Trainer Tips: How Many Sets and How Many Reps?

It’s so weird not training people. I had a core group of clients back in Brooklyn and worked three mornings a week and a couple of evenings. It was definitely part-time, but of course you get invested in your clients’ lives and goals and ambitions. In fact, many of my friends back in Brooklyn are either clients or former clients. (I guess technically they’re all former clients now!) 

My plan is to wait until Baby T is a little older to look into daycare for him, so until then I am taking a break from training while we settle in up here. In the meantime, I need to share my training advice with someone, so you guys are now going to get a little personal trainer insider trading of sorts, with some Trainer Tips posts. Please feel free to comment with anything you’ve ever wanted to ask, or if you have a topic you’d like me to weigh in on (and yes, pun intended, of course).

To kick things off, let’s address a question I hear a lot, either from people in the gym, or even as comments or emails through the blog. How many sets should I do? And how many reps should I do?

 Trainer Tips: How Many Sets and How Many Reps? Do you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to how many sets and repetitions you should be doing in the gym when you’re strength training? Are you confused about the difference between endurance, strength and power? Check out this article on how to work out what you should be lifting for your goals. | fitness | women | weights | personal training |

You know the next thing I’m going to write is, ‘It depends,’ right? Well, that’s because it does. It depends on your goals for strength training. It depends on your athletic goals outside of strength training. Finally, it depends on your current strength and fitness levels.

Here’s how I would break it down if you were my client:

We would do an assessment appointment where I would find out from you why you want to start strength training – what do you want to get out of our sessions and out of your time in the gym? Generally, these fall into one of only a few categories: you want to lose weight; you want to increase your strength level; or you’ve had an injury or health scare that you know resistance training will improve. These categories will overlap, but usually you will fall into one pretty clearly.

Next, what do you want to take from the gym into your life? Are you looking for better quality of life, being able to carry groceries upstairs without thinking about it, or run up a flight of stairs without panting? Or are you involved in a sport you want to get stronger for? Are you a parent whose 7 month old baby is basically a giant and picking him up from the crib is becoming ridiculous (or is that just me)?

To wrap it up, we’d do a physical assessment, where I’d get to see how you move, what your proficiency was with simple exercises like squat, plank and bench press, as well as how often you work out these days.

Without a trainer, just think about these assessments for yourself. What do you want from lifting weights? What will it help you with in life? And what is your honest assessment of your proficiency with weights right now? With these answers in mind, let’s see where your energy should best be expended.

There are three main types of strength training: endurance, strength and power. You are most likely going to overlap a little bit, but you’ll probably fall into one area more than the others and this is the area that should be your focus.

Endurance Training

Endurance training is aimed at training your muscles to respond well to a lower threshold of weight for a longer period of time. If you’re looking for the kind of training that will help you when you need to expend energy over a long period of time, this is where you should focus. I’m looking at you, distance runners, endurance athletes and people who want more endurance for everyday life.

Reps: Usually more than 12. I generally program endurance sessions at 15 reps (sometimes 20 reps or more if a client has a specific goal that much higher reps would work for, like an endurance event).

Sets: It depends on how much time you have and your fitness level. Usually for an endurance program or session, I’ll have clients do 2 sets, or 3 sets if they have a strong level of fitness, or are up for a challenge.

Strength Training

Training for strength means you’re looking to build lean muscle mass, which is perfect for anyone with a weight loss goal. Say what? say most women I meet with who have this goal. The fitness magazines may preach cardio, cardio, cardio and light weights for weight loss, but I will always steer you to heavier weights needed for building strength. Building strength and muscle will only lower your body fat percentage, keep your metabolism stoked and make you strong.

Reps: Usually for strength you’re looking at an 8 – 10 repetition range. I tell my clients to shoot for 10 gorgeous, perfect repetitions and if they only get to 8, that’s okay!

Sets: For strength I usually prescribe 3 sets, with rest between, so your muscles have time to recover. (More on rest below).

Power Training

Power and strength are often terms that are used interchangeably. When you’re building strength, you’re building muscle and increasing the amount of weight you can lift. When you’re working on power, you’re working on the amount of weight you can lift in a short, explosive burst. Take my beloved NY Rangers – ice hockey is a great example of athletes who will be training for power (as well as speed and strength). They are on the ice for short periods of time and are expected to use explosive bursts of power and strength when they’re on their shift. Everyone, though, can benefit from power training. You use it in everyday life. You want to get through that subway door before it closes? Your kid is running fast (impossibly fast) toward a busy street? Your muscles need to engage quickly, with power and in a very short window of time. 

Reps: For power lifting, you should be aiming at lower reps of 1 to 5 repetitions, with a much higher amount of rest in between.

Sets: You should shoot for 3 – 6 sets, It’s important to note that plyometric training, like jumps and leaps, also fall under power training, so this may be something you’re accustomed to using in a workout, even if you’re not lifting way more weight than you imagine you can.

 Trainer Tips: How Many Sets and How Many Reps? Do you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to how many sets and repetitions you should be doing in the gym when you’re strength training? Are you confused about the difference between endurance, strength and power? Check out this article on how to work out what you should be lifting for your goals. | fitness | women | weights | personal training |

Rest Periods

Rest is so, so important to strength training and it’s something that’s often overlooked when you’re reading workouts. The higher your reps (and therefore, the lighter your weights), the less rest you’ll take in between sets.

For an endurance workout, I’ll often program it as a circuit, or even program cardio breaks into rest periods. The purpose of this workout is to get your muscles used to working efficiently under fatigue, so think of your rest period as the least amount of time possible to prepare for the next set.

For strength, I usually have my clients rest for 1 to 2 minutes between sets. I will also often program a strength session as a circuit, but I make sure the exercise rotation goes between upper and lower body, so that one set of muscles has a chance to rest during the next exercise.

For power, rest for 3 – 4 minutes between each set. You may feel like you are ready for your next set, but respect your rest period so your form remains intact.

That’s the very basic explanation of what you should be aiming for in your resistance training, depending on your goals and needs. There are obviously many factors at work and it would be ideal for you to have a trainer there to personally lead you through an appropriate program, but it is possible for you to guide yourself at the gym.

Do you follow a program the gym, or just kind of wing it?

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to knowing what to do when it comes to strength training?


  1. (((sharing)))
    But had to also say, as a one time training studio owner, how fantastic this post is.
    Clear and comprehensive.
    Carla recently posted…We cant make time.My Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Thank you!!! It can be so incomprehensible to a beginner lifter, so I’m glad you think this is clearly laid out.

  2. Great post. It can be confusing to a client to know how many reps and sets you should be doing for a specific goal. That’s why I like taking group fitness classes for strength training to have that structure. recently posted…Why I’m holding myself back from the groupMy Profile

  3. I do most of my strength training at home, although I do go to the gym every now and again. I have developed several routines to keep things fresh. It would be great to have a strength coach like you to be able to achieve certain goals.
    Lisa @ RunWiki recently posted…Date Night in a Bag- Inexpensive Activities on the GoMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Awww, I wish we lived in the same place so I could train you! You could pay me in DIY runner gifts!! 🙂

  4. That makes a lot of sense. Great post.
    Char recently posted…Just Because Your Last Run Was Bad …My Profile

  5. My problem is that right now I’m still so locked into my old body split training that I can’t break free and try new things!
    Susie @ SuzLyfe recently posted…Coaching, Margaritas, and Candied Bacon: Weekend Highs and LowsMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      I’m getting to replies so late and this gave me a little pang. You’ll be back, lady. xoxo

  6. I cannot believe no one has ever done this?! And, if they have, I did not see it. This is a perfect guide for anyone looking to start or re-start a program. You know I strength train and, it’s actually become more of a focus, now that I’m (ahem) older and doing more triathlons. I need to build power and endurance!! Love this.
    Allie recently posted…The Rundown – PerspectiveMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Thank you so much, Allie! It’s such a confusing part of strength training for a non-trainer, so I figured I’d try to share some simple guidelines.

  7. Sharing, sharing, sharing!!! This is great, clearly written info. I’ve seen it too many times where people just fling some weights around and call it strength training. Great post Carly!
    Angela @ Happy Fit Mama recently posted…Frozen Yogurt Qi’a BitesMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Thanks Angela! I think I’ve seen just about everything when it comes to people and weights too…!

  8. This post was awesome, Carly! You’ll be glad you took a break. I’m about to go on a business hiatus (besides teaching a few weeks in person). It’s been too much to juggle being at home with both of them while trying to work on house & business projects. I hope you guys are getting settled in!
    Elizabeth @ Fit Life with E recently posted…4 Books Every Mom Needs to Read!My Profile

  9. Great breakdown of how to weight train. My coach does “power lifting” with me, I guess she wants me to be explosive on the run! I don’t question what she does. I just do what she tells me, because her training is really effective!
    Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home recently posted…CherishMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      I think it’s really important to train for power as a runner. It can really pay off in increased muscle strength and lower body fat percentage.


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