Sets, Reps and Weight

Woman curlingThere is no easy answer, it depends on your goals. Generally, my advice is for people who want real results as far as strength, looks, health, and physical functionality. Hard-core bodybuilders will probably scoff at my opinions, but I am talking to REAL PEOPLE here. My program will allow you to work out hard and achieve results while still maintaining an active life in all other aspects.


For the vast majority of people wanting to get in excellent shape I advocate full body workouts utilizing two exercises for the smaller muscle groups, one set each, and adding a third exercise for the larger muscle groups, (abs, legs, chest and back). I do believe in utilizing split workouts for people who have advanced to a certain point, however. (see SPLITS AND FREQUENCY). This is a subject that is hotly debated. If you read bodybuilding magazines you will see that the pros virtually always split their workouts, doing as many as five sets per exercise, and four exercises per body part. That's 20 sets per body part! They are also pros, and more than likely on some sort of anabolic steroid, so you should not even consider trying to emulate a program like that. On the other end of the spectrum, former Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer insists that anything more than one set per body part is not only unnecessary, but it is detrimental. This theory relies heavily, however, on the stipulation that the aforementioned one set takes you completely, and utterly, to muscular failure, anything short of that is not enough. With all due respect to Mr. Mentzer, I doubt that anyone can actually push their body past all natural defense mechanisms to totally achieve "muscular failure", and even if they could, they could not do it on a regular basis.

Another important fact is this; My system is geared for regular people, not full time exercise fanatics. I get up at 4:00 A.M. so I can get in a workout before getting to work. I, and presumably most people, simply don't have time to work out for a couple of hours. My full body workouts generally can be performed in about 40 minutes or so. Thus, I firmly believe in the set system that I have described. This is just a guideline however, it varies from time to time, and from body part to body part. For most body parts a good rule of thumb is to do one set of a heavy compound movement, followed by one set of an isolation movement. Here are some exceptions;

  • ABS

Everybody wants to concentrate on their abdominal muscles. I recommend one set of a movement targeted at the lower abs, and one set of an upper ab movement, possibly finishing up with a movement targeting the obliques, (although you want to work the obliques somewhat sparingly). Keep in mind that you want tight toned abs, not large abs, so stick to low weight, high reps.

  • LEGS

Most weight trainers treat quads and hamstrings separately and work each one with their own set of exercises and sets. I keep in mind, however, that your legs are used all day long as you go about your life. Add to that the fact that almost all forms of cardiovascular exercise primarily utilize the leg muscles, and I have come to the conclusion that one set each for quads, hamstrings and calves are entirely sufficient. Again, sometimes we have to make exceptions to the rules, therefore I will add a third exercise for the upper legs every so often.


The forearms get worked very heavily when doing numerous other exercises, and the calves are worked all day long by walking, so I advise only specifically targeting the forearms and calves with one set each.

Rest approximately 1 minute in between sets, and 1 1/2 minutes in between body parts, (you don't really have to time it, just rest long enough so that you can successfully complete another set, but not so long that you defeat the purpose of working out).


The number of repetitions that you perform for an exercise and the weight that you are moving are inexorably linked. To start out, let me clarify that if I suggest 10 reps on a given exercise, that does not mean pick a comfortable weight, do 10 reps, and then stop. It means pick a weight that only allows you to complete 10 reps, while bringing you very near muscular failure, maintaining good form throughout the movement. If you train alone, as I do, then for safeties sake, stop 1-2 reps short of muscular failure on exercises that put the weight in a dangerous position, and which could cause injury upon achieving muscular failure and losing control of the weight.

It is fairly well accepted that to add mass, lower rep ranges, (6-10), are most effective, while for so-called toning, higher rep ranges, (10-15), work best. That being said, I recommend doing 8-12 reps for most major body parts. This range will provide the stimulus for building muscle as well as allowing for enough reps to create a good "pump".

When starting a new routine you need to determine how much weight to move, and how to progressively increase that weight. Start with a weight that allows you to successfully complete 8 reps, again, always practicing PROPER FORM. The goal would then be to try and add 1 rep on subsequent workouts, or as often as possible. When you reach 12 reps, increase the weight by approximately 10%, and start all over again. Of course, there are exceptions;

  • ABS

(It seems abs are always an exception) Stay in the 20-50 rep range. The reason being, lower reps/higher weight promotes muscular growth, and most people want strong, toned abs, not large abs.


Alternate between lower (8-12), and higher (20-30) reps every 2 weeks. Calves and forearms are unique, and somewhat different from most other muscles in your body.



  • ABS
    • Inclined Crunches - 1 set of 30 reps
    • Bench Knee Raises - 1 set of 30 reps
    • Side bends - 1 set of 30 reps per side

  • LEGS
    • Squats - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Leg Extensions - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Leg Curls - 1 set of 10 reps

    • Bench Press - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Declined Butterflies - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Push-ups - 1 set body weight to failure

  • BACK
    • Pull-Downs - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Dumbbell Pullover - 1 set of 10 reps
    • One-Arm Dumbbell Rows - 1 set of 10 reps per arm

    • Arnold Press - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Lateral Raises - 1 set of 10 reps

    • Standing Barbell Curl - 1 set of 10 reps
    • Dumbbell Preacher Curl - 1 set of 10 reps per arm

    • Declined French Press - 1 set of 10 reps
    • One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension - 1 set of 10 reps per arm

    • One-Legged Calf Raise - 1 set of 15 reps per leg

    • Reverse Wrist Curl - 1 set of 15 reps



Circuit training is a method of weight training that combines the benefits of weight training and aerobic/endurance exercise. In circuit training you complete one set of an exercise for each body part continuously, one after another, with little or no rest in between, (max. 30 seconds between sets, and 1 1/2 -2 minutes between circuits). Continue this three times through the entire circuit. You will find that you can not use quite as much weight as in conventional weight training, but it will work your cardiovascular system and help burn body fat very effectively.


As I said, these are just guidelines. Feel free to tweak and adjust according to your individual goals.


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Workouts That Work

September 11, 2001