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Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 175 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

What order should you do your exercises and how many sets and reps should you do? The simple answer is that it depends. The order of your sets depends on your goals and what you’ve been doing at the gym lately.

I incorporate multiple methods. For example, some days I will perform 1 set of each exercise then, go back up to the top and repeat.

Let me give you an example: let’s say for today’s workout, I wanted to perform squats, push-ups and pull-ups. One way to include these exercises would be to do:

  1. 1 set of 8 squats
  2. 1 set of 25 push-ups
  3. 1 set of 12 pull-ups

Once I completed the last exercise (the 12 pull-ups), I would go back to the beginning and perform another set of 8 squats, then back to the push-ups, then the pull-ups. You could repeat this cycle until you have reached the number of sets or reps you hoped to achieve, or you could set a timer and tell yourself that you are going perform as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes, for example.

Another way to incorporate these same exercises, but in a different way, would be to do the following: perform 50 squats. This could be accomplished by doing 5 sets of 10 reps… or 10 sets of 5 reps, or 50 altogether as fast as you can. Note: I would only recommend this if you’re performing squats using your body weight only – no bar, no extra weight. Basically, any combination you see fit would work. Once you reach your goal reps or sets, you’re done with that exercise for the day. You would then move on to the next exercise: push-ups. You would perform however many reps and sets you meant to do, then be done with push-ups for the day and so on…

What I like to do is incorporate both styles in my workouts. Some days I use the first example; other days, I use the second example. This will force your muscles to adapt in different ways which is important for their growth.

The American College of Sports Medicine actually created some strength training guidelines. I created a chart to represent these tips:

Build Strength Fast

If your goal is to build strength fast, aim for only 3-5 reps per set. This means, that the weight should be heavy enough so that you can only lift it 5 times maximum. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be so heavy that you can only lift it 1 time. If you’re not very experienced, trying to lift a heavy weight only 1 time (what we often refer to as your 1-rep max) can lead to injury. You can perform multiple sets of this same exercise with the goal of getting 3-5 reps per set. Just know that when you lift heavy, you need a longer break in between sets to recover and regain your strength–in between each set, rest those muscles for 2-3 minutes.

Build Strength and Tone

If your goal is to build strength and get that Greek statue look at the same time, your goal is 8-12 reps per set. Here, the weight isn’t going to be too heavy but just enough so that you can lift it between 8 and 12 times. Again, you can perform multiple sets. Because the weight you’re lifting is not as heavy, your rest period can be between 1-2 minutes. If you want more of a cardio workout along with your strength training, cut that rest period down to 30-45 seconds. I would only recommend doing this for those who have been working out for a while.

Build Muscular Endurance

If you want to build more muscular endurance and you want to be able to perform lots of repetitions or get better at holding yoga poses for a while, the goal is to lift a weight 12-15 times. In this case, the weight will be even lighter but you’ll still feel pretty wiped because you’re performing so many repetitions. Usually 1-2 sets of high rep training will leave you feeling pretty fatigued. Sometimes these high rep exercises feel almost like you’re getting in a cardio workout. The rest period between sets here can also be in the 30-45 second range.

Before you dismiss this idea of lifting lighter weights for higher reps, know that this kind of training is still important because it helps recruit other muscle fibers which will still help improve your strength. We have studies to show this and I have found this to be true in my own personal experience. When I was younger, I never wanted to work with lighter weights – my goal was to get strong and look ripped. But I eventually discovered that tossing in some high rep, lighter weight exercises actually helped increase my strength and helped me get that toned look.

How Do I Build Muscle Without Getting Bulky?

It’s difficult for most of us to build too much muscle. Guys will tell me they don’t want to get “too big” and that they just want to look like a Greek statue. Regardless of gender, the reality for most is that it actually takes quite a bit of work to look like a Greek statue.

And to get too big — meaning overly muscular — it takes even more work. Not only that, but as we age, our muscles shrink. This starts to happen when we get to unto our late 20s and accelerates from there. It seems like so much is working against us when it comes to trying to build muscle.

However, incorporating any form of strength or resistance training is always a good idea. Luckily, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has some recommendations for those that would like to incorporate resistance training, but more for overall health and fitness as opposed to building muscle.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), perform the following routine if you want to incorporate some resistance training without getting too big:

  • No matter the exercise, aim for a weight that you can lift anywhere from 12 to 20 times. Another way of saying this is to find a weight that will allow you to perform 12 to 20 reps or repetitions.
  • But don’t just perform 12 to 20 reps and then move on. You want to repeat this so that you do this 2 to 3 times. Or, to put it another way, you want to perform 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 20 repetitions.
  • So, what you do is lift the weight 12 to 20 times, then put the weight down and rest. This would be set number 1. ACSM recommends that if you want to incorporate some resistance training but don’t want to get too big, rest for 30 seconds or less. Then, grab the weight again and lift it another 12 to 20 times. This would be set number 2. If you feel like it, pick the weight up again and lift it for another… you guessed it… 12 to 20 times. That would be set number 3. So, you would have just performed 3 sets of 12 to 20 repetitions.

Even if someone is not too keen on building muscle, I still recommend everyone to mix up their routines. You can follow these guidelines for a while, but to keep the body guessing a bit, it’s good to add and remove weight to change the number of repetitions performed. Then, mix up the sets — sometimes just perform 1 set. Other times, perform 5 sets. By mixing things up, you may be able to prevent injury while preserving muscle.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 175 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik leads the Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program and teaches core courses at Bastyr University California. He has a Doctorate in Public Health from Loma Linda University and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist from the American College of Sports Medicine.Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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