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Do Repetitions Matter?

By Denise Quentin, M.S., CPT

I often get asked how many reps one should be doing. Unfortunately, the answer is a lot more complex than just giving you my favorite number. To answer the question of how many reps are needed, it is important to think about your goals first. What do you want to achieve by doing a certain exercise? Are you trying to gain strength, are you just trying to stay in shape, or are you working toward a sports performance goal? Or a mix of all three? Depending on that answer, we can look more into how many reps are needed to achieve your named goal.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends the following loads of training for different training focuses:

Muscular Endurance 10-15 Reps for 1-3 sets

Hypertrophy 8-12 Reps for 1-3 sets

Muscular Strength 1-6 reps for 3 or more sets

These are your numbers in a nutshell. However, the foundation of every resistance program should lie within the proper execution of all exercises. Before starting any program, you want to prioritize your form and technique first to not only execute the movement correctly but also to avoid the risk of injuries. Once you have these perfected, we can start talking more about the training load. The above numbers should give you a good idea of where you want to be.

Someone who wants to increase muscular strength would have to aim for one to six reps for at least three sets. The weight should be fairly heavy at this point. If unsure about the weight, a simple trial and error method will help out. Choose a weight that you believe you can properly lift up to six times. If afterward, you feel like you still have gas in the tank, I’d suggest picking a heavier weight. When aiming for strength gains, you want to be fatigued by the end of your last set. Our bodies are very adaptable. If you have been using the same weight for a longer period, your body is simply used to it. It doesn’t put too much stress on your muscular system anymore. Once you start picking up a heavier weight, your body will start the adaptation process over again to ensure your muscles and tendons/ligaments are ready to sustain a heavier load.

Going back to my first question if repetitions matter, I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, they matter to help you achieve your goal. But they also don’t matter if you don’t use your full potential within the prescribed rep range. If you feel like you can keep lifting this one weight for hours, then it might be time for you to move up in weight. Once you get used to the heavier weight and your reps start feeling easier again, you will continue to repeat the process. I always suggest thinking about the last three reps in a given set. Did you feel like you were struggling or was it fairly easy? If it was easy, go up in weight and see how you are feeling with lifting a heavier weight.

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