 2 reps in reserve, I would aim to maintain that for the following sets. If say, on the 4th set, I can only do 2 reps and have 2 reps in reserve, I will discontinue squats for that day.
The cool things about all of this is that it also gives me a better indication of when I need to progress my exercises by either adding more weight, or changing the exercise all together. To me, if I am able to do 5 sets of 5 with 2 reps in reserve, and my overall effort of doing so in a given time frame is between 6-8 then I know it is time to move on. By using these metrics to build training schemes, the hope is that it keeps your body in the zone where we get adaptation to occur without over exerting ourselves. It also gives us a better framework for selecting loads, which can often be intimidating to folks.
When keeping these things in mind, you should be able to work out more consistently, which over time adds up to more training when compared to more intense sessions that could lead to missed days due to injury and/or fatigue. When we are able to train more frequently we more gradually increase strength, confidence in movement, and with any luck reduce pain and prevent injury!
Hope you found this to be helpful. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
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