Weight Lifting (Resistance Exercise)

  • Author:
    Richard Weil, MEd, CDE

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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What are sets and repetitions (reps)?

Sets and reps are the terms used to describe the number of times you perform an exercise. A rep is the number of times you perform a specific exercise, and a set is the number of cycles of reps that you complete. For example, suppose you complete 15 reps of a bench press. You would say you've completed "one set of 15 reps." A set can be any number of reps, so if you complete 10 reps of a bench press, you would say you've completed "one set of 10 reps," and if you complete just five reps, then that would be "one set of five reps."

How many sets should I do?

Research is clear that beginners can develop as much strength performing one set per exercise as they can performing three sets. This is because beginners typically start off with a low level of strength, which leaves room for improvement (called an "adaptive window"). Muscles respond quickly to resistance exercise in untrained individuals because the adaptive window is large. This is great news because the motivation to continue working out is reinforced by immediate and significant improvement. However, after three to four months, strength gains will level off and then multiple sets (three to five per exercise) are necessary if further improvement is desired.

How do I go about lifting for strength?

Muscular strength is gained when you lift heavy. For pure strength development, keep the resistance heavy enough so that you cannot lift more than eight reps, and then follow the progressive overload principle and increase the weight when you can lift more than eight. Expect your reps to drop whenever you increase the weight. For example, suppose you've been doing 10 reps of bench presses with 175 pounds and you increase the weight to 190 pounds. Because the weight is heavier, you will lift fewer reps, but as your muscles accommodate over time, you will again be able to lift more reps. When strength is your priority, you can experiment with heavy days. Heavy days are when you lift as much as you can one time. This is called a one-repetition maximum (a 10-rep maximum would be the weight you can lift 10 times to fatigue). Heavy days are challenging, and caution must be used to avoid strain or injury to the muscles, so I don't recommend them more than once a week. Your muscles need time to recover and grow.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/28/2015

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