How many sets and reps should you do to slim down and tone up your muscles?

Reps and sets are two of the most important variables in your exercise program and should be personalized to meet your unique needs. 

One of the best way that can help you determine your rep and set range is your fitness goal.

If you're trying to lose weight, then aim 12-15 reps per exercise and 2-3 sets.

If your goal is to lose fat and get toned, a rep range between 6-8 per exercise and a set range between 3-4 with a little heavier load than weight loss workouts. 

For those new to fitness and workouts, here is a quick overview of repetitions and sets and why you need to get them right. 

What is an exercise repetition?

In short, repetitions refer to how many times you repeat a complete exercise movement before taking a rest. 

For example, if you were to perform 10 pushups, then you are doing 10 repetitions of pushups. 

Next, let’s discuss what exercise sets are. 

If you have been reading about working out or have been working for a while now, you probably have heard of exercise sets. 

If your exercise plan instructs you to do 2, 3 rounds of same exercise or exercise sequence, then you are doing sets. NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) puts it this way: a set is a group of consecutive repetitions. Simply put, it's the number of times you perform a particular exercise.  

For example, if you perform 10 reps of squats before taking a rest, then the group of 10 reps is considered a set. 

In a typical scenario, you have several exercises you sequentially perform such as squats, pushups and plank. Completing all exercises for the first time basically means that you completed one set of each exercise. 

Here is a quick recap: 

Let's take our popular 6-Minute Morning Before Shower Workout

It's a 3 set of mostly 15 rep exercises. 

In practice, the workout is performed as below.

1st set

  • 15 squats [15 reps]
  • 15 pushups [15 reps]
  • 30 sec plank 
  • 15 bicycle crunches [15 reps]

2nd set

  • 15 squats [15 reps]
  • 15 pushups [15 reps]
  • 30 sec plank
  • 15 bicycle crunches [15 reps]

3rd set

  • 15 squats [15 reps]
  • 15 pushups [15 reps]
  • 30 sec plank
  • 15 bicycle crunches [15 reps]

As you see, it's basically a sequence of 4 exercises with 15 repetitions except the plank hold repeated 3 times (sets). 

That's really all there is to repetitions and sets.

Choose Rep and Set Counts According to Your Fitness Goal

As mentioned earlier, whether your goal is to lose weight or tone up can change your appropriate rep and set counts. 

That's because different goals require your body to work in a certain way to maximize your end results. 

But surprisingly, finding your fitness goal is not always easy or clear cut.

Let’s say you want a lean, slender body. Should your goal be losing weight or toning up?

The answer is it depends. If you are overweight and need to lose some weight and get toned, then focus on losing weight  than tone up after you lose most of your excess weight.

Or simpler way to apply appropriate reps and sets is to go by your fitness level. 

If you're never done resistance training before and you are new to workouts, no matter what you're goal is, you have to work on building your foundation, meaning you'd start with 12-20 reps and 1-3 sets. 

If you have a fair share of workout experience, the chances are lower reps, higher sets such as 6-8 reps and 3-4 sets are more appropriate for you. 

With that in mind, let’s review three fitness goal categories and who should aim each fitness goal.

Power[6 reps for 3-6 sets]

Power it is for someone who wants to improve speed and explosiveness. Athletes who play tennis, golf, basketball, etc… you have a good reason to work on your power to improve your athletic performance. 

If that’s you, then refer to the set range of power.

Your rep counts in this category is lower than 6 for each set, and increase your rest time between sets to 2-3 minutes. 

Building Strength [1-5 reps for 3-5 sets]

This is for someone who wants to get stronger and tone up her body. If you consider strength your goal, you should focus on lower reps and higher sets, anywhere from 1-5 reps and 3-5 sets per exercise.

Your rest time should be around 2-3 minutes between sets.

This is the concept behind StrongLIFTS 5x5, you’re pretty much doing five reps and five sets for every every exercise except for deadlifts. Deadlift is only one sets of five reps (1x 5). You can learn more about getting stronger using the 5x5 workout here. 

Hypertrophy (Toning up for a leaner body) [6-12 reps for 3-5 sets]

Hypertrophy is essentially the enlarging of your muscle cell, which means it builds nicely sculpted muscle tone you want in a lean body. So if toning up your body and building lean muscle tone is what you want to accomplish, your repetition range should be around 6-12 and your sets should be around 3-5 sets per exercise. 

As the weights get heavier, your number of reps should decrease. So let’s say you are doing squats and starting weights for the first set is 35 pounds. After performing 10 reps the first set, you increase the weight in your next set to 40 pounds. Because your rep count and intensity have an inverse relationship, you now only perform 8 reps instead of 10 reps. 

Rest time for hypertrophy should be between 60 and 90 seconds between sets. Building lean muscle mass is best accomplished by performing compound movements such as barbell squats, barbell deadlift, barbell bench press, pull ups and over head barbell press.

These exercises recruit the most amount of muscle fibers. If you want to develop lean muscle mass or tone up, your goal is hypertrophy. 


This is a great goal for someone starting a fitness journey for the first time. Also if you have excessive fat and weight that you need to work off, stabilization is a great place to start.

This is an introductory level fitness goal that works well for people with limited fitness capabilities, workout beginners and people with excess body weight and fat.

This goal allows you to gain control of your physical capabilities and stabilization before going for more advanced fitness objectives.

NASM recommends that you perform low intensity and high repetitions for lower set count when building stabilization. Instead of lifting weights or working on speed, your focus under stabilization is to improve balance by performing bodyweight exercises that you can gain stabilization 

Muscular endurance

Lighter weights higher number of repetitions and lower number of sets. 12 to 20 reps for 2-3 sets. Because of your goal is to build endurance and stamina, you would want to decrease the amount of rest to 30-60 seconds just enough to recover nothing more. Circuit training is usually perfect for this type of goal.

Variable Range Alternation 

Now you have your ideal workout variable range, you may get tempted to stick to it and treat it as a static range. While ideal range is the base you should always count on, alternating your set and rep range help you avoid over training and give your body the rest it needs to keep progressing. 

Every couple of weeks in your strength training program, it’s important to alternate your rep and set range. Please note to use the weight that’s appropriate for your reps and sets to avoid injuries.

Again the intensity has an inverse relationship with reps. High intensity (heavier weight) generally means lower reps. 
If you are not sure where to begin, follow this example exercise variable alternation. Start with 15 reps the first set, perform only12 reps the second set. From then on, decrement your rep count by two each set. Some weeks, you can perform high sets of 4-7 with much longer rest period between sets to mix it up a bit. Then go back to your regular workout schedule. This will avoid your body being overtrained. It also helps you maintain muscular endurance and strength.

Thus far, we focused on the relationship between your fitness goal and your set and rep range for each exercise. 
How about your fitness level? How does it affect your exercise variables? 

While your fitness goal determines your set range for each exercise, your fitness level limits how many total sets you can do in a given workout. Little confused? 

Let’s Break It Down 

For example, If your goal is strength, and you decide that you want to perform a total of 5 exercises for 6 sets each. Is it reasonable? Well, according to your set range for strength, it is.

But wait!! Before we jump to our conclusion, let’s talk about maximum set count you can reasonably perform in a given workout based on your fitness level.

Below is the chart for maximum total set count for each fitness level. (source: NASM)

This limit on total set count per workout is there to prevent overtraining and minimize your chance of getting injured. So if you are an overachiever, please be advised that more is better is not always the case. Certainly not in workouts. 

Revisiting the earlier example, if you are an intermediate, doing 5 exercises for 6 sets is considered overtraining. It adds up to 30 sets in a given workout, when your limit is 24. 

What’s ideal for you in this case of 3-4 sets of 5 exercises. 

If you only perform 3-4 exercises, then you may do up to 6 sets of each. But please be advised that it’s equally important to stay within your safe zone as to push yourself. 

Overtraining can increase your risk of injuries, and always listen to your body and push yourself within your safe zone. 

So that’s a wrap for our talk on exercise sets. Always workout smart to get the results you want. Stay tuned for more workout basics!


comments powered by Disqus