Sets and Reps: What Does It All Mean?

Sets and Reps: What Does It All Mean?
by Coach Jason Lapadula

Are you intimidated by all the percentages, sets numbers, rep numbers, and squat faces that come with moving heavy weights? Here’s a guide to help you along your path to getting that PR (personal record). Some of these ideas are unique to me, not standard across the board of weight-training coaches, so keep in mind that some people may tell you differently.

Rep(s): A rep (or repetition) is a single movement of any exercise. But why do 3 reps versus 5 reps versus 10 reps? Lower reps mean you can move more weight, which means you will be lifting closer to your max weight for one rep on any exercise (1RM). Intensity is proportional to the percentage of your 1RM you are lifting. I’m not going to get into how many reps are better for this goal versus that goal, but just know that a beginner can make gains using much less intensity (studies show as little as 40% of their 1RM), while intermediate/advanced athletes need to use higher intensity ranges. Approximate percentages of 1RM versus other rep maxes are listed below, however, know this will vary with regards to the exercise and the individual:

1RM – 100%
3RM – 90%
5RM – 85%
10RM – 75-80%

Set(s): A set is a series of reps of an exercise done in sequence (usually without rest). So why use more or fewer sets? Again, beginners tend to make gains with fewer sets (3 seems to work very well) whereas intermediate/advanced athletes may need 4-8 sets to benefit from the exercise. If you are lifting maximally (very close to your rep max for how many reps you are doing), you might want to use fewer sets at that weight as it is very taxing to perform at that effort (ever try hitting your 1RM twice in a row? Don’t.).

So what does “3×5” mean and how is it different from “5-5-5” or “3-3-3-3-3”?
3×5 means “three sets of five reps.” Generally, people take this as three sets of five reps at the same weight. 5-5-5 or 3-3-3-3-3 is generally used to imply trying to increase the weight (or vary it) each set.

Okay, that’s great. But how do I know when I’ve reached my work sets?
Your work sets are the sets that you are counting towards that certain set-rep scheme (so if you’re doing a 3×5, it would be when you are starting your first set). You should always warm up your lifts and not just jump into those work sets cold. How much you warm up is going to depend on how much weight you’re lifting (someone who squats 400lbs. is probably going to have to warm up to that weight more than someone who squats 100lbs.). I usually tell people to try to go heavy while maintaining form – people generally know what heavy feels like. No matter what set-rep scheme you use, try to keep your work sets within 90% of each other. This means if I do 5-5-5 for the back squat, sets that look like 5×135 5×155 5×175 do not all count as work sets. I would need to complete 3 sets about 160ish in order to make them all work sets.

So how much do I rest between sets?
Beginners do not need as much rest as intermediate/advanced athletes, and keep in mind everyone is different so prescribing exact rest can get messy. In general, rest however long you think you need, then add 30 seconds to that. For you people who want something a little more concrete, beginners should rest at least 2-3 minutes between heavy work sets and intermediate/advanced athletes should rest at least 3-5 minutes between heavy work sets.

What does XX% feel like?
Here’s my simple guide to what percentages should feel like. Keep in mind these are separated between the fast lifts (olympic-style lifts) and slow lifts (everything else):

Fast Lifts:
60-70% – light and fast – generally applies to technique work
70-80% – moderate and fast with perfect form
80-90% – heavy but should be able to make this lift on any given day
90%+ – heavy and need some motivation (internal or otherwise) to get under the bar

Slow Lifts:
50-60% – a weight you can use for most conditioning workouts
60-70% – should feel heavy for 10+ reps
70-80% – should feel heavy for 8-10 reps
80-85% – should feel heavy for 4-6 reps
85-90% – should feel heavy for 3-4 reps
90%+ – feels heavy no matter what

The Complicated Stuff:

Tempo – If given a tempo, it is most common format is 4 numbers (for example 31×1). This format comes from squatting, so it may help to just think of the numbers as the movement pattern of a squat. The first number refers to the descent, the second refers to the time at the bottom, the third refers to the time on the way up, and the fourth refers to the time at the top. So our 31×1 tempo means, “three seconds to get down to the bottom, one second pause at the bottom, explode on the way up (as fast as possible), and one second pause at the top.” If I were to apply this to the deadlift, it would be in a different sequence: “explode on the way up, one second pause at the top, three seconds to get down to the bottom, and one second pause at the bottom.” Tempo is a good way to add variety to your lifting or add focus to certain parts of a movement.

Clusters – If you see a set-rep scheme that looks like 3×1.1.1, you will be doing a cluster set. For these types of sets, you will take a rest where there is a period. So for this particular cluster, do one rep then pause then another rep then pause then another rep. The rest periods between cluster reps is generally designated, however if none is prescribed, it will be around 5-10 seconds. Cluster sets are another way to add variety for those more accustomed to lifting heavier weights.