Any person that is new to weight lifting, or even one who has been at it for some time, often asks “What is the best set and rep range to get the most effective results in the gym?”. They often get the same answer from different people – low reps for strength, high reps for hypertrophy (muscular growth), and an even higher rep range for muscular endurance. However, these general answers do not really provide the whole picture. For example, beginners should not be performing low-repetition exercises with weights near their maximum due to the fact that they do not have the requisite experience with proper form yet. Likewise, an advanced lifter with more specific goals would need to use a variety of set and repetition ranges to reach their personal goals more quickly.
Strength and hypertrophy go hand in hand. If you get stronger, your muscles will get bigger. Here are a few popular rep and set schemes for strength training:
This program has gained popularity very recently with the introduction of popular programs such as Stronglifts 5×5. With only five repetitions per set and a total of 5 five sets, some heavy weights could be used for the big lifts. However, recovery becomes an issue when the weight gets heavy since you are doing 25 repetitions in one session. Volume does not go well with heavy weights and should be adjusted accordingly based on personal goals.
In comparison to the 5×5 program the 3×5 program design calls for much less volume on the big lifts. Recovery is much better with this routine, however, because the volume is so low during each training session hypertrophy does not come as quickly. This is a routine that could give you a good strength foundation to do hypertrophy work with good form later on.
This scheme is a purely geared towards strength. Using only three repetitions per set allows you to use much heavier weight, and doing only three sets means you can recover faster from your workouts. Many power lifters prefer this set and rep scheme. If you’ve already built a good foundation with routines based on the preceding rep and set programs and decided you want to focus on getting stronger, you can make better progress using a 3×3 routine.
This set and rep scheme is a step between strength and hypertrophy training. This could be used as an in-between routine after a period of strength training in preparation for doing more repetitions each set.
This is the most common set and rep range used for bodybuilding. Arnold encourages lifters to do eight repetitions in each set for optimal development of the muscles. However, doing eight reps using weights that are too heavy could lead to injury due to improper form while being fatigued. You should be using a weight you are confident with when aiming for eight reps. Beginners can actually benefit a lot from doing 3×8 during their first few months of training to get used to the movements and gain muscle memory for good form. Here is an article on gaining mass for bodybuilders.
This range should only be used for assistance exercises. 12 repetitions per set is too much for the big exercises (Squats, Bench Press etc.) – it is very difficult if not impossible to lift heavy weights for 12 reps and maintain proper form. Doing too many reps with heavy weight is a recipe for disaster and could very easily lead to injury.