A woman loading up a barbell with weights.

Strength training: how many sets and reps should you do to get stronger and build muscle?

Posted by for Strong Women

Fitness trainers explain how many sets and the best rep range to use when strength training to get stronger.

Strength training’ is a broad term, often used to describe lifting weights, as opposed to doing cardio. However, any form of resistance training will make you stronger in both your workouts and your everyday life, including bodyweight exercises. But if gaining strength so you can squat your bodyweight or deadlift a big number is your goal, then there are certain styles of training that will help you get there faster.

“My favourite thing about strength training is that, yes, you can learn a lot about your body, but you also get to see how strong your mind really is. To get through those really hard sets you have to be so strong-willed,” says Alice Miller, trainer from the Strong Women Collective

Now that gyms have reopened, there’s no reason you can’t challenge your body and brain  to get stronger. So is the best way to do that with high reps or low reps, and how heavy should you really go? 

HOW MANY SETS AND REPS SHOULD YOU DO FOR STRENGTH TRAINING?

“As a general rule, I wouldn’t go for more than six reps during strength work,” says Alice. “In order to be building strength you need the reps to be really taxing on the body and engage the fast-twitch muscle fibres which are responsible for power.” 

Emma Obayuvana, another trainer from the Strong Women Collective, explains that strength reps can range from one to eight. “The upper end of that, from five to eight reps, will also be building muscle as well as strength. For pure strength, you need to focus on doing lower reps and you need the weights to be really heavy and really challenging. You want to not be able to get anymore reps out when you’re finished with your set.”

The amount of sets you do will vary depending on your reps. “In strength training, the lower the reps the heavier the weight and the higher your sets,” explains Alice. For example, if you are doing just five reps of an exercise, you might want to do five sets. If you’re doing eight reps, you might want to do three or four sets. “This is to ensure you get enough volume out of your workout,” Alice adds. 

Alice Miller in a warehouse gym bending down to perform a deadlift
How to build strength: Alice Miller explains how to get strong

WHAT EXERCISES ARE BEST FOR BUILDING STRENGTH?

“When we look at building strength, we usually want to do the big compound lifts. So squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, dips and pull ups,” says Alice. “These are moves that engage a lot of muscles and mean you can add extra heavy weight on to the bar.”

But it’s not just about what you do in the session that counts, Alice points out. “It’s so important to get the right recovery and remember that food plays a huge part in building your strength.”

HOW LONG SHOULD REST IN BETWEEN SETS WHEN STRENGTH TRAINING?

“We add in longer rest periods when strength training because your central nervous system and your body needs time to recover from the huge stress of lifting heavy,” says Alice. She explains that being under recovered between sets means that you won’t be able to lift as much weight on the next set, which will hinder your strength gains. “Aim for a rest of a couple of minutes,” she suggests. 

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty / Alice Miller

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

Recommended by Chloe Gray