How Many Sets and Reps Do I Need?

One of the most common questions I get asked is “How many sets and reps do I need to build muscle?”  A fair enough question, the answer to which you really need to know to get as much out of your workouts as possible. The old adage of work smarter and not harder does apply to some extent in the gym, but a better philosophy is to work harder AND smarter. This is the true secret to achieving fast results, not other shortcuts that might be dangerous.

Lifting Dumbells

Now let me be honest; just going to a gym and lifting weights will probably make your muscles grow and make you stronger. You might even lose a bit of weight and tone up in the process. However, if you want to be the guy or girl with THAT physique, you know, the person everyone is looking at, then you need to know what you are doing (at least to some extent!).

Number of Reps for Maximum Muscle Growth

So if your goal is to build muscle, I recommend that you should predominantly performing 8-12 reps of each exercise that you do for upper body exercises, and 12-15 reps of each exercise for the lower body.  Why is the lower body range different? The rep range for the lower body is different because it is load bearing and these muscles have a lot more endurance than the muscles in the upper body. Because of this they tend to take longer to fatigue. Now don’t get me wrong, they will respond well in the 8-12 range, however the loads you will need to lift will start to head towards being dangerous pretty quickly, a situation that may appeal to some but not others.

While many people have different views on what range is the best, these are largely based on what works best for them. Again, this is very valid as everyone is different, however it is generally accepted that the following ranges target the following muscle characteristics:

1-3 Reps: Power

3-6 Reps: Power & Strength

6-8 Reps: Strength & Hpertrophy

8-12: Hypertrophy

>12: Endurance

Number of Sets for Maximum Muscle Growth

The number of sets you perform depends on a few main things. Firstly, the number of muscles in the muscle group is important as you want to work the whole muscle group. Large muscle groups consist of several different muscles that may require different exercises to train them all, while small muscle groups have fewer individual muscles and therefore need fewer sets. For example, when training the thigh muscles, you need to work the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastis intermedius and the rectus femoris, as well as several other muscles. To do this you might need several exercises. In contrast if you are training the upper arms, you are only really targeting the biceps and triceps muscles, which will not require as many exercises. I generally recommend that you perform between 3-5 sets of each exercise. Personally I perform 4 sets of each exercise unless I am specifically training something specific.

The next thing you need to consider is the size of the actual muscle you are training and the type of training you are performing. For example, if you were performing endurance sets of 15 reps with a light load on the relatively large pectoralis major muscle (chest) you would probably want to do more sets than if you were strength training the relatively small biceps muscle with heavy weights for reps of just 6.

Another thing that has a major impact on the number of sets you need to undertake is what the normal function of that muscle is. Typically, muscles in the lower body are load bearing and are accustomed to repeated contraction for long periods of time. Just think of running or walking and you will immediately get a feel for the endurance that they are known for. Because of this, they can often stand high loads, repeated efforts and recover much quicker than, say the muscles in the chest which are only used occasionally in every day life and even then only for short periods at low weight. So what does this mean?  It means that you would likely need to do more sets on the lower body muscles that are used frequently than that you would for the upper body muscles which are used less frequently.

In light of the above advice, the following is a general guide that I use to decide how many sets I will perform on a particular body type:

Thighs: 15-18 Sets

Back: 15-18 Sets

Chest: 12-15 Sets

Calves: 12-15 Sets

Deltoids: 10-12 Sets

Triceps: 8-10 Sets

Biceps: 8-10 Sets

Forearms: 6-8 Sets

Abdominals: 10-12 Sets

Neck: 6-8 Sets (although many people don’t train their neck specifically)


A Word About Choosing The Right Weight

Even if you are performing the right number of sets and reps as described above, you won’t get solid results unless you are selecting the correct weight for your efforts. This will seem a little bit difficult to do at first, but as you start to learn exactly how the different parts of your body respond it becomes a lot easier than it seems.

In a nutshell, you should try and select a weight for your exercise/set that makes you struggle to complete the set with good technique. For example if you are doing bicep curls and going for a set of 10 reps, you should only just be able to complete the 10th rep before you fail.

For the more hardcore people out there, you can select a weight that takes you to the point of failure within the final two reps and requires someone to assist you to complete the final reps. If you go down this path it is crucial that you use a training partner as this could become dangerous for some exercises.


So there you have it, pretty well all the information you need to choose the right amount of reps, sets and the correct weight to ensure that you get maximum results in minimum time.

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