One of the most important questions I get asked is how many sets and reps do you need to do to build muscle?
Luckily, it’s really easy to figure out as long as you understand the main trigger for muscle growth.
Obviously you need the building blocks of life, aka protein and an overall calorie surplus.
As for the training, you only need to concern yourself with breaking rep PR’s and getting stronger.
If you aren’t stronger in a year than you are now, it’s hard to say if you built much muscle at all.
You want to get stronger with the right execution and push your intensity.
As long as you do that, the sets and reps will take care of themselves.
That’s why for most people, I recommend 1-3 sets per exercise depending on your progress.
The intensity matters more than how many sets or overall volume you’re doing, as it’s the primary driver of hypertrophy.
As for the rep ranges, anywhere between 5-30 reps is perfect.
Again, though, you need to push your sets hard.
Your Movement Selection Determines Your Set And Rep Range
For movements where stability is lower, like a Squat, Romanian Deadlift, or Dips, one rep away from failure is what you want.
You shouldn’t be trying to barbell squat to failure, as you’re going to get injured as shown below.
Push until your form is about to break down and call it there.
For movements where you have a ton of stability and it’s safe to spot or use the safeties, such as pull-downs, chest supported rows, Incline dumbbell Bench or various others, train to failure.
It’s totally safe to do so as long as you control your reps.
As long as you follow these guidelines, the sets and reps are easy to figure out.
One Set To Failure Is Plenty For Most People Starting Out
Start with one set taken close to/to failure in the 8-12 rep range.
If you do over 12 reps, add weight to the following week and push your set again.
As long as you’re beating your reps and adding weight, you’re set.
Here is Corinne Ingman, co-owner of tb-jp.com.
The week previous to this workout she did a set of 8 reps, this time, she uses the same weight and crushed it for 12 reps.
As you can see, she’s been cruising and getting bigger and stronger just from pushing the intensity and keeping the volume moderate.
That’s all you need to do with the one set to failure training method I’m going over here.
Here’s how this setup might look over a 6-week period.
- Week 1 – 200×12
- Week 2 – 205×10
- Week 3 – 205×12
- Week 4 – 210×8
- Week 5 – 210×11
- Week 6 – 210×14
Sometimes you’re going to have a huge jump in reps from week to week.
Other times, you’re only going to add a rep or two here and there.
The key thing is to just keep hammering the same basic movements with intensity and add weight slowly as long as your execution is solid.
However, some body parts just will not respond to one set per exercise.
If you’ve been doing one set to failure on 2-3 different exercises for a muscle group and there isn’t much change in a couple of months, you might need to add a little more volume.
In that case, back-off sets are king for this!
Basically, you just work up to your top set, push to failure, and drop the weight about 10-20% so you can do more reps in another rep range.
Say you’re doing Preacher Curls!
- Top Set – 40×8-12
- Back Off Set – 30×15-20
Then you have two different weights you can beat your reps on and continue pushing progress.
If you get 12 reps or more on the top set, add weight to the following week and push again.
If you get 20 reps or more on the back off set, do the same thing. Add weight and push to failure the following week as well.
Super basic and it works great.
Some body parts are just going to suck no matter what you do. For those, I recommend you do a Rest Pause or drop set.
Rest Pause Sets
Rest pause is pretty simple to figure out.
- You do one set to failure, set the weight down and take 10 deep breaths.
- Do another set to failure and take 10 breaths again.
- Finally. Do one final set to failure and that’s it.
- This is three mini sets with minimal rest that are great for using as many muscle fibers as possible!
The way you progress on this is a little different from other set and rep schemes.
To simplify it, you’re working with total reps done.
If you’re doing a big compound exercise, around 15 reps is perfect.
For smaller isolation movements, 25 total reps work well.
Here’s how this might look for both examples!
- Incline Dumbbell Bench
- 80×8, 6, 4
- Total reps – 18
Since you beat your 15 reps, you can add 5 lbs the following training week and push your rest pause set like usual.
If you’re doing rope pushdowns for another exercise, here’s how it might go!
- Rope Pushdown
- 50×12, 8, 4
- Total reps – 24
Bummer, you barely missed your total reps! But that’s okay because the following week you’re going to pick 50 lbs again and try to crush your rest pause sets!
A lot of times while doing this in the past, I would add multiple reps to each pause set.
When those moments happen for you, you’re going to feel awesome and feel yourself getting bigger/stronger quickly!
Also, it shouldn’t be hard to understand, but don’t use rest pause sets for movements that require a lot of stability.
You wouldn’t use this method for Stiff Leg Deadlifts or any other leg exercise that you can’t properly brace on.
Leg Extensions and Leg Curls allow you to brace against the pad, so go for it on those!
Next up, we have Drop sets!
We use drop sets when you want a little more volume with for smaller muscle groups especially.
The way drop sets work is pretty simple, you work up to a top set for as many reps as possible, drop the weight and do it again.
Then you drop the weight one more time and push to absolute muscle failure.
Here’s how this might look for something like Plate Raises!
- Top Set – 45×25
- 1st Drop – 35×15
- 2nd Drop – 25×10
Obviously, you will not hit exactly the same reps at each weight. That’s why I recommend you push each set to failure and only add weight to the following week once you hit 50 total reps or more.
- Top Set – 45×22
- 1st Drop – 35×18
- 2nd Drop – 25×15
As you can see, we hit 55 total reps, so the following week we can add weight to each of the drops and continue training hard to failure.
Here’s how that progression might look!
- Week 1
- Top Set – 50×20
- 1st Drop – 40×16
- 2nd Drop – 30×12
- 48 Total Reps – Use the same weights and beat your reps next week!
- Week 2
- Top Set – 50×23
- 1st Drop – 40×18
- 2nd Drop – 30×14
- 55 Total Reps – We did over 50 reps so we can finally add weight!
Following this progression allows you to crush the weights you’re using and allows for a ton of muscular adaptations to occur!
I like drop sets for biceps and triceps, as well as rear and side delts, especially.
Just make sure you’re using excellent form, push as hard as you can to beat your reps and recover hard!
Try it out for yourself and see how well it works for you!
As you can see, there are a ton of different rep ranges and sets you can do other than just doing the standard 4 sets of 12 or 3 sets of 10 that people use.
Now I bring it over to you!
What do you think of just doing 1 set to failure, or rest pause sets?
Have you ever done anything like them before?
Regardless, let me know what you think in the comments section below right now!