Ideal Rep Ranges for Weight Loss and 4 More Goals

by Tony Bonvechio
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Ideal Rep Ranges for Weight Loss and 4 More Goals

The last time you went to the gym to lift weights, how many sets and reps did you do of each exercise? The answer is probably the same for most people: 3 sets of 10 reps.

Why is 3X10 the default set-and-rep scheme so many people use? Does it work as well as advertised? And most important, is there a better way?

Whether you’re aiming to gain muscle, build strength or cross-train, there’s a set-and-rep range that will work best for you. Spoiler alert: It’s not always 3X10, and here’s why.

THE ORIGIN OF 3X10

To learn where the 3X10 approach came from and became accepted as strength training gospel, crack open an American history book to the World War II section.

In the 1940s, army physician Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme needed a faster way to get his injured soldiers back on the battlefield. Typical rehab protocols called for light weight and high reps, but soldiers were spending 6–9 months recovering. DeLorme, an avid weightlifter himself, knew there had to be a better way.

So, DeLorme developed a regimen that called for 3 sets of 10 reps with increasingly heavier weights, a drastic change from the wimpy weights and endless reps previously prescribed. The results were outstanding, and soldiers returned to battle faster than ever.

More important than the 3X10 scheme, DeLorme’s implementation of progressive overload (i.e. gradually increasing the weight lifted over time) soon became the staple protocol for strength training. This concept is still the Holy Grail of getting stronger indefinitely: lift a little bit more than you did last time, rest and repeat.

A REP RANGE FOR EVERY GOAL

But what if you’re not an injured soldier? What if you have different goals, like losing weight or running faster? Well, then there’s probably a better set-and-rep range for you than 3X10. Here are a handful of options based on your goals.

TO LOSE WEIGHT

Sets: 4
Reps: 8
Intensity: 1–2 reps shy of failure
Equipment: Free weights, bodyweight or machines

When people want to lose weight, they automatically assume they should do light weights for tons of reps. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. To lose weight, you’re likely be in a caloric deficit (i.e. eating fewer calories than you’re burning), which means you won’t have a ton of energy reserved to do high reps. Instead, stick to moderate weight and moderate reps. Heavier weights also give your body a reason to hang on to hard-earned muscle as you lose weight.

TO GET REALLY STRONG

Sets: 5
Reps: 3–5
Intensity: 2–3 reps shy of failure
Equipment: Mostly free weights (but some machines are OK, too)

There’s no sugar coating it; getting strong takes a lot of work. And by work, we mean lifting progressively heavier weights over time. Skip the light dumbbells and sets of 20. Instead, opt for big free-weight exercises that use lots of muscles (like squats, deadlifts and rows) and stick with lower rep ranges. Because you’ll be using more complicated exercises, stop each set 2–3 reps shy of failure to ensure your technique is on point.

TO BUILD MUSCLE

Sets: 3
Reps: 8, 10, 12
Intensity: 1 rep shy of failure
Equipment: Free weights or machines

While heavy weights are best for getting stronger, building muscle requires a little more finesse. As hokey as it sounds, the “mind-muscle” connection is very real. Use lighter weights and focus on feeling the target muscle squeezing and burning. Use the same weight for each set, but gradually increase the reps each set until you’re just shy of failure. This laser-like focus leads to rapid gains in muscle tone and size.

TO RUN FASTER AND JUMP HIGHER

Sets: 8–10
Reps: 3
Intensity: Light to moderate (but move the weight as fast as possible)
Equipment: Free weights

Running faster and jumping higher requires more efficient recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. While it’s usually best to lift weights in a slow, controlled manner, lifting weights explosively targets your fast-twitch fibers to make you faster and more athletic. Use lower-body free-weight exercises like squats or kettlebell swings and keep the reps low so you can put everything you have into every set. And finally, don’t go too heavy; if the weight isn’t moving quickly, lighten the load.

TO BUILD ENDURANCE

Sets: 1
Reps: 12 or more
Intensity: Failure (keep going until you can’t do any more reps)
Equipment: Machines

Sometimes one set is all it takes. If endurance is the name of the game, it’s likely you’re using strength training as cross-training for a sport like running, cycling or swimming. Being brutally strong isn’t all that important, so pick a weight, do as many reps as you can (ideally 12 or more) and move on to the next exercise. Machines work best for training to failure since you’re less likely to use poor technique compared to free-weight exercises.  

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  • fh

    Good stuff, thanks. I’m 66 and lift 3x per week, mostly with a ‘build muscle’ objective – or at least try not to lose too much! With age there’s less blood flow to joints, and tendonitis can become a problem, so it’s important for us older lifters to listen to our bodies. Strength training, along with a good aerobic workout on the off days, significantly slows the aging process; but you still need to realize you aren’t a 20 year old any more – and proceed accordingly…

  • Brian E Lawyer

    You lost all credibility with me in the first paragraph when you said, “The answer is probably the same for most people: 3 sets of 10 reps.” I do not know anyone that does sets of 10. All my programs have been either 3-5 reps, 8 reps, or 12 reps. I’m a male but even athletic women I train with seem to like either 8 or 12 reps.

    • Shayna

      Did you at least finish the article before commenting? The article was not written for personal trainers or advanced lifters. It was written for your novice to intermediate lifters and your average gym goers who do not seek a trainer. As an intermediate lifter I still found it knowledgeable. I do not have a physical science background or program any of my workouts. Yet I still walk away from this article learning something I didn’t know before.

    • James DePasquale

      What is the proper rest period between sets?

    • Cornflake

      Well now you do. I’ve lost 45 lbs and gained 15 lbs of lean muscle mass in 4.5 months doing 3×10 resistance training and cardio 😉

  • Maryc

    I’m new to all this. Could you please explain what you mean by 1-2 reps shy of failure?

    • Failure means you can’t do that move any more (you can’t do one more bicep curl, can’t lift that barbell above your head one more time, etc). 1-2 reps SHY of failure means that you will get to that point of not being able to do the move in one or two more moves. I can do 14 bicep curls before I can’t do that last one (#15), so that is 1 rep shy of failure. Make sense?

  • Nathan Z. Solomon

    Thank you so much Tony for spelling this out, breaking it down for us. 🙂

  • Calvin Harris II

    Great article. I learned something more as well. Never really thought on how to lift in conjunction with running faster and jumping higher except for with plyometrics. Thanks for sharing. I never knew the origin or 3X10 either

  • James DePasquale

    How much rest between sets?

  • Tessa Cunningham

    Great article! I’ve been really focused on losing weight and was apparently not optimizing my reps/sets. AND now that I’ve started BJJ, it nice to know the rep/sets for endurance, which will be important as a smaller person to be able to outlast an opponent! Thanks!