Basics of gym strength training

This is a conversation I have regularly with people who are experienced with strength training at a typical gym (Goodlife, the Works, MAX, reps etc). They’re picking exercises they feel they can execute safely and correctly but aren’t sure how to organize their workout, sets, reps, etc. Here are some key points that I try to convey in that conversation.

1. Intensity

This refers to how many repetitions you can perform of an exercise based on the movement, resistance, speed/tempo and rest time. To keep things simple I consistently give this rule of thumb for appropriate intensity:

With appropriate intensity it should be challenging to complete an exercise 10 times

This means you’ve picked a movement, weight and rest time that allows you to complete it 10 times in a row where the last few repetitions were far more challenging than the first few. More intensity will allow fewer repetitions, once you pass 10 repetitions the intensity may be too low to stimulate muscle growth. High intensity requires more rest time and has a higher risk of muscle strain. Lower intensity allows less rest time and lower risk of muscle strain.

2. How many sets and exercises

Your muscles respond well to the stress that comes from at least 15 sets of exercises for a body region. This doesn’t mean 15 sets of one exercise. I’d suggest spreading that out over 2-3 sets of 4-6 exercises per body region.

3. Recovery time between exercises

This is an important part of training with a lot of numbers thrown around by trainers, bloggers etc. It relates back to intensity and your own aerobic fitness. As a simple rule of thumb I’d expect at least 30 seconds between the sets of any exercise. If you are still catching your breath from an exercise give yourself longer. If the next 10 repetitions at the same intensity become very difficult that may dictate your recovery time as well. Don’t assume every exercise needs 2-3 minutes rest between every set. You may be cheating yourself out of a great cardiovascular challenge with too much recovery time between sets.

4. Recovery time between workouts

An incredibly important factor that is often missed. This refers to the between workouts for a particular body part. Your muscles need 48-72 hours to appropriate repair and improve before they’re stressed again.

5. How do I gauge progress?

Gauge success by knowing you completed the desired volume of training 2-3 set of 4-6 exercises and with an intensity that challenged you to complete 10 repetitions. Over the coming weeks maintain the volume and see the intensity start to creep up and hopefully your required recovery time between exercises lower down closer to 30 seconds. Don’t base your success on how sore you’ve made yourself.


In summary a good organization for weight training would involve 2-3 sets of 4-6 different exercises for a body region. For each exercise aim for an intensity that makes 10 repetitions challenging. Give yourself 30 seconds or more to recover between sets and 48-72 between complete workouts for a body region.