In Dungeons & Dragons, a player can choose to, amongst many other things, climb a wall, push open a door, or jump across an impediment. These actions are considered to be strength based abilities, with the 5e Player’s Handbook saying that (p.175, 2014):
Strength measures bodily power, athletic training, and the extent to which you can exert raw physical force.
To check whether or not the player’s character successfully makes that climb, push, or jump, the dungeon master (DM) will have the player make a strength ability check by rolling the die. Based on what the character’s strength is, they will have a strength modifier which will be added to the number they roll with the die. This total number will dictate whether or not they successfully achieved their feat of strength or just fell flat on their face.
Now, whether or not we play as characters with a high strength ability, we all need strength to keep standing, walking, picking things up, etc. well into old age. Because of this need for strength, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that it is essential that we all get the equivalent of at least two total body strength training sessions in each week (if you split up strength training by focusing on different body areas on different days, then you’ll be strength training more than twice a week).
Knowing that we need to strength train is one thing, but walking into a gym or weight room that’s filled with cable machines, weight machines, free weights, and other contraptions that look like they belong in a Medieval torture room can be very intimidating. One of the more intimidating factors is knowing how much weight we should use and how many times we should perform the exercise with that weight. (Form is also INCREDIBLY important, but is also specific to an exercise, which means I’ll save that conversation for a different post).
Fortunately for us, scientists and fitness professionals have done the research to give us a guide as to how much weight we should use and how many times we should perform that exercise with that weight. This is called the load to repetition relationship.
In its most basic explanation, the load to repetition relationship is that the heavier the weight we use, the less repetitions we do. But science has gotten really specific with this, which means we can use this relationship to specifically achieve and alter our workout routines to best fit our fitness goals. Below is a more specific breakdown of the weight (or load) we use and the amount of repetitions we perform.
NOTE: It’s important to be able to maintain proper and safe form throughout an exercise. So if we cannot maintain that proper form throughout an exercise using a certain weight, then we need to drop down to a lighter weight. Conversely, if we perform a full set of repetitions and feel that we can do more than say, the 8-12 reps for a strength set, then increase the weight.
If our goal is to increase muscular endurance (how long we can perform the same exercise or the number of muscle contractions we can consecutively perform), then we’ll use a weight that will allow us to perform 15 or more repetitions. Aim for 1-3 sets per exercise with 1 minute or less for rest between sets.
If we want to increase muscular strength (the maximum amount of force a muscle or muscle group can generate), then we want to use a weight that will allow us to perform 8-12 repetitions. Aim for 1-3 sets per exercise with 2-5 minutes rest between sets.
If we want to increase our muscular power (the rate or speed at which we can generate a maximum force), then we want to use a weight that’ll allow for 1-6 repetitions per set. Aim for 1-3 sets per exercise with ~5 minutes of rest between sets.
Which Element of Muscular Fitness Should I Focus On?
This answer depends on what the ultimate fitness goal is and where we’re each at in our individual fitness journey. As a trainer, when working with a new client and figuring out where they are in their strength, I start them off with muscular endurance repetitions to get an idea of their form, how difficult that weight and repetition range is for them, and to introduce them to an exercise without potentially injuring them with too heavy a weight.
Just as in Dungeons & Dragons, where a character starts as a novice adventurer and then advances to greater hit points (health), spells, skills, and equipment, we need to start at our current skill level and build up that strength to more advanced weight and exercises. Personal trainers and fitness instructors are great guides for this, but only we can really feel what’s happening in our bodies and know when to push for another repetition or to rest.