How Many Sets, Reps, & Rest Do I Need To Grow Muscle?

Before we begin, it is essential you understand that all of the research below is based on averages. Everyone responds differently to training programs. Some individuals will do better with less training, while others will thrive with more. Certain people can workout five days a week, and some can only lift two days a week. You must experiment and individualize your program based on your own goals and needs. Nevertheless, it helps to have a place to start. By the time you have done the reading, you will have learned the recommended amount of sets, reps, and rest needed for growing muscle.

Where Do I Start?

When starting a training program, it helps to know your lifting capabilities. A muscle will only become stronger and bigger when you tax it with more stress then it can handle. So when you perform an exercise, you must push yourself close to failure. To elicit strength and muscle gains, you should only have 1-3 repetitions left in the tank. Put simply, if you could lift 100 pounds ten times, you should raise it at least seven times to reap the benefits of the exercise. The best way to do this is by knowing your one rep max. Testing can be dangerous for beginners, so I don't recommend it unless you are with a certified trainer. A safer alternative is to test your 8-12 rep max and then use the calculator below to get a one rep max estimate. Once you have this estimate, you can then apply it to the corresponding percentages below.

How Many Reps Do I Need?

For the last decade, it was a common belief that you should perform 8-12 repetitions per exercise to maximize muscle growth. But research has shown numerous repetition ranges can influence muscle growth. A review led by hypertrophy Brad Schoenfeld looked at 21 studies and found muscle growth to occur at low (≤60% one rep max) and high load (>60% one rep max ) resistance training when exercises were taken to muscular failure, i.e. couldn’t perform any more reps with proper technique (1). It’s worth highlighting one of the studies done by Schoenfeld in the review.

The study compared the hypertrophy effects of an ultra high repetition program (25-35) versus a moderate repetition program (8-12). When the volume was equated for, sets done at 25-35 rep max led to similar levels of hypertrophy versus the 8-12 rep max group (2).It is important to note that the program required training to failure. So if you are going to follow an ultra-high repetition program (25-35), you must take the exercises to exhaustion. Ultimately, the repetition range you choose will be dependent upon your preferences and training schedule. The studies above show us that muscle growth can occur at various repetition ranges.

Can I Grow Muscle With A Low Rep Program?

A study done by Klemp and colleagues supports the idea that muscle can be built on a low repetition program too. The authors compared a volume equated moderate repetition program (8-12) versus a low repetition program (2-6) on muscle growth. They found both groups experienced similar muscle hypertrophy benefits. The authors concluded that muscle hypertrophy could occur independently of specific repetition ranges (3).

How Many Sets Do I Need?

The studies above show that muscle growth can occur at numerous rep ranges, but the same is not true for the number of sets performed. Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues reviewed 15 studies that compared the effects of 5, 5-9, and 10+ weekly sets per muscle group on hypertrophy. They found that increases in weekly set volume led to greater muscle growth (4).According to hypertrophy experts Schoenfeld and Mike Israetel, a weekly set volume range of 10-20 sets per muscle group should be sufficient. I believe beginners (≤1 year resistance training (rt) should stay closer to 10 sets per muscle group per week and more experienced lifters (>1 year rt) can push closer to 20 sets. It is imperative that you progress slowly and not increase your set volume too quickly. You should only add in more volume when muscle growth or strength plateaus.

What If I Do Too Many Sets?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Aristotle made the following statement, “Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.” The same can be said for training volume and its effect on muscle growth. Two studies compared the effectiveness of 5 sets versus 10 sets in compound movements on muscle mass. Both studies found both groups experienced similar gains in muscle mass (5,6). The authors concluded, “it is recommended that 4-6 sets per exercise be performed, as it seems gains will plateau beyond this set range and may even regress due to overtraining.”(6)

How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?

When training for hypertrophy, it was believed that shorter rest breaks yielded greater benefits than longer rest breaks, but this claim has been proven false by numerous studies (7, 8). The research suggests that similar results can be achieved by the use of short (≤60s) and long (>60s) rest breaks (7).

However, there is an exception to the rule. In a couple studies, the use of longer rest breaks (2-3 minutes) led to more significant gains in muscle growth in trained individuals (9, 10). I believe this could be due to the need for a greater intensity. Remember, more experienced lifter tend to need more intensity to grow muscle versus beginners. Based on these findings, we can conclude that beginners should rest 1-1.5 minutes, while more experienced lifters should rest 1.5-3 minutes.

How Long Should I Rest Between Workouts?

Muscle growth occurs when muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is higher than muscle protein breakdown (MPB). Resistance training is an effective way to increase MPS, but too much can hinder results. Beginners should take 3-4 days off before training the same muscle groups due to elevated levels of MPS.

As experience increases in the gym, the MPS response will decrease with each workout (11). A more experienced lifter will recover faster and need to workout more often to increase MPS. Therefore, they should decrease their rest between workouts to 1-3 days. In between workouts you can train other body parts, perform cardio, yoga, or rest.

It is well established that muscle soreness reduces a muscle’s ability to produce maximal force (12, 13). Thus, if soreness is present you should wait until it subsides before training it again. If there is no soreness, then you can train the muscle group the following day without repercussion. But make sure you aren’t fatigued or it could do more harm then good (14). Remember, you shouldn’t be sore from every workout nor do you need it to grow muscle (15). Consistency is the key to muscle growth, not injury.

How Often Should I Train Muscle Groups Per Week?

In a review of ten volume-equated studies, Schoenfeld and colleagues compared different weekly resistance training frequencies on muscle growth. The authors concluded that training muscle groups twice a week promoted superior muscle growth versus once a week. The authors stated, “It can therefore be inferred that the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth”.  However, whether or not a training protocol of three times per week is superior to two times per week is still to be determined (16).

Summary

As long as there's enough weekly set volume (10+) muscle hypertrophy can occur at any rep range when taken close to failure. Your rest break and repetition range will be determined by how much time you can spend in the gym and experience level. A rest break between 1-3 minutes will be effective for most. Overall, training a muscle two times a week with a mix of low (2-6), moderate (6-12), and high repetition (12-20) based programs will yield the best results.

To Sum Up:

  • Beginners need less weekly set volume and more reps than experienced lifters

  • 10-20 weekly sets per exercise

  • 2-20 repetition range per exercise

  • 1-3 minute rest break per exercise

  • 2-3 days off between workouts

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