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Why Different Set and Rep Ranges Are Key to Achieving Your Goals

Are you interested in lifting to achieve a specific goal, but you’re not sure how many reps or sets to do or how much weight you should lift to move you toward your goals? In this article, we’ll discuss some key differences in training for the following goals:

  1. Increasing maximum strength
  2. Gaining muscle size (hypertrophy)
  3. Improving muscular endurance
  4. Gaining strength and size
  5. Gaining size and improving muscular endurance

Resistance training is so often lumped into one big category, and associated with just one main result — gaining muscle size. This belief may lead some to shy away from resistance training, while encouraging those who actively seek out building muscle.

Either way, it’s important to know that although getting stronger and gaining muscle mass are certainly related and can happen together, it’s also possible for a muscle to get stronger without getting bigger.

You just need to know how to adjust the program to work toward your specific goals. You may already know that resistance training programs (and individual workouts) are designed using specific training variables, including sets, reps, load/intensity, frequency, and rest times.

Understanding how to make the right adjustments to these variables can help fine-tune your training to focus on one of many different specific goals, all using the same tool (resistance training) to achieve different results.

Training Variables

Some of the biggest key differences between most programs occur in two main areas: volume and intensity. Volume refers to the total number of sets and reps performed, and intensity describes how much resistance (weight) is being used on a given exercise.

Volume and intensity are equally important variables and are inversely related — as volume increases, load must decrease to allow for the additional workload, and as the training load increases, volume decreases to accommodate the additional weight. For example, you would select a heavier weight to lift for a set of 5 reps than you would use for a set of 20 reps of the same movement.

Volume

Training volume takes into account both sets and reps, and a high training volume can potentially come from either one. It’s possible to use a moderate rep range but perform a greater number of sets, and also to perform a smaller number of higher rep sets. Both of these result in a moderate to higher volume. For example:

  • 5 sets of 6 reps = 30 total reps
  • 3 sets of 12 reps = 36 total reps

Intensity (Load)

There are two ways to express intensity (load):

  • As a percentage of a person’s one-repetition maximum (1RM)
  • As a given repetition range

A person’s one-repetition maximum (one-rep max or 1RM) is the amount of weight they can lift for only one rep while maintaining an acceptable technique. An example of using this to express intensity (load) is as follows:

If your one-repetition maximum on barbell deadlift is 150 pounds, and you’re deadlifting 120 pounds, the intensity of the load you’re lifting is 80 percent of your 1RM:

  • 120 pounds/150 pounds = 0.8 or 80%

An example of expressing intensity of load in a given repetition range is as follows:

  • Heavy intensity/load = 1‐5 RM (approximately 87 to 100 percent 1RM)
  • Moderate intensity/load = 6‐12 RM (approximately 67 to 85 percent 1RM)
  • Low intensity/load = 15+ RM (<65 percent 1RM)

If you already have a good idea of your 1RM, you can use percentages to determine how much weight to use for each set. However, if you don’t know your 1RM, the following intensity of load scale table can help guide you to choose a weight based on how heavy it feels to you and how many reps you can perform with the weight.

As we’ve mentioned, the more reps there are in a set, the lighter the weight will need to be to allow for the increase in volume, and in sets with fewer reps, the heavier the weight can be.

Using the table, if you select a weight that feels moderately heavy and you are able to complete 10 to 12 reps, that weight is likely 70 to 75 percent of your 1RM. Similarly, if you select a weight that feels very heavy, and you are able to complete 3 to 6 reps with it, that weight is likely closer to 85 to 90 percent of your 1RM. The more experience you have in lifting relatively heavier weights, the easier it becomes to select appropriate training weights.

Adaptation Doesn’t Happen Without Sufficient Challenge

One common factor in all training programs is that in order to make progress, the body has to be challenged appropriately, which you can do using the specific rep ranges recommended for each of the different goals discussed in this article. It’s important to remember that for all rep ranges, you should still feel challenged toward the last few reps of the set.

Just performing the correct number of reps is not enough — the resistance has to be enough to challenge the body and generate change.

It’s not necessary to train to failure to provide a sufficient training stimulus — in fact it’s generally a good guideline to leave one or two reps “in the tank” — but in order to elicit progress, you shouldn’t complete a set feeling as if you could have continued for many more reps.

This principle also applies to making the appropriate changes in your program as you progress. Training volume recommendations are usually given as a set and rep range — and results can generally be achieved anywhere within that range. If you’re working on the lower end of the set and/or rep range, then adding more sets or reps to the workout is a great way to progress.

If, however, you’re already working at the top end of the volume guidelines, then work on increasing the intensity (load) by adding more resistance. This might mean that you initially perform fewer reps or sets with the heavier weight, but as long as you’re still working within the recommended guidelines for your goal, then this is also great way to progress.

Strength: The Gateway to Achieving Your Goals

Building strength is a key component of success in achieving all fitness-related goals — including goals that are focused on endurance.

In fact, resistance training is the foundation by which all other training becomes productive. Strength comes in many shapes and sizes, and training will look different depending on your goal.

“Heavy” is relative and individual, but at the basic level, you must lift progressively more weight to change the quality, appearance, or performance of a muscle. No matter your goal, work on increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting in training — even when you’re lifting in a higher volume range.

The bottom line: Progress depends on challenging muscle tissues with progressively heavier weights. Work to your own capacity within the rep range specified for your goal and use volume and intensity to advance your training program.

Specific Training Goals

As you can see in the table below, on one end of the spectrum, training for max strength requires heavier loads (intensity) and lower volume, while muscular endurance takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum with low intensity (load) and high volume. Hypertrophy training sits in the middle, using moderate intensity (load) and moderate to high volume. Simply adjusting these variables can drastically change the outcome! Choosing the right variables for your goals is essential to your progress.

Increasing Maximum Strength

Training for maximum strength strength takes resistance training to the next level. This is the type of training program that might be followed by a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter, and can be used by anyone with a strength foundation who wants to focus on being able to lift as much weight as possible.

Even though this type of training leads to increases in your one rep max (1RM), most training usually involves lifting relatively heavier weights for multiple reps (2 to 6), not single reps. Training can be challenging, but you don’t need to feel as if you’re lifting your max in order to increase strength.

A max strength program will typically specify one or more main lifts for the workout that will use the main lift set and rep guidelines as described below, and in the table above. The rest of the program will include accessory lifts, which use a lower intensity and higher volume — resembling the range used for hypertrophy training.

If you’re interested in gaining strength but not in gaining size, don’t skip the accessory work, as it is still important. Instead, simply work toward the lower end of the volume range for the accessory lifts (i.e., 2 to 6 sets of 6, keeping track of how your body responds, and adjusting accordingly).

Basic guidelines for volume:

  • Main lifts: 2 to 5 reps per set and 3 to 6 work sets for each movement
  • Accessory lifts: 6 to 12 reps per set and 2 to 4 sets for each movement

Basic guidelines for intensity:

  • Main lifts: 80 to 95 percent of the 1RM (heavy to very heavy)
  • Accessory lifts: 60 to 85 percent of the 1RM (moderate to heavy)

Gaining Muscle Size

Hypertrophy training is what is often referred to as “bodybuilding,” and the focus is on gaining muscle size. Stimulus for growth comes from using sufficient loads at moderate to higher volumes — usually using a moderate to higher rep range and a large number of sets per exercise. In addition, when training for hypertrophy, most programs typically include multiple exercises per body part within the same workout — increasing the total workload (and total volume).

Hypertrophy training should utilize a wide range of loads. Moderate loads are often referred to as the “bread and butter” of hypertrophy programs, as this range allows for adequate mechanical tension, volume, microtrauma, and metabolic stress. Heavier loads help increase overall strength, which can help increase the amount of weight that can be used on the higher rep sets — but on their own don’t usually provide enough overall volume and stimulation for changes in muscle size. Light loads allow for adequate metabolic stress but don’t provide enough mechanical tension. It’s important to use a variety of loads and set/rep ranges for maximum growth.

Basic guidelines for volume:

  • 6 to 12 reps per set and 3 to 6 work sets for each movement

Basic guidelines for intensity:

  • 60 to 85 percent of the 1RM (moderate to heavy)

Increasing Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is truly the combination of strength and endurance within a muscle. Muscular endurance training can improve the ability to deal with fatigue and the buildup of lactic acid, and involves a moderate to higher volume of work using higher repetitions per set (but not necessarily a large number of sets). The higher volume necessitates the use of lighter intensity (load). Utilizing low rest and things like circuits can help increase the effectiveness of muscular endurance training.

Basic guidelines for volume:

  • 10 to 20 reps per set and 2 to 3 work sets for each movement

Basic guidelines for intensity:

  • <70 percent of the 1RM (light to moderate)

Hybrid Goals

You may have more than one goal that you wish to pursue, and it’s possible to do so in a well-structured, sustainable way.

Gaining Strength and Size

Hypertrophy training can be beneficial for those looking to increase their max strength. A bigger muscle has more potential to be stronger than a small muscle, thus hypertrophy training can directly benefit max strength levels. Hypertrophy training can also help build tendon and ligament strength and size, making the body capable of handling greater training loads and volume, which is also important for increasing max strength.

It’s very important to closely monitor recovery when training for multiple goals, especially when those goals are strength and hypertrophy. The heavy loads used in max strength training really tax the central nervous system, and the volume of hypertrophy work significantly fatigues the muscular system. Ease into a combined program slowly and make sure you’re ready to handle concurrent high load and high volume work.

To help accommodate the additional workload when combining these goals, you might consider:

  • Planning your workouts so that some workouts within your week have a max strength focus, while others focus on hypertrophy (using the accessory lift guidelines) and don’t include a heavy lift. This can significantly help with recovery, which is crucial to making progress!
  • Slightly decreasing the intensity of your main lifts and doing fewer heavy workouts per week than in a dedicated max strength program.
  • Starting at the lower ends of both the volume and intensity ranges and if you’re recovering well, then progress over time.

Basic guidelines for volume:

  • Main lifts: 2 to 5 reps per set and 3 to 6 work sets for each movement
  • Accessory lifts: 6 to 12+ reps per set and 2 to 6 sets for each movement

Basic guidelines for intensity:

  • Main lifts: 80 to 95 percent of the 1RM (heavy to very heavy)
  • Accessory lifts: 60 to 85 percent of the 1RM (moderate to heavy)

Gaining Size and Improving Muscular Endurance

Training for both hypertrophy and muscular endurance can sometimes present a bit of a challenge. And while it’s possible to make some progress toward two different goals, be aware that when you train for more than one goal, progress toward either goal will be slower than it would be using a completely dedicated program toward that goal.

A simple way to pursue both goals would be to cycle back and forth between a dedicated hypertrophy program and a dedicated muscular endurance program (for three to six weeks each) using the recommendations for each of these goals above. This is an example of a nonlinear periodization model for a training program. This enables you to focus completely on one goal for a specified time period before turning your attention to your second goal.

Another option would be to incorporate both types of training into each week of your program. This is more of a daily nonlinear periodization model, and would only include the types of training you want to include in your program. For example, if you train four days a week, two days might be dedicated to muscular endurance and two days might be focused on hypertrophy.

Basic guidelines for volume:

  • Hypertrophy: 6 to 12 reps per set, 3 to 6 work sets
  • Muscular endurance: 10 to 20 reps per set, 2 to 3 work sets

Basic guidelines for intensity:

  • Hypertrophy: 60 to 85 percent of the 1RM (moderate to heavy)
  • <70 percent of the 1RM (light to moderate)

A message from GGS…

Understanding how to get more results in less time so you actually enjoy exercise and can have a life outside of the gym isn’t hard, you just have to understand the Blueprint and be willing to trust the process.


If you'd like to know:

  • How much you should exercise
  • What to do for exercise
  • How to put it all together into a plan that works for YOU

The good news? It's simpler than you think!

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About The Author: Ingrid Marcum

Ingrid Marcum, CSCS, is a successful multi-sport athlete with a great passion for teaching and coaching. Since 1997, Ingrid has been helping others reach their own fitness and athletic goals as a speaker, educator, strength & conditioning coach and movement specialist. To learn more about and from Ingrid, visit her website, and follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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