Sets, Reps, And Loads For Runners

Strength training helps facilitate bone health and enhance resistance to injury.

How to get the numbers right in your strength workouts.

Your average guy or gal who lifts weights for the sake of the mirror does three sets of 10 repetitions of just about every exercise. Three sets of 10 bench presses, three sets of 10 lat pulldowns, three sets of 10 barbell squats, and so on. The typical load used in such workouts is an 11RM or 12RM load, or a weight that the individual can lift a maximum of 11 or 12 times. So, in doing 10-repetition sets the individual is working close to the point of failure but not all the way.

Personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches are always pushing their clients to use heavier loads, which necessitate shorter sets. The rationale is that heavier loads do a better job of increasing maximum strength, much as faster running does a better job than slower running of increasing VO2max. Such trainers and coaches are met with a level of resistance that frustrates them, because lifting with heavy loads is pretty painful. Only the more hardcore segment of the gym-rat population can be seen doing four- to eight-repetition sets with 4RM to 10 RM loads. Those who do such heavy lifting frequently do more than three sets of each exercise—as many as five. Because heavier lifts generally require more rest between sets, this protocol makes for some rather long workouts.

RELATED: The Four Best Strength Training Exercises For Runners

The typical runner hates lifting weights, or at least feels that he or she doesn’t have a lot of time for it. Persuading a runner to strength train consistently is even harder than persuading your average weightlifter to lift 4RM loads. Those runners who do give in to the arm twisting typically zip through one-set circuits and are more likely to do 12-repetition sets than 10-rep sets, because even 10-rep sets are too “grunty” for them. But are these runners wasting their time? Do we have to lift like meatheads and gym bunnies to get the benefits we seek?

Fortunately, it appears that runners can strength train more or less how they prefer to and get something out of it. Researchers at Bergen University College in Norway compared the effects of workouts with 6RM loads to workouts with 12RM loads in healthy but previously untrained college students. Sixty-two total participants were separated into two groups. Both groups lifted weights twice a week for eight weeks. Both groups also did three sets of each exercise. But one group did 6RM sets while the other did 12RM sets. The researchers measured maximal strength (or 1RM peformance) in two exercises—squat and bench press—before and after the training period.

MORE: Should Your Strength Training Be Hard?

Squat strength increased by almost exactly the same amount in the two groups: 13.6 percent in the 6RM group and 13.5 percent in the 12RM group. In the bench press group there was only a modest difference—a 9.2 percent gain among the 6RM subjects and an 8.4 percent gain among the 12RM subjects. These results should not be taken as proof that there is no advantage to lifting heavier loads under any circumstances. Experienced lifters eventually have to start doing heavier, shorter sets to continue making progress. But as a runner you are not looking to become as strong as you can possibly be, but only to get stronger. So go ahead and do your 12-rep sets.

Previous research comparing the effects of one-set and three-set workouts has produced similar results. As you would expect, most studies have found that three-set strength workouts build more strength than one-set strength workouts. But one-set strength workouts build considerably more strength than not lifting weights at all, and are far superior to three-set workouts in terms of cost/benefit ratio. You can build about 80 percent as much strength with one-set strength workouts as with three-set workouts with a 66 percent smaller time commitment. If you were a bodybuilder, that extra 66 percent time commitment would be well worth the additional 20 percent in strength gains. But as a runner you’ll be better off—not to mention happier—spending that extra time running.


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at

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