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Sets, Reps, & Where Most Workouts Go Wrong

sandbag exercise equipment

It has really only been recently that I realized what one of the BIGGEST needs people have in the fitness industry is and it has nothing to do with the next best exercise you can perform. The largest struggle I hear from coaches specifically is that they just aren’t sure how to put the pieces of their workouts together. In other words, programming.

Can’t believe I STILL said it wrong…less sets, more exercises and more sets, less exercises. 

I know, there is a subset of the industry that believes you don’t need workouts and varying your training day to day is ideal. You can do that, here is the problem though, you never really know what is working and what isn’t! When I get asked questions from coaches about how to solve this or that problem or why they aren’t seeing success in this or that, my response is always the same…”can I see your program?” If they tell me they don’t have one, that has to be our starting point, how are we suppose to know what the issue is if we have no way to know what they have been doing.

So, if we agree programming is important, I think the biggest fear from a lot of coaches is that it has to be complicated. Like SO many things in fitness, and well life, complex is relative. For me, I have been studying the science of strength training for 25 years, there are many topics I feel very comfortable with and the fact I have been creating programs for many years makes what is complicated very different than someone who is just starting off. Here is the good news, getting great results for yourself or others is something even someone new to programming can accomplish if we start with a good foundation.


Me presenting at the National Strength & Conditioning National Conference in 2018 about how functional training programming is going to be different in creating better workouts. 

Last week I provided a video talking about a lot of the common pitfalls of creating good workouts, things like…

-Not focusing on movement patterns, but rather muscles and exercises.

-Introducing qualities like power far too early into training.

-Doing too much, too fast with people.

I remember just starting my journey on learning how to create great workouts and I got some awesome books at the time. These books had a lot of the science of strength training and what we should be considering in training. As time went on, the foundations that these textbooks discussed got a little more grey because those books largely were not based off of what we know about functional training today. A lot of it was a very isolated approach and dated way of thinking about the body. It doesn’t mean it was all bad, but many of us in my circle of professionals had to learn how to adjust some of the information and that is what I want to do for you today.

For years Fleck and Kraemer were considered some of the top U.S. strength training scientists and this book use to be a must have!

It is also challenging in today’s fitness environment to create good workouts because a lot of training information is being given from the training of elite athletes. Whether that is professional athletes in sports like football, or high level lifters from powerlifting and weightlifting. In other words, not really appropriate for the clients that 95% of professionals will be dealing with in their world. Typically, most will be working with men and women 35 and older, who probably haven’t been very active, have some aches/pain, and so forth. So, how can we provide that success in our workouts that help people and in turn help our own businesses grow or stay enthusiastic about our training?

Sets & Reps of Good Workouts

Hopefully the last week blog (you can check out HERE) helped you have a better sense of the exercises we want to use in our workouts. A lot of people choose exercises then try to figure out a goal, the exercises should be dictated by the needs/goals of training. Once we have the exercises outlined for our workouts, then we want to start piecing everything together and sets/reps are a good starting point. So, what should be thinking?

Research points to awareness of lots of different variables in good workouts. If this is overwhelming start with 2 or 3 concepts you weren’t using and start making them a priority in your training. 

If someone has been training consistently less than 3 months you probably want to focus on sets from 1-3 for an exercise. One set sounds like a tiny amount but that means we are going to perform more exercises. A true beginner may have 6-10 exercises in their workout and it is hard to separate things like “warm-up” or “activation” from their main training because those exercises can be quite stressful themselves. Sometimes that is why giant circuits that start with drills like dead bugs, side planks, etc. are helpful for beginners.

We also want to realize the apprehension many people have in starting a workout program. They believe it has to be brutal, something they have to hope to just survive, and is going to make them so sore the rest of their lives are going to be that much more challenging. Doesn’t sound like fun right? That is why so many people are cautious about starting a fitness program and it is up to the professional to show them that doesn’t have to be the case. You may not think so, but a 45 year old person just starting a fitness program can get DEMOLISHED by a workout of 5-6 exercises for 3-4 sets if they are challenging movements. Truly, less is more!

In a general sense, if someone is a beginner they need less sets and more exercises. Someone who is more experienced can use more moderate sets like 3-5 and less exercises (they also become more efficient at the exercises they perform) and more advanced lifters can use a wide variety of sets from 1-10 depending upon the training goals, however, they will still generally follow less sets equals more exercises.

What about reps though? If we have the sets our workouts then obviously need the reps. This has evolved a lot more than probably the idea of sets with functional training. It use to be that you were going to have beginners do 10-15 reps on an exercise because they weren’t very skilled in lifting and needed the volume almost as practice. That usually meant there were a lot of machine and isolated exercises in the workouts too. Nowadays, we try to integrate our body in our workouts and with more muscles being used we have to think a bit differently about the reps in our workouts.

If you are doing big movements with people like squats, deadlifts, push-ups, etc. as beginners, you are better off stay 5-8 reps in an exercise. They are FAR more fatiguing to people than biceps curls, leg extensions, etc., it is so easy to overwhelm people by accident and make them feel terrible if you make many do squats for 10-12 repetitions as a beginner. Plus, they will have their form deteriorate much faster. It is the more advanced people that can do higher repetitions for many of these exercises because they have a greater fitness level and better movement skills.

This model we are use to using for workouts still is helpful, but we need more flexibility in how we think about reps because the exercises that this was largely based upon have changed as well. 

The use of asymmetrically loaded exercises, moving in different planes of motion, doing more unilateral work, and a lot more wasn’t the basis for the repetition recommendations that many of us were taught in school because the exercises were more isolated and machine based. It doesn’t mean these have no application, but here are some things we want to consider.

If an exercise is VERY high stress (this is relative to the individual’s fitness level) like being more single leg or arm, being in a more unstable stance, moving through or resisting new planes of motion, we want to keep the reps again in the 5-8 range, even being willing to go to 4-6. For example, many new trainees get VERY sore from lunging because of all the demands of the exercise. If you make a new person perform 10-12 reps of lunges for 3 sets, you will probably have them hating you because they won’t be able to move for some time! At the same time, if we build up tolerance to lunging to 3 sets of 10-12 reps and now we go from lunging backwards to forwards (a more intense level of the exercise), starting them with 10-12 reps would again, probably be problematic.

So, here are some good guidelines to follow…


Beginners: 1-3 (training less than 3 months)

Intermediate: 2-4 (training 3-6 months minimum)

Advanced: 1-10


Very intense exercises: 4-6 reps

Moderate intensity: 6-8

Not that intense: 8-12

Remember though, if you have a single arm/leg exercise or two sides to an exercise you will want to modify the reps given because you are doubling the work. As the great Admiral Ackbar said, “it’s a trap!” in creating good workouts. We have to be more thoughtful if we are going to use the ideas of functional training because we are changing the rules slowly. In upcoming posts we will discuss how speed of movement and other variables can also change how many sets and reps you use. However, if you use what we talked about today, you will project yourself to the top 10% of coaches! Check out the great workout by DVRT Master, Cory Cripe below…

Don’t miss 25% off Ultimate Sandbags and when you do save, you will also get our Programming Module from our L.I.F.T certification for FREE! Just use code “program” HERE.


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