November 13, 2022

Sets, Reps and Frequency

To get maximum benefit from your training, you need to structure your workouts logically and according to proper scientific and biomechanical principles. Only then will you be able to achieve the sweet spot between maximally working the muscle optimally, providing just the right amount of recovery before working it again and avoiding overtraining.

To achieve those goals you need to know how to schedule the right number of sets, repetitions and the frequency with which you should train. You can find out preferred exercises and reps on our homepage.

Workout Frequency

Your muscles do not get bigger and stronger during the workout. In fact, the opposite is true. When you walk out of the gym, you are weaker than when you walked in. And if you have worked out effectively, your muscles will be stressed to the point that there are micro tears in with the muscle fiber.

It is only when the muscle is allowed to recuperate and when it is fed properly with protein and complex carbohydrates that it is able to grow back slightly bigger and stronger than it was before the workout.

Super Compensation

When a muscle is exercised it undergoes a series of physiological changes. Within 24 hours after the workout, there is a dip in muscle strength. This causes what is known as super compensation that leads to a slight increase in strength and development, provided that you are feeding the muscle properly. After 3-4 days, super compensation reaches its peak and then starts to descend.

The ideal situation is to try to get in another workout at that peak point before the drop off takes place. If you wait too long, your strength level and muscle development will drop back to what they were before the last workout. As a result you will be starting from scratch again.

Ideal Frequency

So, the ideal frequency to train a muscle is every 3-4 days.

Beginner

If you are a beginner weightlifter, that will probably mean that you only have to work out once every three or four days. That’s because you don’t need to do very many sets per body part as a beginner to sufficiently stimulate your muscles for growth. In fact, three sets per muscle group is enough for a bodybuilding newbie.

So, to work all of the major muscles of your body, you will need to do about 30 sets. You should be able to be roughly 20 sets an hour. That means that a full body workout for a beginner will last about an hour and a half.

Experienced

If you’re comfortable working out for that long, and can fit it into your schedule, then you should do two full body workouts per week as a beginner. But, if you want shorter workouts, you can divide your body in two, so that you are doing four workouts per week that each last around 45 minutes. You will still, however, only be training each muscle group once every three or four days.

Ideally, you should have one or two days off from your workouts per week. This will help to promote muscle recovery and provide a mental break from training for a couple of days to help you stay fresh. Your days off could be on the weekends or two days throughout the week depending on your circumstances.

Sets & Reps

As a beginner, you should be doing three sets per body part. Continue with this for three months and then begin adding more sets. I recommend adding a set a month per month until you are doing 10-12 total sets per body part for larger muscles (chest, back, quads, glutes) groups and 8-10 sets for smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps shoulders, hamstrings, calves, abs).

Adding more sets

Obviously, as you add sets your workouts will become longer. This will eventually require that you add more training days. You will then begin following a split routine where you work just a couple of muscle groups each workout. Still, every body part will be worked every 3 to 4 days.

A natural progression would be to start with three workouts per week and then add a day every few months until you are training 5 or 6 days per week. I would not recommend, however, jumping straight from three workouts per week to six – you need to ease your body into the increased training intensity and frequency.

Monitoring energy levels

As you experiment with the frequency of your workouts, you should monitor your energy levels, to how well your muscles recover between workouts, and how strong you are for one workout to the next.

The Importance of Training Intensity

When it comes to the number of sets you should perform, you will see self-proclaimed gurus online who claim to have the perfect set and rep scheme for building muscle. That could be five sets of five, eight sets of eight or any other combination. However, it is impossible to give a set and rep scheme unless it is tied to intensity.

Progressively harder weight

If you are doing sets with a weight that’s too heavy or too light, any set and rep scheme will become useless. In order to stimulate growth, you need to give the muscle enough intensity but not to the extent that it compromises your volume or leads to overtraining.

As a general gauge, you should be using a weight that gets progressively harder as the set continues to the point where the last quarter of the reps are a real effort. However, you should still feel as if you have one in the tank after completing the set on all but your last set. On that final set, you should not be able to do another repetition.

Guide for beginners

As a beginner, during your first three months of training, you should do three sets of 20 reps with the same weight on each set. During the fourth month, add an extra set. Do 20 reps on the first set, then add a small amount of weight to the resistance. On the next set do 15 reps. Add more weight for the third set and drop to 12 reps. After another weight increment, do 10 reps on your final set.

Increase the number of sets you are doing a month by month until you’re doing eight sets for your smaller muscle groups and 12 sets for your larger ones.

Here is the rep scheme that you should follow for your smaller and larger muscle groups:

Small Muscle Groups – (Biceps, Triceps, Shoulders, Trapezius. Calves, Hamstrings, abs)

Set # Reps
1 30
2 20
3 15
4 12
5 10
6 8
7 6
8 6

Large Muscle Groups – (Chest, Lats, Quads, Glutes)

Set # Reps
1 30
2 20
3 15
4 15
5 12
6 12
7 10
8 10
9 8
10 8
11 6
12 6

check out the links on the homepage for out recommended Workouts for Men and Women – For Fat Loss or Lean Muscle.

Rest Between Sets

Between each set you need to rest long enough for your body to recover sufficiently to give full effort to the next set without losing the cumulative effect of the previous sets. You want a stair step effect on the muscle where each set builds upon the last to increase the stress on the muscle. If you rest for too long between sets, rather than a stair step effect, you will be flatlining so that the intensity level does not increase.

How long to rest between sets

To achieve the right rest- work balance, I recommend 60 seconds of rest between each set that you do. During this time, you should have  water and flex the target muscle that you are working.

Exercise Selection

The exercises you select as a beginner will be the same exercises you will use throughout your entire training life. When it comes to building muscle, there is no such thing as a beginner, intermediate or advanced exercise. Either the exercise is good for building muscle or it isn’t. What will change is the intensity level and the volume, or number of sets, that you bring to that exercise.

We will delve into the specific exercise selection for each body part in the next article.

Summary

Here’s an overview of the key points we’ve covered in this article:

  • You should train every muscle group 3 to 4 days, regardless of whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced trainer.
  • Beginners should do a full body workout twice per week, doing three sets per body part and 20 reps per set.
  • After three months, a beginner should add an extra set per month and switch to a descending pyramid scheme where the reps come down slightly and the weight increases each set
  • You should progressively build up to doing eight sets per body part for your smaller muscle groups and 12 sets per muscle group for your larger muscle groups. These should be done over a descending rep range starting at 30 reps and working down until you are doing six reps per set for the last two sets.
  • For all but the last couple of sets, you should use a weight that is challenging but still feels like you’ve got one rep in the tank at the end of the set.
  • For the last two sets of six reps, use a weight that is heavy enough that you cannot get another rep with good form.
  • Rest for a minute between sets. During that time sip from your water bottle and flex the target muscle.

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Steve (Qualfied Personal Trainer and Nutritionist)


Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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