Your Comprehensive Guide to Reps and Sets

Get the details on all the different types of reps and sets — plus, which ones you should be using in your own fitness routine.

Woman Lifting Barbells
Photo: Getty Images

When you're a fitness newbie, you'll likely encounter enough unfamiliar workout terms to fill an entire dictionary. And it can feel nearly impossible to keep them all straight, especially when acronyms come into play (looking at you, 1-RM, HIIT, and AMRAP). But out of all the jargon, there are two pieces of vocab you should try your best to remember: reps and sets.

Keep on reading to find the breakdown of reps vs. sets, plus the different types of reps and sets and how to utilize them in your own workout program.

What Are Reps?

Simply put, a rep (aka repetition) is the execution of an exercise's movement pattern one single time, says Gerren Liles, a NASM-certified personal trainer with MIRROR and a lululemon ambassador. Typically, a rep involves three phases of muscle action: the eccentric portion (when the muscle lengthens), the isometric portion (when the muscle isn't lengthening or shortening), and the concentric portion (when the muscle shortens), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). During one rep of a dumbbell biceps curl, for example, you'll lower the weights down to your thighs (the eccentric phase), pause momentarily at full extension (the isometric phase), and then curl the weights back up to your shoulders (the concentric phase), he explains.

To help you meet specific fitness goals, you can slow down or speed up your reps, says Liles. Or, you can increase the time spent on the isometric phase of the movement. Here's what you need to know.

Tempo Reps

By slowing down the speed of your biceps curl rep, to continue with the previous example, you'll increase the time under tension, or the amount of time your muscles spend contracting against an external resistance, says Liles. Upping this contraction time — specifically during the eccentric portion of the movement — increases fatigue in your working muscles, which may contribute to improvements in muscle strength and growth, he explains. On the flip side, speeding up your reps can help you develop explosive power, as you'll need to exert as much force as possible to perform the movement quickly, says Liles.

Isometric Reps

You can also switch up your reps by emphasizing the isometric portion of the movement, when tension is created without lengthening or shortening the muscle, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Just think of a squat hold: You'll bend your knees and sink your hips back to lower into a squat, then hold this position for, say, five seconds to a minute before rising back up to standing. By extending the isometric phase of the movement — whether it be during a squat hold or another exercise — you'll help improve your posture and joint stability, according to the NASM.

What Are Sets?

You can think of sets as a way to cluster your reps. One set of biceps curls, for instance, may consist of eight reps that you perform back-to-back before taking a rest break, says Liles. The typical course of action is to perform multiple sets of one particular exercise before you move on to the next, known as the standard exercise order by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). But it's not the only way you can organize your workouts. Here, is a round-up of the most common types of sets to use in your fitness routine.


Rather than focusing on a single exercise, a superset features two exercises that target opposing muscle groups, according to ACE. You might do eight reps of a dumbbell chest press, for instance, then immediately perform eight reps of bent-over rows. By alternating between two opposing muscle groups, your muscles will recover faster in between sets. "When one muscle group is being contracted, its functional opposite relaxes, reducing the need for a break or rest time between exercises," Edem Tsakpoe, the head trainer at Manhattan Exercise Co. in New York City, previously told Shape. Plus, this technique can help encourage hypertrophy (aka muscle growth), according to the NSCA.

Compound Sets

A compound set is pretty darn similar to a superset, but instead of choosing exercises that engage opposite muscle groups, you'll use ones that target the same muscle groups, according to ACE. Think: a dumbbell bench press into a push-up. This type of set amps up the intensity of the workout and burns out one muscle group at a time, Tsakpoe previously explained. Much like supersets, compound sets are commonly used to support hypertrophy, according to the NSCA.

Pyramid Sets

During a round of pyramid sets, you'll challenge your muscles with various loads and different rep ranges during one specific exercise. For the first set, you'll power through a high number of reps with a light weight. Then, you'll drop the number of reps, increase the load, and tackle your next set. You'll repeat this process with each set you tackle, Tina Tang, an NCSF-certified personal trainer and strength coach in Jersey City, New Jersey, previously told Shape. Reverse pyramid sets — during which you start with a heavy weight and a low number of reps, then reduce the weight and increase the reps with every set — are also an option. This technique not only spices up your strength workout, but it also supports improvements in muscular strength and growth, research shows.

Drop Sets

Drop sets are all about working your muscles to complete fatigue, and you won't take any rest breaks in between sets. You'll start by performing as many reps as possible of a given exercise, using as heavy of a weight as you can lift. Then, you'll drop down to a lower weight and immediately do a set of that same exercise for as many reps as your muscles can handle. If you're doing a third set, you'll switch to an even lighter weight and push through as many reps as you can until your muscles fail, Natalie Ribble, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and body-neutral strength coach in Seattle, previously told Shape. Though this technique helps build muscle and speeds up your workouts, it's primarily used among advanced lifters who have hit a plateau in their progress, Ribble explained.


During an "as many reps as possible" (aka AMRAP) set, you'll rely on the clock, rather than your rep count, to end your set. This style of set is generally used during cardio-based exercises, such as burpees or jumping jacks, says Liles. For example, "if you are a beginner, I would say do high knees for 30 seconds as opposed to doing high knees for 30 reps," he says. "As you get stronger, as your endurance builds up, then you can do it for 45 seconds, then for a minute, and keep increasing your time." You can also keep track of how many reps you performed in each 30-second set, which can clue you in on how your cardiovascular endurance has changed over time.

Complex Sets

By incorporating complex sets into your routine, you'll put your strength and power to the test at the same time. With this advanced technique, you'll first perform a few reps of a strength-focused exercise with a heavy weight, take a brief break, then follow up with a handful of reps of a power exercise that utilizes the same movement pattern, according to ACE. For example, you might do four to six barbell squats, rest for 30 seconds, then do five to eight explosive squat jumps.

Pre-Exhaustive Sets

In a pre-exhaustive set, you'll first perform one or two exercises that fatigue your synergist muscles — the muscles that assist your agonist muscles (the primary movers for a given exercise) when they become fatigued or the external force increases, according to ACE. Then, you'll do a compound exercise. Since your synergists will be tired out, you're able to work the agonist muscles more exclusively. For example, you may first do a round of triceps extensions and lateral raises, then follow up with shoulder presses, according to ACE.

Cluster Sets

Also known as a rest-pause set, a cluster set is an advanced strength-training technique that features rest breaks of 10 to 30 seconds between each repetition, according to the NSCA. These brief pauses are thought to allow phosphocreatine (a molecule that assists in the creation of adenosine triphosphate, or energy) to replenish, which may allow you to perform higher-quality reps throughout the remainder of your set, according to the NSCA. What's more, this technique may help you develop more power with each rep than traditional sets, as this extra rest time can help reduce fatigue, research suggests.

How Many Reps and Sets Should You Do?

The number of reps you should power through in every set all depends on your goals, says Liles. As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to perform a high number of reps if you're looking to build up muscular endurance, which helps you perform for a prolonged period of time, he explains. In order to do that, you'll need to use a lighter weight, he adds. On the flip side, you'll want to perform fewer reps with a moderately heavy weight if you want to increase hypertrophy, according to the NSCA.

To get more specific, consider these rep recommendations for beginners from the NSCA. Just remember these are general guidelines, and you should only do the number of reps you can complete with good form.

  • Power: 2 to 4 reps
  • Strength: 2 to 6 reps
  • Hypertrophy: 8 to 12 reps
  • Muscular endurance: 10 to 15 reps

Regardless of your objectives, as a beginner, you'll typically stick with one to three sets in standard exercise order (read: performing all sets of one particular exercise before you move on to the next movement). Then, you can tack on additional sets and try different set variations, recommended below, as you become more advanced, according to the NSCA.

And remember, rest breaks matter. If you're aiming to improve muscular endurance, you'll keep your breathers to a minimum. But if you're looking for hypertrophy, your rest periods will be a bit longer. "You want to give yourself enough time to recover so your muscle fibers can rebuild and you can exert maximal effort once again," says Liles. So what does that look like in practice? Check out the guidelines below for suggested rest period times and set techniques for all fitness levels.

  • Power: Standard exercise order for beginners and intermediate exercisers; complex sets and cluster sets for the pros; two to five minutes of rest between each set
  • Strength: Standard exercise order for beginners and intermediate exercisers; cluster sets and complex sets for the pros; two to five minutes of rest between each set
  • Hypertrophy: Standard exercise order for beginners; super sets and drop sets for intermediate exercisers; compound sets for the pros; 30 to 90 seconds of rest between each set
  • Muscular endurance: Standard exercise order for all fitness levels; 30 seconds of rest between each set

The Takeaway On Reps and Sets

When it comes to reaching your specific fitness goals, the number of reps and types of sets you complete for a given exercise is key. And keeping track of these stats can also show you how your fitness is progressing over time, which can be seriously motivating, says Jamie Carbaugh, C.P.T., a weight-inclusive personal trainer. "I try to get people to find other things to focus on besides the scale, measurements, or progression photos so they can develop a lifelong relationship with fitness that goes beyond aesthetics," she explains. "That's why I encourage tracking other numbers [such as reps, sets, or weight used]. They'll adhere to the workout program because they're seeing other ways they can progress."

Of course, planning your own workout program with the above info can feel overwhelming. So don't be afraid to chat with a certified personal trainer or fitness expert who can work with you so you can meet your goals, says Liles. "If you have the means to either seek professional help or have some resources at your disposal so you know how to program and move properly, I'd highly recommend that."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles