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Sets and Repetitions to Build Muscle


APRIL 2022

Elite Physique

We all strive to build new muscle mass. The steps to accomplish that are straightforward. First, stimulate the muscles and create stress or damage to the fibers. Second, allow the muscles sufficient time to recover, usually on the order of 24 to 72 hours. Third, provide your body the necessary nutrients to support muscle growth.

Simple, right?

But there are many ways to interpret those guidelines if you’re not a seasoned veteran of the iron game. In particular are the number of sets and repetitions you perform during a training session. And if you listen to professional bodybuilders you’ll get a variety of answers, creating even more confusion. Some favor higher repetitions (e.g., 18-20 repetitions) while others focus on lower repetitions (e.g., 5 to 7 repetitions) with heavier loads. Some like to perform 8 to 10 sets and others prefer 2 to 3 intense sets to failure for each muscle group during a workout.

This discrepancy between recommended parameters for muscle growth is not surprising if you look at the research. Indeed, you can gain as much muscle with a set of 30 repetitions as you can with six repetitions (Morton et al. 2016). That is a good thing because it gives you a wide range of parameters to work from.

On vacation and don’t have access to a gym? Perform a few sets of push-ups and walking lunges to failure. Or are you at a phase in your life when you have plenty of time to hit the gym and sleep well? Lift heavy weights with repetitions as low as three per set to build maximal strength and muscle mass. Indeed, the question of whether you should perform low or high repetitions comes down to your desire to increase maximal strength. Performing a set of 30 push-ups to failure will build your pectorals as much as a heavy bench press but it won’t increase your maximal strength.

So the first parameter here is straightforward: you can perform anywhere from 3 to 30 repetitions to build muscle, but focus on lower repetitions and heavier loads when maximal strength is the goal (Schoenfeld et al. 2017). Now let’s move on to sets.

For optimal hypertrophy, the minimum number of sets per muscle group per week appears to be 10 (Schoenfeld, Ogborn, and Krieger 2017). So let’s consider 10 sets to be the minimum effective dose, with more sets likely being even better, especially when performing 3 to 5 repetitions for maximal strength. If you train a muscle group twice per week, aim for at least 5 sets per workout. If you train three times per week, perform 3 to 4 sets per workout. Again, these are the minimum requirements.

There is an inverse relationship between sets and repetitions. If you’re performing body weight or isolation exercises for many repetitions (e.g., 30 per set) you’ll only need 2 or 3 sets for that muscle group. Importantly, each set of high repetitions should be taken to momentary muscle failure. On the other hand, if you’re performing, say, a one-arm row for 3 repetitions, aim for 6 to 10 sets for that exercise, with 10 being better than 6 for stimulating muscle growth. 

At this point we’ve covered the extreme end of each spectrum for repetitions. Of course, many workouts and exercises consist of loads that allow more than 3 repetitions but significantly less than 30. In those cases, you can’t go wrong with 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 12 repetitions per muscle group per workout. When using those parameters, train that muscle group three times per week. Here is a recap of what we’ve covered:

Parameters for muscle growth per muscle group per workout

Body weight, isolation exercises

2 to 3 sets

>30 repetitions  per set

Compound multi-joint exercises

6 to 10 sets

3 to 5 repetitions per set

Any exercise for hypertrophy/strength

3 to 4 sets

6 to 12 repetitions per set


For more information on how to quickly build muscle and strength to transform your body, check out my new book Elite Physique.

Morton RW, Oikawa SY, Wavell CG, et al. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2016;121(1):129-138.

Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, et al. Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low- vs. high-load resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(12):3508-3523.

Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass. A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017;35(11):1073-1082.