Reps Vs Sets: Your Complete Guide To Help You In Your Next Workout

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When you first start working out, the long list of gym terminology for workout lingo can seem downright overwhelming. There are so many terms to learn, such as concentric and eccentric contraction, load, hypertrophy, etc. 

Although it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of all of the common terms used in workout programs and at the gym, there are a few basics that everyone should know to properly follow your training plan.

Arguably the two most important terms to understand are sets and reps. So, what are sets and reps?

Although most beginners have heard of reps and sets, differentiating between the meaning of reps vs sets is critical, and the terms are often confused with one another. What does reps mean? What is a set in exercise?

In this article, we will answer your question, “What are reps and sets?” in exercise, and discuss the differences between reps vs sets.

We will cover: 

  • Reps Vs Sets: What Are Reps In Exercise?
  • What Is 1RM and Why Does It Matter?
  • Reps Vs Sets: What Is A Set In Exercise?
  • How Many Reps and Sets Should I Do?

Ready to finally clear up what are reps and sets? Let’s jump in!

A person doing a chest press.

Reps Vs Sets: What Are Reps In Exercise?

So, what is reps, and what does reps mean?

The term reps is short for repetitions. A rep refers to one complete movement of the exercise.

For example, one rep of a squat begins with standing upright, then bending your hips and knees, sitting your hips back to squat down, then returning back up to the starting position.

Five reps would involve doing five squats back to back with no rest in between.

One rep of a biceps curl is one complete curl.

It begins with your arms extended and the dumbbells at your side. Then, you bend your elbows to bring the weights up to shoulder height and slowly lower them back down. 

Therefore, a rep includes both the concentric portion (shortening portion) and the eccentric phase (lengthening).

A person doing a cable row.

What Is 1RM and Why Does It Matter?

Another common term related to reps that is pertinent to strength training and workout programming is your one-repetition maximum, usually referred to as your 1RM.

A 1RM is your personal best for a given lift, meaning the most you can possibly lift with proper form for one complete rep.

For example, if you can load up a 45-pound barbell with two 20-pound plates per side and do one rep of the bench press (but not two reps), your 1RM bench press is 125 pounds.

Knowing your 1RM for an exercise has a couple of practical benefits for your strength training workouts.

For one, it’s a great benchmark for your fitness. 

You can periodically check your progress by maxing out and seeing how much improvement you have upon your previous 1RM for an exercise.

A person doing a row.

Just like any other fitness benchmark, this can help you assess whether your training program is actually effective based on your goals. For example, if you are trying to build lower body strength, you can test your 1RM for the squat and deadlift every 4-6 weeks to see how much more you can lift.

If your improvements are not in the neighborhood of what you expect them to be, you can reevaluate your training and see where you might be falling short.

The other major application of the 1RM load is for your workout programming or determining how much you should lift for other exercises.

For example, your training program might say to perform 6 to 8 reps of back squats at 80% of your 1RM.

This means the weight you use for your squats should be 80% of the maximum you can lift or one squat. For example, if your 1RM squat is 200 pounds, you should lift 160 pounds for 6 to 8 repetitions.

The “RM” or repetition maximum, is also used for different numbers of reps other than just one, in which case you will see the corresponding number before the RM.

A person doing pull down reps.

For instance, your 3RM is the maximum load or weight you can use for three full repetitions of an exercise using proper form and technique. Your 12RM is the maximum you can lift for 12 complete reps.

As can be surmised, the amount of weight you can lift will decrease somewhat proportionally for higher RM values. There have actually been numerous studies and formulas generated that can serve as predictive equations to help estimate different RM weights when you only know certain benchmarks.

For example, if you do not feel safe completely maxing out with a 1RM test without a spotter, you can approximate your 1RM from a 5RM or 3RM lift.

It works in the other direction as well. If you know your 3RM, you can estimate your 12RM, for example.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the following table shows the percentage of your 1RM you should use for the given number of reps of an exercise:

Maximum Number of RepsPercent of 1RM Load
A person putting a barbell on their back.

Reps Vs Sets: What Is A Set In Exercise?

Although the term sets can have different applications, in exercise situations, sets refer to a series of reps (repetitions) of an exercise that are performed together as a unit back to back without rest in between.

For example, you might do two sets of triceps dips that each include 10 reps.

This means that you would do 10 tricep dips in a row and then take some amount of rest. During the rest, you might do another exercise or take complete rest.

Then, you would perform another 10 reps of triceps dips as your second set.

One of the most important considerations with programming your sets is the amount of rest that you take in between. The purpose of the rest period in between sets is to allow your muscles time to recover from the set. 

The ideal amount of rest you should take depends on the type of training you are doing (your primary goal) and your fitness level.

A person grabbing a barbell.

Usually, the rest period in between sets is anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes. However, there are certain styles of training and strength training techniques that may involve more or less rest. 

For example, circuit training involves performing a bunch of different exercises sequenced back to back with little to no rest in between. 

However, you might do two rounds of your circuit—or two sets per exercise—but because your circuit might include 8-12 exercises, it might be upwards of 10-15 minutes between two sets of the same exercise by the time you make it back to that exercise “station” in the circuit.

With drop sets or supersets, the rest between sets is essentially eliminated.

In terms of fitness level, beginners usually require more rest in between sets than experienced athletes. 

It’s better to take more rest if it will mean that you can maintain proper form and technique using the load you are supposed to be lifting and performing the prescribed number of reps rather than compromising your form or reducing your training volume by dropping weight or performing fewer reps.

Two people doing sit ups.

On the other hand, resting too long between that can potentially compromise the improvements or training stimulus. 

For example, if you are trying to increase muscular endurance, resting for too long between sets will not effectively challenge your muscles to continue contracting when fatigued.

Your muscles can also partially “cool down“ if you rest too long, which may make it more difficult and potentially riskier to lift heavy weights, especially at high lifting speeds, in your next set.

In terms of training goals, the ideal amount of rest you should take in between sets is typically recommended as follows:

  • Increasing muscle endurance: 30 to 60 seconds
  • Muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth): 30 to 60 seconds
  • Powerlifting: 1 to 2 minutes
  • Increasing strength: 2 to 5 minutes
A trainer spotting someone doing flys.

How Many Reps and Sets Should I Do?

The number of reps and sets you should do per exercise in your workouts depends primarily on your fitness goal.

Different fitness organizations report slightly different training volume recommendations, but the following table shows a good approximation of training volume guidelines for reps, sets, and load:

Training GoalSetsRepsRest PeriodIntensity
General fitness1-3 12-15 30 to 90 secondsVaries on exercise and ability level
Muscular Endurance3-4 >12 Up to 30 seconds<67% of 1RM
Hypertrophy (building muscle mass)3-6 6-12 30 to 90 seconds67% to 85% of 1RM
Muscle strength4-6 3-62 to 5 minutes>85% of 1RM
Power3-51-52 to 5 minutes85%–100% of 1RM 

Following a workout plan or working with a personal trainer can help you figure out just the right training program for your needs.

For more of our strength training guides, check out our helpful database!

People doing kettlebell snatches in a gym.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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