How Many Reps and Sets Should I do to Build Muscle?
Awesome physiques require building some muscle. That means lifting weights for sets and reps.
But how many sets and reps should you do to build muscle?
What Are Sets and Reps?
If you’re starting out on this journey, you’re going to have to get familiar with sets and reps. You’ll see these terms on loads of training programs. If a training program doesn’t mention these, then I would question how useful it’s going to be.
What is a rep?
A rep is a repetition. Each time you lift the weight through the full range of motion, that is a rep.
If you’re doing bench press, and you touch the bar to your chest and then extend your arms fully, that is 1 rep. Do that 8 times and you did 8 reps.
What is a set?
A set is a cluster of reps. After each set, you re-rack the weight or put it down so you can rest before beginning the next one.
For example, you might lift the bar 8 times on the bench press before returning it to its rack. You then sit up and rest. Good job, you’ve done one set of eight reps.
A training program should tell you how many sets and reps you should be doing. Usually three to five sets are prescribed in training programs. The reps for each set could be anything from 1 to 15, although technically anything goes.
How Many Sets and Reps Should You Use?
There isn’t a one size fits all answer to this.
Yes, lower rep sets are good for building strength (1 – 5 reps), and higher rep sets are good for building muscle (8 – 15 reps), but strength and muscle can be built with either.
I would say beginners won’t go too far wrong with three sets of 8 reps, three sets of 10 reps, or 5 sets of 5 reps.
Those set and rep schemes provide enough volume (weight x total reps) to stimulate change in a beginner. More advanced trainees may do better with a bit more volume (e.g. 5 sets of 10 reps). I wouldn’t recommend high volume for beginners as your body is still adapting to all of this new stimulus! You don’t want to overdo it and give yourself an injury. The soreness is already going to be quite rough! In addition, you’re still figuring out the form. As you do more volume and get tired, your form will undoubtedly suffer. You don’t have the experience of thousands of reps with weight to know when your form is breaking down just a little bit and how to correct it, or fight it. You’ll most likely get a niggling injury, usually to your shoulder, elbow or back.
The Most Important Thing for Building Muscle is Progressive Overload
Aside from a calorie surplus and sufficient protein to build muscle that is…
Progressive overload means you are asking more of your muscles over time. Don’t think in short term here. Think months and years.
Don’t think you’ve got to add another plate to the bar each week. Think about the smallest incremental improvement you can make each workout, and do that every time.
I’m talking doing one more rep with the same weight than you did last time.
Did three sets of 8 with 60kg? Next time do one set of 9 and two of 8 with 60kg.
Complete beginners will be able to progress faster than this, but everyone else should take note.
You NEED to track your lifts to have success with this. You’re not going to remember everything you are lifting.
How I like to do progressive overload:
Take the example above (3 x 8 with 60kg).
I add one rep every workout. Next time I’m lifting one set of 9 and two sets of 8.
I keep going like this until I hit something like three sets of 12. Then I up the weight by the smallest possible increment (so now it’s 62.5kg) and begin again with three sets of 8.
This might seem to slow for you. If you think you can go from three sets of eight to three sets of nine the next week, then do it.
If you think you can go from three sets of 8 with 60kg, to 3 sets of 8 with 62.5kg the next week, then by all means try it.
There’s only so long you’ll be able to progress like that for. Do it while you can, but it won’t be that long until you hit a wall.
My method keeps you moving forward every single week.
It means you set a new volume PR every single workout. You get to walk out of the gym knowing you’re stronger than ever.
You stop failing reps. You get quality reps done and ingrain good form into your movement patterns.
And a year later you’re lifting 70kg for three sets of eight instead of 60kg.
Putting 10kg onto a lift in a year is good going. In the first year, it’s not. But in the third year, it is. Most people still lift exactly the same weights in their fourth year as they were in their third year and their second year.
Adopting a progressive overload approach like this means you won’t be. You’ll keep getting stronger, and you’ll keep building muscle.