How Many Reps and Sets

When performing an exercise it is important to understand how many reps and sets you need to do to achieve benefit.  The idea of a set is to stimulate the neuromuscular pathways.  In order to establish greater thresholds it is important to repeat the exercise (reps).  The more you condition the neuromuscular pathway, the greater the response of the tissue will occur, while under a stressful (resistance) stimulus.  What this means is that by performing the same movement over and over will  create greater strength and endurance.

When someone who has never exercised before starts an exercise program it is important for them to establish a good sympathetic nervous system foundation.  This is known as creating good tone.  You might hear people in the gym say that they want to tone their muscles.  The idea of toning is based on a sympathetic nervous system principle.  It has nothing to do with how the muscle looks. Yet, people are confused by the term toning.  They associate it with appearance. Saying ” you look toned.”  This is a misinterpretation of what toning is.

What is meant by toning is the following.  The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the primary excitatory factor in the stimulation of the body systems. When the person is aroused emotionally or physically the SNS responds.  Hormones, sugar uptake, blood pressure all increase during a SNS response.  The SNS is known as the “fight of flight” system.  When stress is present we either flee the situation or stay and fight. Exercise is a form of physical stress.  When the body begins to exercise the SNS gets turned on. Controlling the SNS is the idea for becoming fit.

Being de-conditioned, simply means that the systems of the body are not able to adapt to the stress that is being placed on the body fast enough. Therefore, the systems are compromised and cannot work synergistically. The result is abrupt fatigue, homoeostasis imbalance, poor recovery, damaged tissue, retarded synaptic transmission.  The cells are unable to clear the toxins and debris quick enough, the vital mineral pumps are affected resulting in electrolyte imbalances. Metabolites in the blood system are affected in unfit people as opposed to fit people, as well. The micro systems of the cells are out of balance, which forces the macrosystems to work harder.

The de-conditioned person has a low stress tolerance.  This is known as “poor tone”, or “low tone.”  The SNS has a low stress threshold.  Meaning that the person’s neuromuscular system is significantly weak in response to a stimulus.  The SNS reacts too quickly and forces the cascading effect of physiological disruption with the systems of the body.  The end result is that the person has very limited adaptive control to handle the stress being presented.  An example of this would be when a someone who has never exercised before steps on a treadmill for the first time.  Since they have never increased their heart rate before, the SNS immediately takes notice.  The person’s SNS threshold is very low.  Within 2 to 3 minutes the person’s alarm state has increased.  The systems are beginning to get challenged beyond what they are used to.  The muscle cells, which haven’t been activated in a long time, begin to develop too much hydrogen forming lactic acid at a fast rate.  The lack of oxygen within the muscle cell prompts the cardiovascular system to work harder to try to pump oxygen into the bloodstream faster to get to the struggling muscle tissue.  This inadvertently forces the heart to have to pump harder and faster.

Once the intensity becomes too much for the systems to contend with, stress hormones are released to help turn off the cells and to begin the steps to cycle the SNS down and to regain homeostasis. The person then begins to slow down their speed on the treadmill until they get back to a proper resting heart.  For some people their heart rate and blood pressure will continue to remain high even after the treadmill has stopped. This is a clear indication that they are very de-conditioned and they have poor SNS tone.

In order to improve the tone of the SNS the person must slowly work up their threshold.  The idea of exercise is to stimulate the body enough to stay one step ahead of a full blown SNS overload.  Being fit is the ability of having great physiological balance and control when a stress is present.  The more stress that is influenced the greater the physiological systems are at being able to adapt to the stimulus, that is the key for being fit.

The person must make small steps toward greater health. You wouldn’t run a marathon if you never ran before, that would be disastrous and could kill you. The physical stress would be too much for the body to handle.  However, by starting out working with the SNS threshold and building it up over a period of time, will allow a person to run a marathon without causing too much damage to the physiological system.

The same principle is true with resistance training. Which brings me to the original intent of this blog post. How many sets and reps should a person perform?

The answer lies within the physiological make up of the person.  Non-activated muscle tissue has most likely atrophied over time.  The “don’t use you lose” idea is true when dealing with muscle tissue. The body responds to the level of activity that is being presented upon it.  If the muscles are not being worked enough to get above threshold, then they will become lazy and will shrink.  The cells of the body work in a conservation mode.  They communicate with each other and will shut down certain cells when they are not necessarily being worked.  Muscle tissue is an active and non-active tissue, meaning it can be used for times of intense exercise or it can be turned off during times of rest.  When skeletal muscle tissue has been rested for a long time (sedentary living) then it atrophy occurs.

When a person begins to lift the weight the muscles begin to wake up.  The SNS begins to take notice and synaptic transmission is set in motion.  In a well conditioned person the first reps and sets are not great enough to elicit a strong response from the SNS.  However, in a deconditioned person the threshold is low (poor tone) and SNS overload begins.  If the person continues to do more sets they will most likely increase too much stress catecholamines into their bloodstream, which could result in a sick nauseating feeling.  Some folks that have such low SNS control often times vomit.  This is not a good thing.

It is important to slowly build up the amount of reps and sets in order to avoid SNS overload.

How many reps is necessary? The rep number depends on the SNS tone and what you are trying to achieve. Low reps will develop greater power and hypertrophy of the muscle fibers. Higher reps will increase the capalliary network in the muscle, therefore producing greater oxygen saturation. This is good for defnining muscle and increasing muscular endurance. How many reps depends on your goals.

How many sets are necessary? Again it depends on the SNS tone and the physical condition of the systems.  For beginners 1-2 sets is optimal. For the more advanced 3-8 sets is optimal. The idea of sets and reps is to challenge the neuromuscular system.  The more advanced a person becomes the more output they can generate, therefore they must vary the set and rep scheme to get more stimulation out of the muscles and to increase the SNS threshold.

Daryl Conant, M.ed

tags: reps and sets, daryl conant, vince gironda, ron kosloff, bodybuilding, nutrition, weight training, muscle, strength and conditioning