How Many Sets And Reps To Build Muscle? – Less Than You Might Think!

Quick heads-up: if you use my links to buy something, I may earn a commission (at no extra cost to you, of course). It's one way to support the work I do here. For the full scoop, check out this page.

Building muscle is a common goal for many fitness enthusiasts, but the path to achieving this goal can be confusing and overwhelming.

One of the most frequently asked questions in the fitness community is how many sets and reps are needed to build muscle effectively.

With so much conflicting information available online and in gyms, it can be challenging to know what approach to take.

In this article, we will explore the science behind muscle building and provide guidance on the optimal number of sets and reps to help you achieve your goals.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned lifter, understanding how to structure your workouts can make all the difference in your journey to building muscle.

How Do You Build Muscle?

I know everybody makes it seem like building muscle is difficult to understand, but it really isn’t rocket science.

The only mechanism in the body you need to concern yourself with for muscle growth is mechanical tension.

This is the involuntary slowing that occurs when you train a muscle to failure. You’re trying to move the weight with as much force as possible, but it’s going to move slowly eventually.

woman pushing one more hard rep in dumbbell overhead press

If you accumulate enough reps through mechanical tension, your body is forced to adapt to the stress placed upon it.

Training to failure and recovering from that training is how muscle growth occurs. That’s literally it.

Yes, you do need to do enough volume as well, but hard training is the most important factor before anything else even matters.

man dumping a bunch of protein into blender

Obviously, you need the building blocks of life, aka protein, and an overall calorie surplus to recover and rebuild your muscles bigger than last time.

Now, let’s go over the other things you can optimize in your training to maximize your muscle growth further!

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, 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 5-8 rep range. 

If you do over 8 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. 

man in highlander saying there can only be one

This is Corinne Ingman, co-owner of

The week prior to this workout she did a set of 8 reps, this time, she used 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 – 200×8
  • Week 2 – 205×6
  • Week 3 – 205×8
  • Week 4 – 210×5
  • Week 5 – 210×7
  • Week 6 – 210×9

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.

man straining for one more rep

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.

Back-Off Sets

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.

castiel telling you to back off

In that case, back-off sets are king for this!

Basically, you just work up to your top set, push to failure, rest for at least 3 minutes, and drop the weight about 10-20% so you can do another set of 5-8 reps.

Say you’re doing Preacher Curls!

  • Top Set – 40×5-8
  • Back Off Set – 30×5-8

Then you have two different weights you can beat your reps on and continue pushing progress. 

If you get 8 reps or more in the top set, add weight to the following week and push again. 

If you get 8 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. 
  • These are three mini sets with minimal rest that are great for using as many muscle fibers as possible!
Rest Pause Set Example -  Less Junk Volume, More Gains!
Here’s a video I made on rest pause to help clarify if you’re interested in this style of training.

The way you progress on this is a little different from other set and rep schemes. 

To simplify this, you’re working with the total reps done. 

If you’re doing a big compound exercise, around 10 reps is perfect. 

For smaller isolation movements, 15 total reps work well. 

Here’s how this might look for both examples!

  • Incline Dumbbell Bench
    • 80×6, 4, 2
    • Total reps – 12

Since you beat 10 reps, you can add 5 lbs the following training week and push your rest pause set as usual. 

If you’re doing rope pushdowns for another exercise, here’s how it might go!

  • Rope Pushdown
    • 50×8, 4, 2
    • Total reps – 14

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!

man saying it feels good to be back

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 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!

Drop Sets

We use drop sets when you want a little more volume for smaller muscle groups.

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.

Dumbbell Bench Press Drop Set
Here’s Paul Carter doing a drop set with the Dumbbell Bench Press. Super easy to set up with dumbbells, machines, barbells, cables, or even weighted bodyweight movements.

Here’s how this might look for something like Plate Raises!

  • Top Set – 45×6
  • 1st Drop – 35×4
  • 2nd Drop – 25×2

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 15 total reps or more.

Like so!

  • Top Set – 45×8
  • 1st Drop – 35×6
  • 2nd Drop – 25×4

As you can see, we hit 18 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 – 50×6
    • 1st Drop – 40×4
    • 2nd Drop – 30×2
    • 12 Total Reps – Use the same weights and beat your reps next week!
  • Week 2
    • Top Set – 50×8
    • 1st Drop – 40×6
    • 2nd Drop – 30×3
    • 15 Total Reps – We did over 15 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 especially like drop sets for biceps and triceps, as well as rear and side delts.

man handing off barbell and absolutely obliterating him

Just make sure you’re using excellent form and 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!

Frequently Asked Questions


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.

I’ll bring it over to you now!

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!

2 thoughts on “How Many Sets And Reps To Build Muscle? – Less Than You Might Think!”

  1. I’m 60 years old, I’ve had to change my work outs due to age and creaky and painful join pains, lol. Seriously, I have lowered my weight to 20lbs dumbbells down from 45lb dumbbells. I’m doing one set of about 30-40 reps for each body part (legs, calfs, chest, arms (back & front of arms), shoulders and sit-ups. I’ve been working out heavy since Jr. Hight School (AKA: Middle School). I’ve done body building and power lifting. Once I turned 60 my body told me ” I don’t think so” and I changed it so that I maintained what I have, solid muscle tone for my age. The changes seem to be working and I also changed my diet to be more lean, more fruits, vegetables…etc. Protein will always be a factor now since I ever really liked meat but there are vegan protein powders. Oh and I do cardio 3 times a week, so it’s 2 times a week with weights and cardio 3 times a week and rest on Sat & Sun.

    Aside from what I’ve done and changed is there anything you would add to help me as I grow older to do with with grace, wink.

    Thanks, Carl

  2. Hey Carl!

    I’m so sorry I took so long to reply, but I hope your joint pain has been getting better in the meantime!

    It sounds like you have a solid plan and have been doing this for a long time.

    The main thing I would be weary about is doing super high reps as this can also beat up your joints depending on your technique and the exercises you use.

    I think doing cardio 3 times per week is a great idea and should keep you in awesome shape while keeping your heart as healthy as possible.

    Here’s what I recommend for the training though to potentially help with the pain.

    Your plan sounds solid for the most part, but make sure you’re training your glutes, hamstrings, and back musculature as the stronger these are, the more support your entire body will have.

    On top of that, I would recommend working in the 10-20 rep range. This will keep the weights lighter so you don’t get super beat up, but it’s not so light that you’re getting beat up by super high reps.

    Those rep ranges are much more fatiguing too, so going with moderate to high reps is a good idea for you.

    The other thing I recommend is to pay attention to your execution. Control your reps through the entire range of motion, contract hard against the load, and just have complete control of each and every rep.

    You should also use pauses for certain movements where it makes sense. This will allow you to lower the weights you’re using, protect your joints, and make your training much more effective than doing sets over 30.

    Hopefully this makes sense and helps you out Carl!

    Let me know if you have any questions!

    I look forward to hearing from you.


Leave a Comment