It can be tough to figure out the best method for building big muscles. Just like asking, "How many sets and reps should I do to lose weight?" the answer depends on a lot of variables. A few different approaches will work. Whether you want to use low or high reps to build muscle, you should stick to the style you like best.
You can use a high or low number of sets and reps to build muscle as long as you're working hard enough to stimulate the muscle.
Building muscle takes hard work and dedication, but it's hard to figure out exactly how hard you need to work. If you don't do enough in the gym, your body won't respond the way you want it to. If you do too much, you run the risk of damaging your body.
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To build muscle, you need to stress your muscles. When you stress them by lifting weights, they recover and become bigger and stronger. This is known as supercompensation.
The muscle is damaged or fatigued, then built back up so that it's better than before. This process happens every time you lift weights, but it can take a while to see results.
Training Volume Matters
Instead of thinking about how many sets to build muscle, think about volume. Normally, volume is a way to measure a three-dimensional object. In the gym, it's the number you get when you multiply the number of sets you do by the number of reps and the amount of weight used.
For example, if you do three sets of 10 repetitions with a 30-pound weight, your total volume is 900 pounds. You can use this calculation for any exercise that uses weight. It's useful for quickly figuring out how much work you've done for a given exercise.
A July 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences showed that more volume leads to more gains in muscle. The researchers reviewed 14 studies and found that in most of the studies, subjects gained more muscle with more volume.
When training, your goal should be to increase your volume over time. Starting at 10 sets of 10 repetitions for every exercise is a lot of volume and can lead to injury. You have to figure out how much volume your body can handle without hurting yourself.
To increase volume, you can increase either the amount of weight or the number of sets or reps. You can also do a combination of all three. A small change in one variable can make a big impact.
For example, three sets of 10 reps with 30 pounds is 900. However, if you do four sets, your volume shoots up to 1,200.
Volume is more important than workout frequency, according to a May 2018 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The study had subjects either workout three or six days per week, but kept the volume the same between groups. They didn't see any difference in terms of muscle growth between the two groups. In other words, you can jam all your weight training exercises into three days or spread them out over more.
Use Light or Heavy Weights
The amount of weight you use is also less important than the total volume if you want to build muscle. A December 2017 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reviewed 21 studies related to muscle growth and intensity.
In most cases, subjects who used heavier weights experienced greater gains in their one-rep maximum (1RM) but gained the same amount of muscle as those who used lighter weights did. Interestingly, researchers have found that isometric strength was the same between both groups. Isometric strength is your ability to hold a weight in one spot.
It's also important to note that the subjects in these studies were training to muscle failure. Training to muscle failure means you keep going until you can't fully complete a repetition. It's a grueling way to work out and it makes your muscles burn, but it seems to help if you want to gain mass.
By training to failure, you activate all muscle fibers, which means that the muscle is working as hard as possible. This leads to greater mass gains than if you didn't train to failure.
An April 2018 study published in Frontiers in Physiology shows that when you use light weights to gain muscle, you have to train to failure. At the same time, you don't necessarily need to go to failure if you use heavy weights. Heavy weights are better at recruiting the whole muscle, but you can still build muscle with light weights.
Recommendations for Muscle Building
Using training volume to figure out the best number of sets and reps is vague, which is why there are some general recommendations for weight training if you want to build muscle. If you're already experienced in the weight room and know what you like, then tracking your volume is probably enough. However, if you need guidance, the National Strength and Conditioning Association has answers.
They recommend using moderately heavy weights for six to 12 repetitions per set. For weight, use 65 to 85 percent of your one-repetition maximum, or one-rep max. If you don't know what your one-rep max is, just pick a weight that's too heavy to do more than 12 reps with but too light to make you stop before six reps.
See how many sets you can do with this weight before you fail? If the workout takes too long or doesn't increase in difficulty, you should try increasing the weight. Use this program for as long as you want, or try different rep ranges. You can do below six reps or above 12.
You can lift weights as many days as you want — as long as you work each muscle group once per week. Remember that it doesn't truly matter whether you break your volume up over the week, but it can be easier than doing everything in one day.
Figure out what style of training you like best and stick with that. As long as your workouts are intense enough that you're occasionally pushing to muscle failure, your muscles will grow. Remember to track your volume and increase it slowly because total volume matters more than anything else.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "Trainer Tips - Hypertrophy"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "Are the Hypertrophic Adaptations to High and Low-Load Resistance Training Muscle Fiber Type Specific?"
- University of New Mexico: "Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Training Volume, Not Frequency, Indicative of Maximal Strength Adaptations to Resistance Training"
- Journal of Sport Sciences: "Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Human Kinetics: "Defining Supercompensation Training"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"