Although there are a variety of different strength training goals, such as increasing overall muscular strength, increasing muscular endurance, or improving athletic performance and reducing the risk of injury, many people who engage in resistance training are ultimately looking to build muscle.
Muscle building, which is referred to as hypertrophy training, can be accomplished with consistent strength training workouts and a proper diet. It does not happen overnight, however, so commitment to your training and nutrition program is crucial for significant muscle gains.
But, when it comes to hypertrophy workouts, how many sets and how many reps to build muscle are recommended?
In this article, we will discuss how to structure your strength training workouts when you want to build muscle, focusing mainly on how many sets and reps to build muscle are necessary.
We will look at:
- How to Build Muscle Lifting Weights
- How Many Sets and Reps To Build Muscle?
Let’s jump in!
How to Build Muscle Lifting Weights
Strength training has many health benefits, such as increasing muscle mass, increasing bone density, and reducing the risk of chronic disease.
But, how many reps and sets do you need to do to build muscle?
Before we try to establish some recommendations for how many reps you should do to build muscle, it is helpful to briefly review how lifting weights helps build muscle, as this can influence how many reps and sets you need to do to build muscle based on your fitness level.
Muscle building is referred to as hypertrophy.In order for muscles to grow or increase in size, they need a sufficient stimulus. This stimulus comes by way of your resistance training workouts.
When you lift weights or perform strength training exercises, some amount of structural damage occurs to your muscle fibers.
This microscopic damage is actually desirable because it is what triggers the body to initiate the muscle proteins synthesis process, which is the process by which muscle fibers are repaired after exercise and resultantly strengthened and enlarged.
In order to induce damage to your muscle fibers, you need to overload your muscles.
“Overload“ means that you are exceeding the current strength and capacity of your muscles within reasonable limits.
In other words, you do not want to do such easy strength training workouts that your muscles can readily handle all of the reps and sets you perform with the weight you have chosen because your muscle fibers will not experience any sort of microscopic tearing necessary to stimulate muscle repair and growth.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can’t blow your muscles out of the water with an extreme number of reps and sets or some crazy amount of weight you cannot possibly lift because you will end up injuring yourself. Those “microscopic tears“ can become serious and significant tears, which also is not what you need.
Rather, the process of hypertrophy training involves careful and deliberate progressive overload of your muscles in a calculated way that causes just enough overload to trigger muscle growth without inducing injury.
When we discuss overloading the muscles, the “load“ refers to the workload or training volume in a workout.
There are several training variables in a strength training workout that contribute to the workload of your muscles.
The number of reps and sets to build muscle, the weight or load that you use for each exercise, and the number of exercises that you do in the workout all contribute to the training volume and workload in a given hypertrophy training workout.
The dynamic interplay between these various factors will determine the effectiveness of your muscle gains.
How Many Sets and Reps To Build Muscle?
As a quick review, the term reps is short for repetitions.
A rep refers to one complete movement of an exercise.
For example, one rep of a squat begins with standing upright, then bending your hips and knees and, sitting your hips back to squat down, then returning back up to the starting position.
A set in exercise refers to a series of reps (repetitions) of a given exercise that are performed together as a unit back to back without rest in between.
So, what are the recommendations for how many reps to build muscle?
So, how many reps should I do to build muscle?
Although different fitness organizations recommend slightly different rep ranges for building muscle and other fitness goals, according to the American Council on Exercise, the optimal number of reps for hypertrophy (hypertrophy) is 6-12 reps per exercise.
In terms of the number of sets to build muscle, most fitness experts recommend doing 3-6 sets, depending on the number of reps you are doing, the load you are using, the exercise you are doing, your fitness level, and the number of exercises you are doing in the workout.
The optimal load or weight to use to build muscle is suggested to be 67-85% of your 1RM.
Your 1RM, which is your one-repetition maximum, refers to the maximum load you can possibly lift with proper form for one complete rep of an exercise.
For example, if the maximum weight that you can bench press for one rep is 160 pounds, but you are unable to lift that load for two complete repetitions without “cheating,” then your 1RM for the bench press is 160 pounds.
Your 1RM for an exercise has practical applications besides just serving as a benchmark to periodically assess your fitness progress and improvements in strength.
The strength continuum refers to a framework by which the appropriate load to lift can be determined based on the number of reps that you are performing.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the following table shows the percentage of your 1RM you should use for the given number of reps of an exercise:
|Maximum Number of Reps||Percent of 1RM Load|
This strength continuum correlates quite well with the recommendations for the amount of weight you should lift to build muscle, according to ACE Fitness (67-85% of your 1RM).
If we look at 12 reps, the recommended load is 70% of your 1RM, while if you are only doing six reps, you should use 85% of your 1RM.
So, returning to the example of the athlete who has a 1RM for the bench press of 160 pounds, to build muscle, the recommendation is to perform 6 to 12 reps at 67 to 85% of the 1RM, or, using the chart above, 70 to 85% of the 1RM depending on the number of reps you have chosen to do.
Therefore, if you want to go with the low-weight higher reps route within the recommended hypertrophy reps and load range, you would use 70% of your 1RM (160 x 0.7 = 118 pounds) for sets of 12 reps each.
This would probably be rounded to 120 pounds so that you could easily load up the barbell with available weight plates.
If you would prefer to go the high-weight low reps route within the muscle-building recommendations, you could perform 6 reps of the exercise with 85% of your 1RM weight (160 x 0.85 = 136 pounds).
Again, because weight plates only come in certain weights, this would probably be rounded up to 140 pounds.
Of course, you can also use a different number of reps between the recommended 6-12 rep range for building muscle with the appropriate load based on the 1RM strength continuum and your own personal goals, preferences, fitness level, workout structure, and the number of sets you want to do.
Ultimately, variety is best. In other words, for some workouts, use heavier weights (closer to 85% of your 1RM) for fewer reps (6-8 reps), and lift lighter weights (closer to 70% of your 1RM) for more reps (10-12 reps).
It’s important to note that hypertrophy, or building muscle, isn’t necessarily correlated with increasing strength.
Although research shows that high-volume resistance training may be best for increasing muscle mass, gains in muscle may not necessarily be accompanied by increases in strength.
To increase muscular strength, ACE Fitness recommends doing 1-6 reps with loads that are at least 85% of your 1RM. Usually, athletes looking to increase strength do 3-6 sets per exercise.
Lastly, in terms of the best exercises you should do to build muscle, the bulk of your training should involve performing compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, bench press, rows, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, etc. However, studies suggest that isolation exercises like biceps curls can also help build muscle mass.
Now that we’ve answered your question, how many reps should I do to build muscle, you must choose your exercises!
For a fresh list of exercises to perform at the gym, we have just the article for you. For a complete list of compound exercises to work into your next strength training sessions, check out our guide: A Complete List of Compound Exercises To Spice Up Your Training.