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Weight Lifting 101: How many reps and sets should you do?


Smart training means matching your workouts to your goals. Life can be complicated, but your workout program doesn’t have to be. For optimal results, we have to train according to what is best for our body.

There are a variety of tools to incorporate. Free weights like dumbbells, barbells, weight machines, weighted balls, bands, and of course body weight, can all be used. So don’t “resist” this type of exercise, because your body needs it.  

There are five approaches to weight lifting. These provide the foundation and can be used a guideline for understanding exercise selection matched with repetitions and sets. The baseline for exercise intensity is found by determining your one-rep max (1RM). This is the most amount of weight you can lift for any one exercise. This number then determines how much weight should be lifted for your exercise program. So let’s say you can lift 20 pounds one time for one bicep curl (1 RM). Now we factor in training intensity. For example, this means that because my 1RM is 20 pounds, to train at 60 percent intensity, 12-pound dumbbells would be applicable for bicep curls.

General strength training involves eight to 15 repetitions with one to two sets at 65 to 80 percent 1 RM.  Choose this method for overall health and exercise enjoyment. If your goal is muscular endurance, exercise selection involves the ability to train for a longer period of time. This would be beneficial for heart health, weight loss and has shown improvements in sleep and mood.

The protocol for endurance is two to three sets of 12 repetitions at 60 to 70 percent intensity. If muscular hypertrophy is the goal, three to six sets of six to 12 repetitions at 70 to 80 percent intensity should be on the agenda. Hypertrophy is all about increasing muscle mass. If the goal is muscular strength, being able to have the force to lift heavy weights is the goal. It’s meeting the effort demand to move the desired heavier resistance.

Muscular strength would require two to six sets of no more than six repetitions at 80 to 90 percent intensity. Finally, if the goal is power, one would perform three to five sets of one to two repetitions at no more than 90 percent intensity. Power usually is a training modality athletes incorporate in order to produce explosive movement patterns.

Not everyone has to be a bodybuilder or athlete to reap the benefits of resistance training. More muscle means more protection for your joints and bones and this means injury prevention. Balance, posture, mobility and flexibility improve. Bone density increases which offsets osteoporosis. Resistance training also helps prevent and control diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, back pain, depression and obesity.

Remember, the ultimate determinate of program design is you. Your body adapts, changes and responds to training modalities independently of any guideline. Read your body’s signals, watch what happens in the mirror and consult a professional for further help. The Lifestyle of the FIT and Healthy incorporates resistance training into their workouts because when we lift weights, we also lift our health, fitness level and feeling of accomplishment.  

Megan Johnson McCullough is an NASM Master Trainer and Instructor who owns a fitness studio in Oceanside CA called Every BODY’s Fit. She holds an M.A. in Physical Education & Health Science and is currently in a program to receive her Doctorate in Health & Human Performance. She’s a professional natural bodybuilder, AFAA Group Exercise Instructor, Senior Fitness Specialist, Fitness Nutrition Specialist and Wellness Coach. Her goal is to help every BODY become the best version of themselves.

1 comment

Ganesha SR June 16, 2018 at 8:40 pm

Nice article Megan Johnson.
Myself Ganesh SR from Bangalore India, I just finished my Diploma in Sports Coaching in weightlifting at National institute of sports patiala Punjab under sports authority of India.
Actually I need to know about the proper planning and periodization for weightlifting.
Daily programs.

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