Sets, Reps and Muscle Types

Working out has almost become a science. But what is the best rep and set combo? There are so much information just on this topic alone that it can be a bit discouraging. Luckily, I am going to try to make sense of it all, and make it a bit more easy to understand.

Of course, I am going to use what I have found in terms of research and apply it to the world of calisthenics.

One of the best places to start is to first look at the two two terms and their respective definitions: reps and sets.

“Reps” is short for repetitions. A repetition is the number of times you actually perform an exercise or movement.

For example, if you do 10 push ups, than you have done 10 repetitions of push ups.

“Sets” are the total number of repetitions you do for an exercise or movement.

For example, if you do 10 push ups, than you have done 1 set of 10 repetitions.

Now that you understand to some degree what a “rep” and “set” are, the more important question becomes what is the right mix of reps and sets and rest between sets?

There is no one size fits all when it comes to how many sets and reps. It really depends on your fitness goals, objectives and skill level.

A good understanding of muscle hypertrophy is also an essentially component that sometimes gets overlooked.

Muscle hypertrophy is essentially the ability to grow muscle skeletal muscle.

There are three types of muscle:

1) Skeletal muscle
2) Smooth muscle
3) Cardiac muscle

Lets go over each briefly.

Skeletal muscle are those which attach to bones and have the main function of contracting to facilitate movement of our skeletons. They are the striations that you see on a bodybuilder or someone in great shape. 1

Smooth muscle is also sometimes known as Involuntary muscle due to our inability to control its movements, or Unstriated as it does not have the stripy appearance of Skeletal muscle. Smooth muscle is found in the walls of hollow organs such as the Stomach, Oesophagus, Bronchi and in the walls of blood vessels.2

Cardiac (Heart) muscle is found solely in the walls of the heart. It has similarities with skeletal muscles in that it is striated and with smooth muscles in that its contractions are not under conscious control.3

The Skeletal muscle is what I will be focusing on as I discuss muscle hypertrophy.

There are two types of muscle hypertrophy:  myofibrillar or functional hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic or non-functional hypertrophy.

Think of functional hypertrophy as strength and non-functional hypertrophy as growth.  This is, of course, a gross over-generalization and in no way am I saying that bodybuilders are not strong as well, nor am I saying that the “strongmen” out there don’t grow in size and muscle.

It’s just a way to wrap your head around these two concepts as it pertains to your overall fitness goals.

The amount of reps and sets really depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

In order for the muscle to grow you have to shock it, you have to do something out of the norm, to induce any type of growth. That also goes without saying when it comes to any other area of your life.

If you just go through the motions, and you don’t focus on the actual movements, and you are not pushing yourself to the limits and beyond, you will not see progress.

No matter what rep and set combo you are doing.

I learned this from the P90X founder, Tony Horton:

1. Variety: Mixing it up, changing the routine, to shock the body, this is also called muscle confusion. Muscle strength, endurance and growth are the results of confusing the body.

2. Consistency: A constant routine is also a pillar to muscle growth and strength because it sends a signal to the body to be in a prepared ready state for activity.

3. Intensity: Your workouts need to be intense, otherwise there is no reason to be working out. It”s called working out for a reason, it’s not called going thru the motions. You need to give 100% effort. Or as Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to call it, “Being in the zone. Do it and go all at it.”

If you want to grow in size than more reps lower rest periods, however if strength is what you are after than you want to lower your reps and you increase your rest periods:

Desired Outcome Growth Vs Strength Reps Per Set Rest Time
Explosive Power Strength 4-7 Reps 3+ Minutes
Peak Strength (Myofibrillar Hypertrophy/Functional) Strength 1-3 Reps 5+ Minutes
Strength (Myofibrillar Hypertrophy/Functional) Strength 4-6 Reps 2-3 Minutes
Hypertrophy (Sarcoplasmic/Non-Functional) Growth 8-12 Reps 60-90 Seconds
Muscle Endurance (Sarcoplasmic/Non-Functional) Growth 12-20+ Reps 30-60 Seconds

There are four additional items that I would like to address when it comes to reps and sets, granted these were popularized in traditional bodybuilding but can be easily applied to calisthenics:

1. Drop sets/Pyramids sets: A drop set is the simple technique where you perform a set of any exercise to failure or just short of failure, then drop some weight and continue for more repetitions with the reduced poundage. Increasing the reps/weights is called pyramid sets. (4)

2. Super sets: A super-set is when one set of an exercise is performed directly after a set of a different exercise without rest between them. Once each super-set is complete, then rest for one and a half to two minutes or more to recover. (5)

3. Training splits: Split system training is a system of weight training that divides training sessions by body regions — usually upper and lower body training. (6)

4. Volume: This is the amount of exercise you do, “high volume” training means that you are doing:

  • How much volume is being done per muscle group/body part both per workout AND per week.
  • How much volume is being done per exercise.
  • How much total volume is being done per workout.
  • How much total volume is being done per week. (7)

Incorporating any or all four of these methods into your workout routine can make a dramatic difference.

Read the full article at CalisthenicsMag