By Fitness Intern Quinton Augusto, Seattle Athletic Club Downtown.
One of the most common misconceptions among gym goers is the proper number of sets and reps to do during a workout. The answer is very dependent on your individual goals. Before venturing into the gym and aimlessly meandering around until you find a machine that looks cool, take some time to reflect upon what you want to get out of your precious time spent in the gym. Ten minutes spent thinking about your fitness goals prior to starting a program will allow you to have purpose in your training.
As far as training goals are concerned, there are 4 options; first is strength (you want to lift heavy things), second is power (you want to be as explosive as possible), third is hypertrophy (you want to look like Arnold), and lastly it endurance (you want to run a marathon). For each one of these training goals there is a guideline set by the National Strength and Conditioning Association for how many sets and reps to do and what they say may actually surprise you.
If you are someone who wants to increase your overall strength and be able to bench press your mini van while changing the oil, then you need to be doing between 2-6 sets of a given exercise for no more than 6 repetitions with heavy weight at about 85% of your 1 rep max. Make sure you get a full 2-5 min rest between sets to allow your body to recover enough to finish out the lift. Someone with a 1 rep max of 225 on bench press should lift 2-6 sets of 5 reps at approximately 190 lbs if the goal is strength
If you are someone who wants to jump out of the gym or throw a car engine a quarter mile, then you need to incorporate explosive lifting into your program. This would be done by doing 3-5 sets of 1-5 repetitions at 75-90% of your 1 rep max; moving the weight as efficiently and fast as possible while maintaining control. Rest is very important for these movements because of how explosive and taxing they are so get a full 2-5 min rest between sets. Someone with a 200 pound power clean one rep max should do 3-5 sets of 1-5 reps at approximately 150-180 lbs if their goal is power.
If you want to turn your nice dress shirt into a cut off simply by flexing then you have to increase your total volume of work (Sets x Reps x Weight= Total Volume). Hypertrophy programs have a much higher amount of weight lifted in total and therefore expose your muscles to more adversity which promotes an increase in the cross sectional area of the muscle (size). You will need to do 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps with anywhere from 67-85% of your 1 rep max with a considerable shorter rest time of 30 sec-1.5min. You basically want to spend as much time under the weight as possible and by your last set you should be struggling to get your last few reps. Someone with a 315lbs max squat should do 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps at approximately 210-265lbs if hypertrophy is their goal.
If you want to be an honorary Kenyon and run hundreds of miles a week then your lifting program is going to be shaped a bit differently. First of all you are only doing 2-3 sets of greater than 12 repetitions at less than 67% of your 1 rep max. The kicker here is your rest time between sets is no longer than 30 seconds. As an endurance athlete you are doing very repetitive movements for long durations of time with very little rest. You want your resistance training to be the same. A squatting exercise for an endurance athlete with a 200lbs squat max would be 3 sets of 15 at approximately 130 lbs.
Overall, I hope these guidelines will help shed a bit of light to the people out there who are confused or looking for some clarity on what to do in the gym. Before starting a new lifting program take the time to think about what results you truly want, then implement these sets and rep ranges to reflect your goals. Your training should mimic the movements of the goal. Whether you want to lift heavy things, jump out of the gym, look like Mr. Olympia, or run a marathon, cater you workout to echo your goals.