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The question: I am just starting to lift weights and I am overwhelmed. Can you explain what reps and sets are? Plus, how do I determine what my reps, sets and rest periods should be? So confused. Help!

The answer: In my teens, I was so intimidated by weights that I only took aerobics classes. I took so many that the gym suggested I become an instructor – teaching aerobics was how I got started in the industry!

Now I really enjoy weight training and, with time, you will as well. It feels empowering to be strong. Plus, learning to lift is fun, and since there are so many exercises and ways to lift, it's never boring! Basically, the weight room is your fitness oyster.

If you get nervous, just remind yourself that everyone was a newbie lifter once.

General guidelines

  • A rep (or repetition) is the act of going one time through the exercise. If your program calls for 15 reps of a squat, you need to squat 15 times. Once you complete all of the reps, you have done one set.
  • Typically, one does multiple sets of every exercise. Each set is separated by a rest period. To complete three sets of 15 reps, you would do one set, rest, complete another set, rest, then finish your final set.
  • I suggest using a repetition range, such as 12 to 15 reps, rather than a specific single-rep goal (like 15). Start by aiming to complete the lower number. As you get stronger, aim to complete the higher number.
  • Don’t work the same muscle group on consecutive days.
  • Do complex, multi-joint exercises first. For example, do squats before bridges.
  • Beginners should only do two sets. As you progress, complete a minimum of three sets.
  • To elicit a particular training effect, the weight has to be appropriate for the reps completed. For example, eight to 10 is considered a hypertrophy (or mass-building) rep range. If you could do 20 reps, but stop at 10 reps, you will not build mass. Lifting a weight for eight to 10 reps will only create hypertrophy if you lift a weight that you can realistically only do for eight to 10 reps.
  • Regularly change up your routine. I suggest beginners lift a moderate weight for 12 to 15 reps. As you progress, use a heavier weight or manipulate reps, sets, rest periods, exercises and even tempo. Try lowering and lifting for two counts, or lowering for four counts and powering up.

Trainer's tip: Don't forget to breathe. Don't laugh! This may sound obvious, but it is fairly common.

Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is