Quite simply the biggest and most debated question that is asked by newbies and the experienced alike (unless of course you are from the blindly following 3 set of 10 reps group of lifters no matter what your goal or level of training is) is always about the ‘optimum’ number of Sets and Reps you should be performing to stimulate maximum muscle growth! So, What are the magic numbers to you should be lifting to force your muscles to grow in strength and size, without performing too many and wasting energy or risk over-training and injury?
However, the good news begins here, because once you realise this, you will stop wasting all that time and effort constantly searching the internet and as many articles as you can get your hands on trying to get the answer you want. You need to understand the actual answer to this age old question is very subjective and all depends on numerous factors such as the body part being trained, weight being used and how responsive your muscles are to a given rep range. So, to give you the most honest, if not the most helpful, answer to this question, I would simply say…
…..I did say it wasn’t very helpful!
I will however try and give you an idea of what both scientific and training research has typified as the most productive ranges in which to train. I will also give you the benefit of my experience and what I have found to be most effective sets and reps range used for me and a great number of others, although I fully appreciate people do respond to different levels of these variables. It can be very much a matter of trail and error, but I would suggest you at least begin with the following advice in mind.
Again, as I fully believe, the first step is to record what rep and set range you are using. By keeping a log of what you do, you can refer back to the number of reps and set you have been performing and see how effective each range was before making slight alterations then beginning the process over again until you find the best ranges for you as an individual. A little bit of time researching and altering these areas will save you a great deal of time and effort in the future.
If you are a complete beginner or have lost your way in your training, as with anything new, you need to start from the beginning! The beginning when lifting for muscle growth is starting with the basic, functional and fundamental ‘compound movements’. When you have mastered these then, and only then, should you be adding in additional isolation exercises, if you need them at all!
When performing these compound movements, due to the high muscle fibre recruitment they incorporate, and the sheer amount of energy used, pushing out very high reps and sets is almost impossible, if the weight is set right that is! Anyone can bang out 20 reps for 20 sets of bicep curls…..if you could overcome the boredom! But you couldn’t manage the same with bench press or Dead-lifts!
I will start with the sets, as although there’s no simple answer to the ‘ideal’ number of sets to perform, it is the easier of the two variables to determine. This, believe it or not, is not as important to get right as the number of total reps required for maximum muscle growth.
Sets should be viewed as measured breaks between reps. For example if you need to perform just 15 reps to stimulate your muscles to grow then you could consider splitting these up into 3 sets. This will obviously be determined by the weight and your ability to lift and lower it with strict form throughout the entire rep range.
If and when this becomes extremely difficult with momentary muscle failure or more importantly when you begin to break form you should stop your reps, take a short break – this is one set – repeat again until the desired number of reps is complete!
There are several studies showing that doing one set per muscle builds just as much strength as doing three sets per muscle. This just highlights the point I made above, the fact that getting the reps right are more important than setting the number of sets itself.
Just a point to add on the use of single sets – this is commonly referred to as the ‘working’ set. One set, containing all the required number of reps at your maximum effective weight. This does not mean you should just perform one set only from cold! You should perform at least one if not two additional sets prior to this all out ‘working’ set in order to warm up the muscles being worked, joints, connective tissue and to ‘practice’ the correct form and tempo before you load up the bar! This is very important to prevent injury and allow you to perform at your maximum potential.
Arguably then, the most important factor to determine is the total number of reps that you need to perform for any given exercise or lift.
What will affect your choice of the number of reps you should do depends on where you are in your training. If you are new, an experienced lifter or coming back from a long layoff these all change the effective number of reps you need to perform.
What your actual goals are also have to be taken into account. If you are lifting, just to see how much weight you can lift, more power-lifting or strength orientated, you would generally just do 1 – 3 repetitions as this is all you are looking to see…..how much weight can I lift? There would be no reason to perform any more than this. By training this way you are teaching yourself HOW to lift the weight more than concentrating on training the muscle to grow (Olympic style weight-lifters)
At the other end of the scale, if you want to just burn maximum calories through weight training and build some kind of endurance in your muscles then lifting over 50 plus reps per muscle group, divided into several sets, with a moderate to light weight will suffice. However performing dozens of reps with very light weights doesn’t bring any noticeable difference in size or strength of any kind, as you cannot possibly stress enough muscle fibers to allow for the body to compensate in either strength or size! (Triathletes / endurance style athletes……or ‘Body-Pump’!!!)
If the above examples are not what you are looking to achieve, you will obviously need to use a number somewhere in between. In order to become as strong and as big as your body will allow the tried and tested rep range is to aim for around the 8 or 10 reps per set mark, although as I mentioned above there is a number of reasons why performing a single set of 20 reps has proved to be extremely beneficial, especially for leg work – I will cover this in a bit more detail later!
General ‘common knowledge’ guidelines suggest that in order to build pure strength in a particular lift you should be aiming to lift in the region of 3 – 5 repetitions. However to build muscle endurance for more ‘practical’ muscles and develop the type of strength you need for everyday life aim for 12 to 15 repetitions range. However this again is based on the multi-set rule!
If everything else is right with your routine – you are performing strict form, compound movements, you nutrition is spot on and you are getting enough rest, etc and you are still not growing it may be a case of adding or subtracting a few reps and evaluating the results of this change after a few weeks. Do not stick with the same number or reps (or sets) week in, week out and expect ‘one-day’ something will happen!! It wont – if its not working now it wont suddenly start in a week or months time!
You always need to bear in mind no matter how many repetitions you do, you must always use a heavy enough weight so that the last rep is a struggle, but not so much of a struggle that you compromise the strict form I spoke about before.
There is a school of thought that said you should always go to MMF (momentary Muscle Failure) After about a month of strength training, you may want to go to muscular failure (that is, your last repetition is so difficult that you can’t squeeze out one more). However this could lead to over-training if you adopt this as the norm and don’t get enough rest.
If you have a few different goals in mind, you can mix and match the number of reps you do per workout. If you want to get bigger and stronger and also improve the endurance of those muscles, you can do a heavy workout one day and a lighter workout the next time out. Keep track of how you feel; your body may respond better to one type of training than another.
So in summary – it is very much the case of researching a rep range that works for you. This number should be between a total of 15 – 30 which can obviously be divided into a number of sets to achieve this total number if required. If you are a complete beginner or coming back after an injury or lay-off you should consider starting with between 12 – 15 and working up to the maximum effective number for you!Record this number in your training log and evaluate its effectiveness after a period of about 8 weeks.
The above way of evaluating YOUR ideal number of reps and sets is something I have done for the entire length of my training, with some good and some not so good results. This style of training can be very hit and miss and normally only becomes effective after a trainee becomes very experienced. However in the last few months I have been researching and training almost exclusively with one ‘working set’ of 20 reps for all of the ‘fundamentalist 5’ compound lifts, with some very good results so far – My personal results I have posted on this site have been as a result of this lifting regime (You can view these by clicking on the picture link below, if you have not done so already)
If you are interested in learning more about training with the ‘20 rep working set’ I have written a whole new article specific to this style of training, it has a great deal of benefits over the ‘conventional’ rep and set combination which you can read it by clicking on the below picture link…