Understanding the Numbers of Sets and Reps

When you’re starting to workout, sometimes it’s tough to make heads or tails of what all the numbers mean. And just like we’ve learned from splitting a bill or doing our taxes: numbers can be scary.

You should know something though. The numbers of reps and sets themselves don’t define the success of the workout itself. The numbers are just pathways to get you to the right type of muscle engagement. It’s just some pathways typically lead to better chances of success than others, and that’s why they’re repeated so often.

And that’s why, even if you don’t hit all 10 reps, you still can get the job done. You can do fitness.

That’s also why some people can seemingly check off all the boxes of the routine, yet don’t see any signs of improvement in strength or stamina. (Hint: probably not enough resistance.)

Let’s tackle the common rep/set builds and how they’ll most likely fit into providing the necessary resistance for muscle growth:

  • light weight with high reps
  • heavy weight with low reps
  • heavy weight with high reps
  • light weight with low reps

Light Weight with High Reps

When I talk about high reps, I’m referring to anything over 10. To me, this one is the most mainstream builds. It’s great for some of the smaller muscle groups. It’s typically the safest in its implementation. And because of that, it’s not surprising in its use when it comes to physical rehabilitation.

The downside is it can be “too safe” (too coddling). Somehow it’s been prescribed as the best way to “tone”– and that’s something very, very appealing to most lady lifters. But if you’re sticking to weights that are so light, you won’t be getting enough resistance.

If you’re sticking to weight that’s lighter than what you utilize on a daily functional basis (e.g. using a 3 pound dumbbell when you carry a 20 pound bag to class), you’re going to need way, way, way more reps than 15. It’s more likely you’ll need something 30+, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go into that high of a threshold of reps.

So what can you do to compensate for that lack of resistance?

Heavy Weight with Low Reps

Increasing the weight gives opportunity to do less reps. It’s an adjustment of heavier, not necessarily immediately aiming for the heaviest.

In essence: why do 3×15 when you can do 3×5 or 3×7?

Most of your compound exercises are going to benefit from this kind of resistance. Typically when I program a client’s routine, I’ll set heavy weight with low reps for the primary lift, and lighter weight with higher reps for all the accessories.

And remember, heavy weight is supposed to be taxing. Within context, of course. If you’re doing a 3×5 and that last rep feels iffy, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong– even if you’re unable to complete that last rep. This kind of failure is perfectly fine.

If you’re doing a 3×5 and the first rep feels iffy, that could be that you’re moving too heavy too soon. Smart and effective workouts are all about making these kinds of adjustments.

Heavy Weight with High Reps

It’s really hard to imagine a use of heavy weight with high reps. This is practically the antithesis of smart and effective workouts because it lacks the sense of awareness and adjustment.

They usually come with a lack of proper form, and that leads to the worst kind of failure: injury.

You need to taper back into one of the other builds:

  • go lighter weight to sustain the high reps
  • do less reps to sustain the heavier weight

Otherwise, maybe you’re not actually going as heavy as you think you are. Or maybe this realization identifies why you have all the aches and pains you got.

Light Weight with Low Reps

Wrapping up, is there a place for light weights with low reps in a workout routine? Can something like a 1×2 exist?

Absolutely. But, I think you’ll be limited to timed and/or isometric holds. Holding a plank comes to mind. Yoga and pilates are essentially sequences of holding the moves and poses just a few times, right?

I… haven’t done yoga in a long time, so correct me if I’m wrong here.

Did that shine a light on the mystery of set and rep builds? Are you a hardcore heavyweight high repper who hates this post? Let us know in the comments below!

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