That’s a very common and a very good question. It shows that you’re actually thinking, not just randomly “doing what you feel” (which gets you basically nowhere). Kudos on that!
But are you sure you can handle the answer? It’s going to BLOW YOUR MIND.
I’m not kidding. It’s just too much for some people to handle.
Are you sure you want it?
If you’re sure…
Then here it is: it depends.
(insert mind blown emoji here)
FOR REAL. It depends.
Depends on what though?
(As always, none of the information provided here should be considered medical advice. It is for informational/entertainment purposes only. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or before starting a new exercise or nutrition program)
Well, what are your goals? How many times per week do you currently do each of those lifts? Are you only doing one version of each lift right now (e.g. only competition bench press, no close-grip, incline, decline, dumbbell, or other variations)? Do you vary your set and rep scheme or do you do the same thing every time you step in the gym?
If you’re brand new to doing any of these lifts, you’re going to get a different answer than if you’ve been training properly for years. Being as you likely aren’t reading this if you are someone who is legitimately using advanced training methods (e.g. an elite level athlete who competes at the professional level and/or with the intention of breaking world-level records) we are going to focus on those who would be considered novices for this discussion.
Just so we’re on the same page, a novice is someone who has never completed a linear-progression-type program and/or is able to realize strength gains on a lift for a constant number of sets and reps within 72 hours of a previous training session. In short: you can add weight each consecutive training session and still do the same number of sets and reps.
Side Note: There are many people who think they are intermediate or advanced trainees when in truth, they are novices. I was one of those people. BUT… you should actually be excited to be a novice trainee! Why? Novice trainees experience the fastest strength gains by far over intermediate and advanced trainees. Ideally you would actually stay in the novice stage for as long as possible, adding weight each consecutive training session on all of your lifts. My point is that you should definitely not hesitate to put yourself in the novice category - you should be excited about it!
Where Are You Starting?
Are you just getting started training with barbells? As the saying goes, you’ll need to learn to crawl before you can walk. Strength training is NOT something you want to try to go from zero to sixty with in a hurry. You’ll just end up sore, discouraged, and potentially injured which does nobody any good.
A good starting point actually has very little to do with sets, reps or weight. The CORRECT place to start is to learn to do the movements properly. We suggest some outstanding YouTube videos on our website to learn what we consider to be the foundational strength movements: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, power snatch, and power clean. Take the time to study and commit each of these movements to muscle memory before you get started on a strength program because when the weights get heavy, your form will be the first thing to go and that’s when injuries can happen. These movements need to become second nature. It is absolutely worth committing an hour or two of studying the recommended YouTube tutorials followed by a couple of hours at the gym practicing each movement (and ideally video recording yourself to check your technique).
After you are comfortable and confident with each movement (it never hurts to have a knowledgeable friend give you a second opinion), we recommend working up to one set of four or five reps where the last two reps are somewhat challenging, but you believe you could do about two or three more reps (e.g. you COULD do a total of seven or eight reps, but only actually do five). Then move on to the next lift. Go through this process for squats, overhead press, bench press, and deadlifts on the first day or split those four lifts up into two sessions if you’re short on time. You do NOT want to rush learning these movements. Take your time.
The weights from those final sets of four or five reps will be your starting weights for what’s referred to as a “Linear Progression” strength training program, so make sure you record those weights somewhere. Our 12-Week RPE Workout Builder actually has a Novice Linear Progression program pre-loaded, so all you have to do is click a button and enter your starting weights to get going. Power cleans and power snatches can be introduced a couple of weeks into the program, at which point you should apply the same learning process with power cleans and power snatches until those movements are also second nature.
During this program, which should last up to about three months, you will be training three times per week:
Squats: three times per week
Bench Press/Overhead Press (pressing movements): three times per week TOTAL (not each)
Deadlift: three times per week for a couple of weeks, then once or twice per week Power
Cleans/Power Snatches: once or twice per week (optional or replace with barbell rows, deadlift variations, or push presses)
You can see above that you will be squatting, pressing (bench press and overhead press), and pulling (deadlift, power clean, power snatch) a total of three times per week each during your Linear Progression program. Squats and presses will each have 45 total working reps per week and pulling will have 15-35. Carry this program out as long as you can because the strength gains you experience on this program are the fastest, most drastic gains you should experience in your strength training lifetime.
After about nine to twelve weeks of this linear progression, you will likely need to change things up a little bit in order to keep progressing as your body adapts to the repeated workouts. But do you need to lift more times per week (frequency) or incorporate more total sets/reps per week (volume)?
In most cases with regard to increasing strength and/or muscle mass, weekly volume is a much more significant improvement driver than weekly frequency. For example, it will usually be much more beneficial to work up to doing 75 total reps per week at an intensity of 75-80% of your five-rep max weight than to do one heavy set of five, six times per week for a total volume of 30 reps.
And it really doesn't matter all that much how you break that volume up. You can do it in two training sessions or five and potentially get a similar overall effect.
Here’s your short answer in summary: if strength and/or increased muscle mass is you goal then we recommend that you focus on increasing your total weekly VOLUME at an appropriate intensity (75-80% of your five rep max weight) for a lift rather than worrying about how many training sessions per week you are performing each lift.
You need to start by learning to properly perform each lift if you haven’t already taken the time to do so. Start slow either on a Linear Progression program or doing one or two sets of five of each movement three times per week and adding another set each week or two until you get up to three or more sets of five for each movement (pressing, squatting, and pulling) three times per week.
After that, continue increasing your overall volume for each lift using 75-80% of your five rep max weight for training blocks of six to twelve weeks. It doesn't much matter if you have to train 7 times per week or 3 times per week to accomplish that.
As far as number of reps and sets go, it varies a LOT. For developing strength, we recommend keeping your sets to 6 reps or fewer and stay between 3 and 8 working sets (not counting warm-ups) using an appropriate weight (75-80% of your five rep max. But that’s for a future discussion.
Thanks for reading! If you’re looking to get into barbell strength training, our 12-Week RPE Workout Creator* is the best RPE Strength training template to start with and includes beginner AND intermediate programs built right in that you can load with the click of a button. No more headaches trying to format spreadsheets to get things to print out correctly, just click a button on the spreadsheet and everything automatically formats and prints out neatly. You can also track your progress on 68 automatically updating graphs showing volume, tonnage, intensity, and estimated 1-rep max.
Go into the gym with a clear plan and the confidence you need to embrace the grind, do the work, and fulfill your potential.