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About a year ago, I asked a question looking for a list of beginner dumbbell exercises. A user suggested this helpful website, which I promptly bookmarked. Having procrastinated for the past 10 months or so, I'm now ready to actually start doing these exercises. Having never done much of this kind of thing before, I have a few questions about routines, specifically about sets and reps.

  1. As a beginner (with pretty terrible upper-body strength), how many reps should I start out with for each exercise? To start, I'll be doing one exercise for each muscle type the site lists.
  2. How many repetitions of each exercise is recommended for a beginner?
  3. Is there a recommended rest period between sets? If so, how long?

My ultimate goal is to improve my upper body strength. I have noodle arms at the moment, and I've only recently noticed how weak I've really become (I'm a geek and I sit at a computer all day long). That said, I'm not looking to become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger; I'm simply looking to improve my strength. Any recommendations or tips would be appreciated.

Based on your overall goals (read your previous question), perhaps this question can help, fitness.stackexchange.com/q/6/3778 –  FredrikD Nov 26 '12 at 23:43
As I explained in this answer, the question of how many reps depends on your goal. You said your goal is strength, but you also referred to your arm as "noodly" which implies you also want mass. Strength and mass have some overlap, but are in general two different goals that require two different rep/set focuses. –  Moses Nov 27 '12 at 0:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Short answer: 8-12 reps, whichever your goal may be (strength, mass, speed, etc).

Long answer: This has actually been rather well studied in science. 8-12 reps is the ideal range for a beginner, no matter what your goal is. You can see a (rather lengthy) post I wrote about this here, or just go to my source, the 2009 position stand by the American College of Sports Medicine (click on "Article as PDF" on the right-side menu).

There's a wealth of information on that paper by the ACSM -- if you're not scared of reading scientific papers, I strongly recommend it. Among all that information, they mention in the abstract that "For novice (untrained individuals with no RT experience or who have not trained for several years) training, it is recommended that loads correspond to a repetition range of an 8–12 repetition maximum (RM)." In the paper itself, they split their recommendations in terms of goals: strength, muscle mass, explosive power, and endurance; for all those, the best rep range for a beginner is 8-12.

Note that for more advanced trainees, with some years of training already, different rep ranges should be used for different goals. But until you have some years of training, 8-12 is the best way to go.

Isn't this based on the novice effect, that is, anything will work if you're new? "Loads of 45-50% of 1 RM (and less) have been shown to increase dynamic muscular strength in previously untrained individuals...Several pioneering studies indicated that training with loads corresponding to 1-6 RM (mostly 5-6 RM) was most conducive to increasing maximal dynamic strength. Strength increases have been shown to be greater using heavy weights for 3-5 RM compared with 9-11 and 20-28 RM." journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2009/03000/… –  Dave Liepmann Dec 11 '12 at 16:35
The novice effect exists, no doubt -- but the question is (or at least that's how I interpreted it), what's the best range for a beginner. And there is very strong evidence that it's 8-12; other ranges yield gains as well, though not as much as 8-12. –  HerrKaputt Dec 11 '12 at 16:40
My interpretation, even accepting the studies they use (which I dispute on unrelated grounds similar to Jonathon Sullivan (PDF)) is that "loads corresponding to 1-6 RM was most conducive to increasing maximal dynamic strength." I think the 8-12 recommendation is colored by their desire to avoid injury instead of most efficiently developing attributes: "For novice individuals, it has been suggested that moderate loading (50-60% of 1 RM or less) be used initially as learning proper form, and technique is paramount." –  Dave Liepmann Dec 11 '12 at 16:50
That's an interesting point. I don't have time to read the ACSM paper thoroughly, and I've read it properly something like 2 years ago. I'll have another look at it. –  HerrKaputt Dec 11 '12 at 17:02
Thanks to everyone for the helpful information! –  Jonah Bishop Dec 11 '12 at 20:23

Number of Reps for a Novice

As noted in my answer to your original question, I think sets of 5 or so are fine for a novice such as yourself. That is close enough to the strength end of the rep range spectrum, but is high enough to trigger some muscle growth (hypertrophy) in addition to the neurological improvements. Later, you can decide whether to switch to higher rep ranges for endurance or hypertrophy, or lower rep ranges for strength and power, or stay where you are to stay in the Goldilocks Zone.

Number of Sets

A handful of sets is fine. One set will spur the bare minimum adaptation. Three sets is almost certainly plenty if you're lifting heavy. If you're lifting light weights, more sets are necessary. However, that question really depends on what program you pick.

Pick a Program

Instead of creating your own program from scratch as an untrained novice, I recommend finding a dumbbell workout program created by someone else that has specific recommendations for sets, reps, and exercises. GreySkull Linear Progression, Starting Strength (which has more of an athletic/lower-body bias), or StrongLifts (which has the same bias as SS) are all fine examples. These are barbell-centric, but the principle stands: creating your own workout program is prone to error in inverse proportion to one's experience with working out.


If your main focus to primarily to gain strength, I would highly recommend you to consider a starting strength 5x5 program. There are different variations of 5x5 programs, but they basically focus on compound exercises through squatting, benching, and barbell row/cleans. There's some extensive wikis on Mark Ripptoe, Bill Starr, and Madcow programs; however, all of these programs require barbell exercises, so I don't know if this fits your situation.

If you would like, I can find the 'calculator' excel sheet for a 9 week 5x5 program.

For the moment, I'd prefer to stick with dumbbells, simply because that's what I have available. –  Jonah Bishop Nov 27 '12 at 14:54

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