Most people understand the basics of building muscle and size: hit the gym hard while allowing your body time to recover between exercise sessions.
But have you ever looked into how many reps and sets you should actually be doing?
You could go to the gym, blindly following the advice of some guy on Instagram, and base the number of sets and reps on that. But if you do, you could be leaving gains on the table.
It turns out - somewhat surprisingly - that there's an optimal number of sets and reps you should do depending on your goals. Let's take a look.
Ask Yourself: What Am I Trying To Get Out Of This Workout?
The number of reps and sets you do at the gym depends on your goals. People looking to build muscle need a different routine from those just looking to "tone up" or build overall strength.
If your goal is to add muscle (also known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy), then you'll need to follow a fundamentally different kind of workout than somebody who trains for raw strength alone.
According to research, 30 percent of the volume of your muscles is sarcoplasm - a kind of fluid in your muscles that helps to bulk them up.
Particular types of training encourage the body to produce more of this sarcoplasm compared to others, increasing the final volume of the muscle tissue.
Over the years, experience and scientific measurements have both concluded that you should target a rep range of six to twelve reps if your goal is to build size. This rep range is by no means set in stone, (and could still vary from person to person, based on their biology), but it appears to be optimal for the vast majority of people.
If your goal is to build muscle strength, not size, then research suggests that you lower the number of reps and increase the rest interval between sets. Max Weber, a personal trainer, suggests that people looking to build strength limit their sets to between one and six reps. Lower reps and heavier weights help to stimulate a different kind of muscle fiber that increases the contractile power of the muscle. Thus, if you're thinking about entering a powerlifting competition, keeping reps low is essential.
Let’s Talk About Sets Baby
The number of sets that you perform is also important for building muscle.
The current advice to increase muscle size is to aim for between three and five sets and rest around 60 to 90 seconds in between.
If you want to build strength, the recommendation is to increase the number of sets, doing anywhere from three to eight, leaving between two and five minutes' rest between each.
Remember, though, that strength-building sets incorporate fewer reps, so you often end up doing the same number of reps in total per workout as somebody focusing on building muscle size.
It's important, however, not to overthink these things. Most people will experience substantial gains in size and strength over the long term by training to failure on a regular basis.