Bodyweight Reps vs Sets: How to Create an Impactful Routine

When it comes to strength training, especially bodyweight training, there are always questions over how much of any given exercise to do. Should I be doing 2 sets or 5 sets? 2 reps or 12? How do I get stronger if I keep struggling with the same numbers? How do I decide how to progress?

The Facts

Let’s start out with simple definitions to get us going.

  • Reps (or Repetitions) are the number of times you perform an exercise consecutively.
  • Sets are the number of times you perform a number of repetitions with a break.

For instance, 3 sets of 8 reps would be:

  • Preform 8 Reps
  • Rest 1 minute
  • Preform 8 Reps
  • Rest 1 minute
  • Preform 8 Reps
  • Done

Repetition Theory

The more reps you do the more you shift from muscular performance to muscular size, then finally on to muscular endurance.

Strength Building: In the Reps world working on sets with 1-5 reps works on muscular performance. When you are working in this range and working at a moderate to difficult weight, your muscle fibers are becoming more efficient, and your nervous system is more effective at recruiting more muscle fibers in the movement.

Muscle Building: Sets with 6-10 reps are usually seen as muscle building sets. When you are working in this range and working at a moderate to difficult weight, this is generally creating a Hypertrophic response where the muscles become larger after they recover.

Muscle Endurance: Set with 11-16+ Reps are seen as muscle endurance sets. When you are working in this range and at a moderate to difficult weight the total effort of the muscles is low, but the constant movement increases the aerobic capacity of the muscles.

What do more Sets do?

If you increase the number of sets, you will increase the total volume of work you accomplish in a session. This increases the effect of muscle fatigue and contributes to greater muscular response in the set range you have been accomplishing. Adding sets must be balanced with the appropriate amount of rest to avoid overworking and failing sets.

So, what’s the best method?

In weight training the answer is very different than in bodyweight training. In weight training the most popular answer is progressive overload thorough increased reps. In bodyweight training progressive overload may be best accomplished through increased sets instead of increased reps.

With weight training you are able to incrementally increase the difficulty of a movement by adding more weight to the bar. This allows for the reps to be the easiest way to improve your movement.

Weight training example

Say we are strength training and are able to lift 15 lb. but not 20 lb. yet. To work toward this increase we would increase the number of reps to allow us more muscle capacity without more fatigue.

  • Day 1: 15 lb. 3 sets of 4
  • Day 3: 15 lb. 3 sets of 5
  • Day 5: 15 lb. 3 sets of 6
  • Day 8: 20 lb. 3 sets of 4 with more weight

Bodyweight Training example

Because bodyweight training is so difficult to control the incremental progression of movements. I prefer to add sets before adding reps. This allows for the muscles to experience the movement more and adapt before increasing the number of reps attempted.

  • Day1: 3 sets of 4
  • Day 3: 4 sets of 4
  • Day 5: 5 sets of 4
  • Day 8: 3 sets of 5

What is most important?

This is actually a trick question. Because at the end of the day the number of reps and sets will be determined by your goals. The most important part is that you are doing a number of reps and sets that you can do at the highest quality level you can. Having an extreme focus on the quality of your movement and the control you possess over it will provide you with the most results. Having quality movement and appropriate recovery is the most important part of your ability to adapt and come back stronger.

Remember everyone will have a different response. Learning to listen to your body and make progression based off the data of what you have accomplished before and where you are trying to go is the best path forward. Accountability with a coach who can tailor a program for you can make all of this research disappear. Consistency and high-quality movement are the most important to your strength goals.

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