How Many Reps & Sets To Build Muscle Faster?
If you’ve been part of the bodybuilding community for more than a week, you’ve probably noticed how difficult it is to find the right mix of exercises as well as how many sets and reps to do of each. In this article we will go in depth on the question most guys have: “how many reps & sets to build muscle?” Everyone out there seem to have a different opinion on the best way to go – in fact, it’s a challenge just to find two people who agree 100% on it!
This can be very confusing for people new to lifting, or those who have been involved in field for awhile but haven’t seen their bodies make the type of progress they were hoping for. What’s worse is when you are taking advice from people online and don’t even know just what their credentials are – maybe they’ve never lifted a weight in their life!
While the internet might be great for obtaining information if also unfortunately gives people a voice that frankly shouldn’t have one. If some morbidly obese man tried to give you dieting advice in real life you’d probably just ignore it and probably laugh about it with your friends later.
However online it is so easy to seem like you are knowledgeable on the topic with that “ShreddedDewd” screen name and that aesthetic avatar that is actually a picture of someone else. That’s not to say that all advice out there is bad – that would imply that this article is bad (which it isn’t!) you just need to be careful who you are listening to. Sometimes you will get conflicting opinions out there simply because people are telling you what works for them specifically.
The reason you get so many different opinions is because everyone is genetically unique and responds differently to various combinations of sets and reps. As a result, unless you are extremely genetically gifted (don’t you just hate those guys?) you will need to spend quite some time just experimenting with all the different advice you are given to see what your body reacts best to. Regardless of what format you are using, every set should be approached with intensity so if you are breezing through a certain weight you should be using that as a warm-up for the more challenging sets to follow. These heavier sets or “working sets” are where the real muscle-building work is done. Here’s an example of how to structure your sets for bench press:
First set: warm-up 20 reps at 50% of your maximum weight
Second set: warm-up 12 reps at 60% of your maximum weight
Third set: warm-up 8 reps at 70% of your maximum weight
Fourth set: working set 6 repetitions at 80% of your maximum weight
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By maximum weight we are referring to your 1 rep max or the highest amount of weight you can lift for 1 rep. In this case the first three sets are warm-up for the last set which, given the amount of weight you are lifting, is where you will really stress your muscles. Now let’s say you add in two more exercises, the incline press and dumbbell flys.
First set: warm-up for 1-12 reps
Second set: warm-up for 1-8 reps
Third set: warm-up for 1-8 reps
Fourth set: working set 6 repetitions
Three working sets of 12 repetitions, all high-intensity at about 65% 1rm.
If you follow this chest routine you are looking at 5 working sets – that means only 5 sets of gruelling work. Many people out there do several times that – sometimes as high as 25 working sets! So how can you hope to build muscle on so few sets?
Ever heard of pro bodybuilder Tony Pearson? (Probably not, he was around in the 80s, see picture above) Well he only performed 6 to 8 sets per body part – which was quite a difference from all the other bodybuilders out there doing 20+. When asked why he chose to structure his workout this way, he said that 6 to 8 sets of heavy weight is plenty for building muscle and if you are doing any more than this then you simply aren’t working hard enough. Yes you might have just done 15 sets but how many of those were truly challenging? How many of those really pushed your body to the max?
What we’re getting at here is that bodybuilding is all about intensity – that’s how you force your body to grow and it doesn’t take two dozen sets to do that. However, in order to continue that growth you need to be increasing the amount of weight you are lifting during your working sets each workout. We can’t tell you how many times we get questions from guys asking us why they aren’t making any progress, only to find out that after years of training their working sets have barely increased.
After a year of training if you are still lifting the same amount of weight for the same number of reps you simply won’t get any bigger. If you workout chest 60 times a year it doesn’t need to go up each individual workout but by the end of the year it should be significantly higher than where you were when you started out – particularly if you are relatively new to bodybuilding. Here’s an example of what a one week improvement would look like. Say for example you did the following on week 1:
1×20 @ 135 pounds
1×12 @ 185 pounds
1×8 @ 225 pounds
1×6 @ 250 pounds
The following week you can keep everything the same but add a couple extra reps to set four or add a little bit of weight. So it would look like this:
1×20 @ 135 pounds
1×12 @ 185 pounds
1×8 @ 225 pounds
1×6 @ 260 pounds or 1×7-8 @ 250 pounds
Hopefully that makes sense. Your warm-up sets aren’t the ones going up here, just your working sets. Even though the example here might not seem like a lot over time it really adds up some it’s important to stay consistent! Let’s say for example you add 2.5 pounds per week to your bench press. Seems very low, right? Well even if you are only able to lift the bar when you start (that’s 45 pounds) by the end you will be able to lift 175 pounds:
Week 1: 45 pounds
Week 2: 47.5 pounds
Week 3: 50 pounds
Week 52: 175 pounds
Now chances are if you are only able to lift 45 pounds you are extremely skinny – so how much better do you think you will look at the end of the year when you are able to lift 175? Probably a lot better than most people!
Keep in mind you will also need to make sure you are feeding your body with the right foods and getting plenty of rest. Compare the workout and progress above to if you had done 25 sets of various isolation exercises for your chest and arms – do you think that would have got you better results? Chances are it would have distracted you from your important lifts and your gym session would have taken you forever!
This example very important because a lot of guys make the opposite blunder – they try to add too much weight each week. If you are set on adding 10 pounds to your bench press every week, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Hate to break it to you but 10 pounds a week is 520 pounds a year – do you really think you will be able to boost your lift by that much by the end of the year? Your strength and muscle mass won’t grow that quickly so your body will compensate for the lack of strength by “cheating” on the rep – using momentum, not locking out, swinging the weight, etc. Not only are you now not actually working the muscle fully but you are also exposing yourself at the risk of injury.
That brings us to another point – by performing less sets but at higher intensity you are able to get through your workout a lot quicker. Many of us go to the gym during our lunch break at work or for half an hour before we head into the office. Going through an extended routine of 20 exercises for tons of reps will take a long time – add in shower and getting changed and you are looking at well over an hour. How motivated will you feel to go through all of that? However, if it’s only 30 minutes you are far more likely to stick with it and get through the workout.
If you are just starting out you will be able to add quite a bit over the first year – so much in fact that future you will be jealous of just how easy you had it! If you’ve been working out for some time now and haven’t seen the type of progress you want (or any progress for that matter) try changing up your routine and focusing on fewer sets but with more intensity. It’s easier to have that maximum intensity if you are at the gym for a shorter time and doing fewer sets. Once you change things up and boost your weight on every lift week over week you should start seeing a very nice transformation in your physique! Follow these tips in this article on how many reps & sets to build muscle for greater results!
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