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How To Build Muscle: How Many Sets And Reps?

Updated on October 31, 2011

What is the optimum amount of sets and reps you should do when exercising? Is this important to building muscle? This article will discuss the importance of doing the right amount of sets and reps for various exercises. It will also explain that the amount of sets and repetitions will vary depending on your goals.

What is your goal?

Is your main goal to build a lot of muscle or strength? This main sound like an oxymoron, but it is possible to build more muscle than strength or vice versa. Your set range and rep ranges will be a major contributing factor to this. A bodybuilder wants to get gain a lot of muscle mass, they generally do not care how much they can lift for one rep. A power lifter, on the other hand, wants to lift as much weight as possible (primarily in bench, deadlift, and squat).

Building Muscle

Generally speaking, to build more muscle mass, you need to stay within the (6-12) repetition range for multiple sets in one exercise. This promotes more hypertrophy, which is the increased recruitment of more muscle fibers. The total number of sets for one exercise should be around 3-4 sets because you are doing a moderate amount of reps (6-12).

Another thing that should be taken in consideration is the amount of time between sets. To give the muscle a reason to recruit more muscle fibers, your rest time should be approximately 2-3 minutes. Anything longer will focus on strength and less muscle mass, while anything shorter will focus on more muscle endurance (or stamina). Note, however, the amount of rest may vary for individuals, but if you do not rest enough, whether it is to either build muscle or strength, your results will NOT be as great.

Building strength

To build more strength, you need to stay in the lower repetition range (3-6). This focuses more on the CNS (Central Nervous System). When lifting weight that is in this range, your body will build strength more effectively. You will still gain muscle, but not as much as higher rep ranges. When you are lifting in the (3-6) range, your body adapts to the heavier weight. But since the muscle is not under as much tension for a long time, you will build less muscle mass, but strength gains will be significantly higher.

Also, since you are lifting very heavy weight in the lower rep range, you will need to add more sets. For example, you may do 6 sets of 4 reps for one exercise such as bench press. That is a total volume of 24 (6 x 4=24). You need to do more sets because you are doing less reps per set. When doing higher reps (6-12), less sets are needed because you meet higher volumes faster. The time between sets should also be 3-5 minutes to allow muscles to recover strength.

Compound Exercises and Isolation Exercises (Sets and Reps should differ)

Isolation Movements

While (6-12) reps focus on size more, and (3-6) focus on strength more, this is not necessarily the case with isolation movements. Isolation movements recruit less muscle and generally do not respond as well with lower rep ranges. For example, lateral raises may be unsafe to do with heavy weight. You can seriously hurt your shoulders by sticking in the lower rep ranges when performing that exercise. Another example is bicep curls. Bicep curls will not respond to lifting heavy weights in very low rep ranges. If you can only lift 50 lbs 3 times, you are probably wasting your time, as smaller muscles do not respond to low rep ranges as well as larger muscle groups.

Isolation exercises are mainly used to help lagging assistance muscles for help on compound exercises like bench press. Repetition range should be at least 8, and may even go as high as 20.

Compound Movements

Lower rep ranges work better when doing compound exercises such as bench press, squats, leg press, deadlifts, rows, and shoulder press etc. Compound exercises also work more muscles. For instance, the bench press works the chest (primarily), shoulders, and triceps. It is okay to lift heavier in the lower rep ranges with this exercise because there are more muscles involved in the lift. But be aware, lifting in lower rep ranges can lead to injury easier.

Incorporating both lower and higher repetition ranges

Whether your goal is to gain more muscle mass, or gain more strength, it may be a good idea to change your workouts from time to time. Staying within the same set and rep ranges for a long time may cause your muscles to hit a plateau (they don't get stronger or larger)

Technically, muscle builds strength, and strength builds muscle, but one of them is usually more dominant than the other. Training properly will help you meet your goals faster.


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    • fit-body profile image

      fit-body 5 years ago

      Very informative. Thank you for the info. =)

    • Justin Tolar profile image

      Justin Tolar 5 years ago from Dallas Texas

      Definitely agree. This is one of the harder topics out there since its so hard to tell the effects because of the time the body takes to physically change form

    • profile image

      billybob 5 years ago

      Amount of weight and reps does not matter with injury only ego.

    • taw2012 profile image

      taw2012 5 years ago from India

      Nice hub. Informative. Wanna keep these points in mind when am in GYM.

    • profile image

      bigben 5 years ago

      david i was at 375 lbs lost down to 305 lbs using bowflex extreme 2 p6 testro booster ( im 35 ) amp ripped package. i still got alittle to lose but not much. my body is taken shape so now i want to build up for a nicer look. ive been doin 50 lbs per arm 5 sets of ten which is what i was told to do. it got easy so i was told to go up to 60 per arm 5 sets of 10. on some exercises i couldn't do 5 set complete. i just don't understand what i should do. but 60 lbs per arm was good at 3 sets of 10 harder on last 3 reps. what should i do?

    • Hady Chahine profile image

      Hady Chahine 5 years ago from Manhattan Beach

      Nice hub! I learned quite a bit. BTW, I once owned/used a Bowflex. It was a great alternative when I couldn't get to the gym to use free weights. And my girlfriend absolutely loved it! Thanks.

    • bangingbeauty profile image

      bangingbeauty 6 years ago

      These are great tips for me to keep in mind when I hit the gym. Thanks!

    • mojefballa profile image

      Ikeji Chinweuba 6 years ago from Nigeria

      great info about muscles..i've been hitting the gym of late..

    • Spencer Camus profile image

      Spencer Camus 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Nice one David. I'm just embarking on a return to the gym and muscle mass (rather than strength) is what I'm after. This helps a lot!

    • scott33thomas profile image

      Manuel Porras 6 years ago from Germany, Colombia, USA, Panama, Mexico, Spain

      I liked this hub very interesting

    • Jay Louidor profile image

      Jay Louidor 6 years ago from FL

      Great info on this hub. Solid information that was on point and key to building muscle. Much success to you and I'll be sure to keep reading more of your hubs.

    • profile image

      abhi 6 years ago

      nice information.I m sure this made many things clear.

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 6 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Thanks David, despite having a degree in sports science this is the first time i've heard of the use of 6 reps within the range for increased hypertrophy. (Although agree that everyone is different)

      It's such a shame the link from doesn't provide the actual link for the Shinohara et all paper in it's references- I'd quite like to read that for it's findings

    • David 470 profile image

      David 470 6 years ago from Pennsylvania, United States

      Basically 6 reps is the medium. For gaining muscle mass, that number would be the bare minimum, while it would be the maximum for strength. If that makes sense.

    • David 470 profile image

      David 470 6 years ago from Pennsylvania, United States

      You would be correct, many articles/videos have ball park figures. Some say 8-12 for hypertrophy, others say 6-12, it is still a similar figure.

      I state 6-12 in this article because some people may do an "extra set" where 6 reps would still be reasonable to build the most muscle mass potential.

      Technically, everyone's body will react somewhat different, but in general, 6-12 is what you should aim for in terms of gaining the most "muscle mass" potential.. And conversely, aim for 3-6 when building strength.

      If you scroll down in that link, you will see how your body responds to different rep ranges.

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 6 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Interesting hub. I've always been taught 4-8 reps for strength, 8-12 for building muscle. Whereabouts are your 3-6 and 6-12 figures obtained from?

    • profile image

      naturalsolutions 6 years ago

      For me the best thing to prioritize is to set your goals. Body building is nothing if you are doing it for a great body, you should do it for your health and I believe that if you set goal you are able to do it and obliged to do it. Great hub;)

    • JoeLaBarbera profile image

      JoeLaBarbera 6 years ago from CT, USA

      Nice hub. Useful information on sets and reps for muscle building.

    • profile image

      platinum 6 years ago

      Compound exercise works multiple joints and muscle groups at one point in time. This means you speed up your metabolism which leads to greater fat loss if that is your goal. If you want abs these are great exercises to do.