Definitive Guide to Fitness Reps, Sets, Tempo, & Rest

Updated: April 23, 2012

Justin Miller

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Becoming an expert can be a serious time commitment and both physically and mentally draining. However, being Expert Enough means your smart enough to know that all you really need to understand are the most valuable or key concepts in a given area. Whether that be rapid language learning, nuances of the tango, or honing your computer programming skills.

In terms of fitness, those key concepts are the reps, sets, rest, and tempo in which you perform exercises.

Earning your expert badge in these four exercise fundamentals will save you time and headache in the gym so that you can focus more energy on multiple pursuits in your quest to become the ultimate renaissance man or woman.


How many reps should I do? A question I hear all the time. It really depends on your goals. Are you looking to be able to move a house and just be strong as possible? Do you prefer a balance between strength gains and muscle-building? Are you looking to add as much muscle as possible with not as much emphasis on strength? Or are you looking to improve muscular endurance with limited strength and muscular gains? There really is no wrong answer here. Just personal preference.

It should be noted that the number of repetitions is the variable in the fitness equation that is adapted to most quickly. So, a rule of thumb is to vary this often. In order to ensure you are making continual progress towards transforming from Clark Kent to Superman, frequent variation will be needed. Most will adapt to any given rep range after 5-7 workouts. Keep a journal handy to track your progress and pay special attention for when it's time to switch it up.

  • 1-5 reps is typical used for maximal strength gains. If you are looking to pick up Oak trees and throw them at someone I would highly suggest taking this approach. 1-5 reps is usually around 85% of your 1 rep maximum (1RM) in any given lift. So a good approach before starting any training routine may be to test yourself in a few of the basic movements in order to have some "NERD ALERT" data to work with. If you are a novice lifter I would not suggest training in this rep range until your form is on point.
  • 6-8 reps: You'll hear a lot of 6-8 rep talk from the meat-heads at your local globe gym. It is a pretty standard rep range for most fellas to follow because it elicits a pretty nice balance between strength and muscular gains. 6-8 reps usually falls at about 79-84% of your 1RM. So if you have not already, think about testing those 1RM's. Just make sure you have proper form and a partner on stand by. I would suggest dipping into this rep range if you are looking to throw half of that oak tree at someone as mentioned earlier while at the same time adding some beef to your noodles. WOMEN, you will not get bulky working in this rep range. Please do not stay away from it like the plague. Mix it in every once in a while. The fact is that your body does not have enough natural testosterone to make you bulky from moving heavy weights. Don't be scared. Strong is sexy! Sneak it in please.
  • 9-12 reps: this is the rep range that the majority of trainees use. However, they train in this range with not much intensity. By that I mean moving a weight for 12 reps when they could have done 20. This rep range will usually be around 70-78% of your 1RM. This rep range will allow for optimal muscular development. If you are looking for serious body composition changes (a.k.a. looking good naked) then think about dabbling in this pool. With that said, don't forget to experiment with rep ranges. Your body will adjust very quickly and those gains will start to decrease.
  • 13+ reps: this is usually anything under 70% of your 1RM. Most novice lifters can experience tremendous gains when working with these higher rep ranges. This is also an excellent rep range for beginners in order to develop proper form and control of the movements. Body weight movements will allow for rep ranges in the range. If you are a newb to all of this, think about starting with a body weight routine until you develop some muscular strength, coordination, and confidence.
NOTE: It is not necessary to find your 1RM to work within these rep ranges. An easy rule to follow when working in each rep range is that the last rep you do (say 8) should be difficult but not the last one you could do. It should feel like you "might" be able to do one more. "Might" is the keyword here.


Everything you got, everything you got! Love that film. Anyhow, back on track. If you are new to the superhero training game and have really never touched a weight before then 1-2 tough sets are usually enough to elicit a positive response. However, it will not take your body very long to get use to that. Much like reps, varying your sets becomes important as well.

After introducing yourself to the weight training game, 3-6 sets per exercise is usually sufficient to see consistent results.

  • More reps = fewer sets. Your muscle need to perform a certain amount of work in order to see results. Lifting a super heavy weight 2 times for 1 set is not going to do you much good. We also want to make sure we do not train a muscle too much. 15 reps of a bench press done with 15 sets is just not smart. You're most likely just over-training a muscle group. When we look back at the rep ranges provided above a good protocol to follow can be:
  • 1-5 reps: 4-6 sets
  • 6-8 reps: 3-5 sets
  • 9-12 reps: 3-4 sets
  • 13+ reps: 2-3 sets


How much time should I rest between exercises? I would ask you first what your superhero goal is. Strength? Endurance? Super sexy? There are a ton of factors that come into play but lets simplify it.
  1. Training for strength usually means you are working in that 1-5 rep range. Resting 3-5 minutes after each set is ideal in order to allow for almost a full recovery.
  2. Strength/Muscle building falls into the 6-8 rep range and will usually call for a 2-3 minute rest interval.
  3. Muscle building/Sexyness: If you are looking to see major body composition changes and an overall improvement in your "Look good naked" quotient then resting 90 seconds - 2 minutes is where you'll want to be. As you get comfortable with the exercises and your stamina improves you should be able to keep the rest between 60-90 seconds.
  4. Muscular endurance: 13+ reps and your rest can be anywhere from 10 seconds to 90 seconds. You can vary this depending on how much time you have for your workout that day, your current conditioning, and your goals.
  5. More rest for bigger muscles: You will find that working out the larger muscles are much more taxing then the smaller ones. Performing a back squat is significantly more difficult than doing a dumbbell curl. More rest is often needed more after working larger muscle groups as opposed to smaller ones.


When I bring up tempo most people look at me like with a WTF face. You can achieve great results without focusing on tempo but if you want to bust out of plateaus, have been training for many years, or want to enhance your gains and body composition then different tempos should be used.
  • 31X1 this is an example of what a tempo may look like when training.
  • The first number (3) represents the lowering or eccentric part of the movement. Think bringing the bar down to your chest while benching.
  • The second number (1) represents the amount of time you pause in the stretched position. Think about when you are squatting when performing the back squat.
  • The third number (X) represents the actual lift of the weight. So in the bench press this would be how fast the bar moves from your chest to straight above you. In this case the X means as fast as possible.
  • The fourth number (1) is the amount of time you pause at the top of the movement or contracted position. In the bench press this would be when you are holding the weight above you.
  • To simplify things I recommend using a tempo of 31X1 for most exercises. Tempo can be a little confusing for many. Play with it a little.
Ok. So now that I have rambled on at around 1,500 words I want to hit you off with a couple final tips.
  1. Keep track of your workouts. Buy a notepad and write EVERYTHING down. Exercises, reps, sets, rest, tempo, etc.
  2. Keep a routine but don't keep a routine. Come up with a plan then throw it away after 3-5 weeks. Your body is smart. Stick to your plan for a few weeks. Then switch it up yo!
  3. Make it fun. Do exercises you enjoy. Workout with a friend. Workout at home, a park, or a gym. Whatever. Just do it.
  4. Plan. Prioritize your workouts. Make them important. You wouldn't cancel a meeting with your boss last-minute would you? Don't cancel this meeting with yourself.
Weight training is not just for the meat heads. There is a real science behind it with fundamental concepts to be acquired and understood. In our quest for well-roundedness no area should be neglected. You may be mentally strong but are you physically strong?

Being fit is not limited to the gym. It translates to the rest of your life. More confidence to talk to that girl or guy, more stamina to learn a new skill like paddle boarding, and more strength to open up those darn pickle jars. Learn more, do more, and be more. Both mentally and physically.

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