Knowing exactly how many reps of exercises to complete during your workout can feel like a complicated math equation—is 10 enough if you’re feeling fatigued, or would pushing yourself to 15 with a lighter weight be better? If you don’t have a personal trainer on hand to answer your questions, don’t panic. We quizzed top exercise experts so you can have a workout plan in place before you hit the gym. Read on for what they had to say.
Determine Your Goal
How many reps and sets you complete in a workout will vary based on your fitness goals and fitness level, notes Keith Hodges, a personal trainer and performance coach and founder of Mind In Muscle Coaching in Los Angeles. “Someone who does CrossFit will train differently than someone who wants to build muscle while burning body fat and to tone,” he says. Beginners will also do fewer reps and sets until they can complete the exercises with proper form.
Try to determine your goals based on the following three categories, recommends Darlene Bellarmino, a certified personal trainer and founder of the Girl Up fitness app.
- Beginners: Working on proper form and stabilization.
- Looking to tone up: Intermediate level, familiar with strength moves, stable, and hoping to increase the weight you are using to tone up.
- Hypertrophy: More advanced, hoping to develop strength and large muscle tone.
Upper Body Strength Moves
Upper body strength exercises include moves like chest presses, push-ups, and bent-over rows. They work your shoulders, back, chest, arms, and more.
- Beginners: When performing upper body strength workouts, beginners can start with two sets of each upper body movement with 12-15 reps with a moderate weight load. “The higher number of reps will build endurance and lay the foundation to prime your body to progress to lower reps with heavier loads,” says Hodges.
- Toning: Once you have the moves down, are stable, and have proper form, it’s OK to increase the weight you are using and perform 8-12 reps and do 2-4 sets, recommends Bellarmino.
- Hypertrophy: Perform a higher volume at moderate-to-high intensity with minimal rest in between sets. Aim for 6-12 reps with 3-6 sets.
Lower Body Strength Moves
Lower body exercises include squats, lunges, and leg presses. It’s important to continuously mix up your lower body moves and keep your body challenged, says Hodges. “I always switch up my set and rep ranges to challenge my clients,” he says.
- Beginners: Start with 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps of each exercise performed.
- Toning/Hypertrophy: Once you are comfortable with the moves and up for a challenge, vary the number of reps in each workout for moves like squats, leg presses, glute bridges, hip thrusts, and deadlifts. Aim for between 6 and 15 reps and perform 3-4 sets with a challenging, but not impossible, weight.
Don’t forget to work your core, too. A strong core will help you perform better in the gym and even with day-to-day tasks.
- Beginners: Hodges recommends focusing on stabilization exercises to build up a stronger core. Perform 2-3 sets of a stabilization exercise such as a plank or side plank for 30-60 seconds. You can do these before exercising as a warm-up to prep the body for resistance training, or on rest breaks on your upper or lower body workout days.
- Toning/hypertrophy: Perform 3-4 sets of 15-25 reps of exercises like crunches, sit-ups, and seated twists. Perform these during upper body workouts to maximize caloric expenditure during training sessions. Also, focus on a healthy diet and eating clean if you want to see “ab definition.”
What Else Should You Focus On?
While counting reps can help keep you on track, there’s more to a great workout routine than just numbers. For Hodges, technique is key. “I can’t stress how important proper technique is,” he says. “Learn how to perform movements correctly, and what muscles you should feel while performing an exercise.” Not only will this help keep you injury-free, but you’ll understand your body and its needs more as you get stronger and more comfortable in the gym. Additionally, don’t forget to mix up the exercises you are doing and keep your body challenged. “Switch your routine up to shock your body and force your muscles to adapt,” he says. “This plays a key role in overcoming plateaus during your transformation journey.”
Most importantly, don’t forget to celebrate meeting your fitness accomplishments (both big and small) as you get stronger each week.