How Many Sets and Reps: The Debate Ends Here!

How many articles have you read about how many sets and reps you should be doing to build muscle? Isn’t it frustrating when you read an article that completely contradicts another one you read just the other day? If you are you still reading articles on the matter, chances are it’s because you’re not getting the results you want from your workouts and you think this could be the reason.

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how many sets and reps

How Many Sets and Reps:Your Search is Over

Truth be told, you’re probably right. Getting this formula wrong could seriously be holding back your results. Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing at all, but when you get this right, your gains will skyrocket.

The aim of this article is simple. We want it to be the last article that you ever need to read on how many sets and reps you need to do to build lean muscle so that you can start getting results. Or, at the very least, know that you’ve got this part right so you can cross it off the list of what might be stopping you getting those results. (Nutrition and recovery also play key roles in building muscle)

Why should you take our word and this article as the final say in the matter? Well ultimately that’s up to you, but one of the reason we believe you should is because we have done all the research for you.

We’ve trawled through all the recent and relevant scientific publishing’s on the matter (the ones that are ever so long and quite boring to read. If you haven’t bothered, we don’t blame you one bit.), and have coupled this with our own accredited education and years of training experience. Luckily for us, our experience matched what we found in the recent research. Phew.


When One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Like a lot of things in life, one size or method does not always fit all and this is definitely true for the number of sets and reps you need to do to achieve the results you want from your workouts. With this in mind, lets get specific with the type of person we are prescribing this proven results formula to.

This is not aimed at professional body builders and its not aimed at anyone using performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. This is for regular Joe’s who are prepared to eat healthy and dedicate at least 2 hours per week to working out.

We are all about how to build lean muscle, so hopefully it’s of no surprise that our sets and reps formula is geared towards this. Its not about toning or endurance or strength training, though as a result of building muscle you will inevitably get toned, gain endurance and gain strength. Think of these as bonuses rather than the primary goal.

So enough of the guff, lets get into the good stuff – how many sets and reps should you be doing in your workouts?


And The Magic Number is…

Please don’t be too disappointed, but unfortunately there isn’t just one set of numbers that we can give you that you can use each and every time you’re at the gym from here on in e.g. do 8 repetitions for 3 sets. But please don’t hit the back button just yet; we still have what you need to know.

The reason for not having the one set of numbers really comes down to the simple fact that muscles cannot count. What we are actually aiming for is a certain intensity and volume that will trigger the desired fiber recruitment and chemistry in the muscles.  What we can give you is a reasonably specific range that you can work within to achieve this result.


Your New Home

If not already, 6-10 and 3-6 are now home for you. That means based on our research (of the research), if hypertrophy is your game, you should not be messing around with doing any less than 6, or any more than 10 repetitions of any exercise.

The only exceptions should be your warm up set (which would be of a low weight and really doesn’t count as you are just getting the blood flowing), or when working abs and calves, which need to be tackled slightly differently because of their fiber makeup.

It’s important to note that while muscles are unable to count reps and sets, they do respond to the length of time they are under load. As mentioned, we are aiming for specific muscle fiber recruitment and intra muscle chemistry to trigger hypertrophy. While doing one single repetition of an exercise at the same speed as it takes to do 6-10 is not the same thing, this doesn’t mean that the speed of the repetitions isn’t important, because it really is.

This rep range will trigger the optimal hypertrophy conditions when each repetition is completed in approx. 6 seconds (set completed in 36-60 seconds). 2 seconds on the positive part of the rep and 4 seconds for the negative. For example, one rep of a bicep curl should take 2 seconds to curl the weight up and 4 seconds to lower it back down.

For your number of work sets, don’t bother with doing less than 3 or any more than 6. A 2010 study comparing a single workout set to multiple sets found that multiple sets correlated with a 40% increase in muscle growth effectiveness. The benefits of 4-6 sets were shown to be only slightly better than 3, but a benefit all the same.

The take home message here is to make sure you are always doing at least 3 sets and then depending on the exercise, the stage of your workout and perhaps your level of fatigue, as many as 6 sets. E.g. compound exercises such as squats or pull-ups are extremely taxing and you may not be able to effectively complete more than 3 sets. There is really no point in struggling through those extra sets if you can’t hold good form.


Variation is The Spice of Life

As much as you may have hoped for an exact magic number of sets and reps you may actually be now glad there isn’t one and here’s why: Another key element to seeing results is varying your workouts. This can be achieved through a number of ways but one of them should be through varying the volume and intensity.

A rep range of 6-10 and set range of 3-6 make it very easy to achieve this – simply adjust your weights to move between the two ends of the range. For example, one week you should work with weights that allow you to complete 3 sets of 6 reps and the next month you can move to a lighter weight for 6 sets of 10 reps.


The Sweet Spot

The research has shown that if you stick to 6-10 repetitions for 3-6 sets than you really cannot go wrong. Provided that you perform your reps at the slow and steady pace mentioned, you’re creating the right conditions in your muscles for stimulating hypertrophy.

Your workouts are only one piece of the muscle building equation, but its got to feel good to finally knock this question on the head and be able to now focus on the other key aspects. Happy days.

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