The Science of How Many Sets and Reps You Need To Build Muscle


BY Erick Avila

Table of Contents

One of the most common questions people have when they’re going to add weightlifting to their routine is “How many reps should I do?” Traditionally, rep range recommendations for beginners have been:

  • 1-5 reps of a heavy weights for increasing strength,
  • 6-12 reps of moderate weights for building muscle, and
  • 15 or more reps of lighter weights for muscular endurance.

Over the years, scientists have been testing out these different rep ranges to measure their benefits. With research indicating that multiple performance benefits can be obtained across the different number of repetitions and ranges.

Low-Rep vs High-Rep Training for Strength and Muscle Hypertrophy

A 2014 meta-analysis comparing low load vs high load resistance training found that both low load and high load resistance training could increase hypertrophy. With a trend being seeing for better strength and hypertrophy gains in the high load training group.[1] Muscle hypertrophy is the growth in size of muscle cells.

A 2017 systematic review comparing low load vs high load resistance training found that both training styles could increase strength and hypertrophy. Although there were significantly greater strength gains in the high load training group.[2]

A 2019 systematic review evaluating hypertrophy training techniques recommended 3-6 sets and 6-12 reps per exercise at an intensity of 60-80% of your 1 rep max (1 RM) for a total of 12-28 sets per muscle per week.[3]A study comparing the strength and hypertrophy effects of 3 distinct training programs equated for volume. The subjects were in one of three groups: a 4 reps per set, 8 reps per set, and 12 reps per set. The researchers noted that all three rep ranges were effective for increasing hypertrophy, but the 12-rep group saw a smaller relative increase in 1RM strength compared to the other two groups.[4]


Best Rep Range for Hypertrophy/Muscle Growth

Hypertrophy is a training style focused on building muscle. This style of training is popular with bodybuilders and other types of athletes looking to pack on muscle mass.

A systematic review on the effect of resistance training for hypertrophy concluded that individuals interested in muscle growth needed to do a minimum of 2-3 sets per exercise, with 4-6 sets per exercise potentially yielding greater results, but excessively high sets (16) per exercise could be detrimental.[5]

The overall research on hypertrophy thus far shows that people can gain muscle by following both low rep/high load and high rep/low load training routines, with the overall number of sets per week taken to failure being an important factor for hypertrophy.[6]

Tip: Vary your training by using both high and low rep ranges to increase muscle size

Best Rep Range to Build Strength

Training for increasing strength can refer to absolute strength (the max amount of external load that can be lifted) or relative strength (total amount of weight lifted relative to bodyweight). This style of training is popular with strongman and powerlifters looking to increase their absolute strength. Other types of athletes will also commonly incorporate a strength phase in their training routine as well to improve their relative strength.

While it is possible to increase strength by doing low load, high rep training, the consensus is that high load, low rep training is most effective for increasing strength. [1,2,3,4,7]

Tip: If you want to increase absolute strength focus on training with lower reps and (relatively) heavier weights


Best Rep Range for Power

Training for power involves the ability to move a relatively heavy load rapidly. This style of training is popular with athletes that want to develop explosiveness like Olympic lifters, shot-putters, and combat sports athletes.In the American College of Sports Medicine’s position stand for progression models in strength training, they recommend 3-6 sets of low to moderate (0-60% 1RM) loads for 3-6 reps to increase power.[8]

Tip: Use relatively low reps, and low resistance on compound movements that you can do explosively to increase power

Best Rep Range for Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance focused strength training is done to increase one’s work output. This training style is popular for high intensity activities where you need to perform multiple bouts of explosive movements like CrossFit. In the American College of Sports Medicine’s position stand for progression models in strength training, for muscular endurance focused training they recommend relatively light loads and 10-15 repetitions per set for novices and 15 or more repetitions per set for advanced trainees.[8]

Tip: Use higher reps and relatively lower loads to increase muscular endurance


Best Rep Range for Weight Loss

Weightlifting can be an effective component of a weight loss program to increase energy expenditure and preserve muscle mass. In one study, both moderate load (10 RM) and low load (20 RM) resistance training programs resulted in positive changes in body composition.[9] In a study on elite cyclists, a program that consisted of both maximal and explosive strength training led to improved body composition.[10] Overall the research shows that the inclusion of resistance training to a fat loss program can be effective.[11]

Tip: Vary your training by including different rep and load ranges to preserve muscle mass

Goal Specific Training

So, what happens if you’re someone that wants to improve all these aspects: more muscle, strength, endurance and power? While it is possible to increase many of these attributes at the same type, using specific rep ranges for goal specific training will make it easier to get closer to your individual goals. If you want to individualize your training towards your specific goals, you’ll likely benefit from periodization.

What is Periodization?

Periodization is the systematic planning and organization of a training program to reach peak physical shape during the most important competitions. Program planning is something that most elite athletes do so that they’re in their best shape for the championship games or at their leanest for an important show. By using periodization, you can separate your training year into “blocks” where you can focus on these different rep ranges to develop specific attributes.
Let's go over how you could plan a periodized training program


Organize Training Year by Goals

When you start designing your training calendar, you can plan for an entire year, season, or few months. However, you decide to plan your calendar, it’s important to have clear goals of which attributes (i.e strength or muscular endurance) you’ll want to develop during each training block. And it’s important to prioritize which attribute you’d be looking to peak in so you can build up to that goal, whether it’s hitting a new PR on a squat, getting your leanest for the summer, or being in top shape to dominate your local sports league.

Off-Season Training

This phase will be the one where you focus on attributes that can help build a base for your top priority attributes that you would like to peak in during the season. A bodybuilder may focus on increasing their absolute strength during this phase so that they can train at higher intensities when they prep for a show. Or a powerlifter may focus on higher rep hypertrophy focused training during this phase to increase size in a lagging muscle group.

Pre-Season Training

The preseason is the phase of training where you focus on more specific attributes that are closer to the ones you’d like to peak in during your season. During this phase, field sport athletes may choose to focus on attributes like muscular endurance or power.

In Season Training

In season training is also known as the competition period. For bodybuilders and powerlifters this would be the phase when they focus on the attribute that is the highest priority like hypertrophy focused training or strength focused training. For people that participate in field sports, this phase is usually one where they focus on maintaining their peak attributes since their actual sport practices and competitions take priority over their strength training during this phase.


Build Lean Muscle & Get Stronger

Now that you have a better understanding of all the different rep ranges and ways you can organize your training, you can build out a program. If you want added support for your training goals, add the Athlete Stack to your routine. The Athlete Stack features C4® Sport for explosive energy and post workout recovery support from BCAA Sport and Whey Sport.

References

[1] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17461391.2014.989922?journalCode=tejs20
[2] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2017/12000/Strength_and_Hypertrophy_Adaptations_Between_Low_.31.aspx
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6950543/
[4] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2021/04000/Effects_of_4,_8,_and_12_Repetition_Maximum.1.aspx
[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32079265/
[6] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2021/03000/Total_Number_of_Sets_as_a_Training_Volume.39.aspx
[7] https://www.ijpefs.com/index.php/ijpefs/article/view/268
[8] https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2009/03000/Progression_Models_in_Resistance_Training_for.26.aspx
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548165/
[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27618339/
[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931407/

 



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