Learn How Many Sets and Reps You Need to Build Muscle (Plus a Sample Hypertrophy Plan)
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Building muscle, also known as hypertrophy training, is one of the most common goals for my clients and many gym enthusiasts. After all, building muscle improves your physique and daily functioning. But, as with many other fitness and health goals, the exact methods needed to build muscle can be confusing. So many differing opinions circulate online from influencers and even fitness experts.
With over a decade of experience training for muscle growth, there’s one thing I’ve learned to say when people ask me how many sets and reps it takes to build muscle: it depends.
Now, I understand that isn’t very helpful, but I’ll provide more specific details below to help you:
figure out how many sets and reps you need to build muscle
how to adapt your program to keep seeing results
how to know when you’re doing too many sets and reps.
Let’s dig in.
What Is Hypertrophy Training?
First, for those who don’t know what hypertrophy is, let’s take a minute to define and understand it. Hypertrophy is another term for muscle growth. It’s a different process than increasing strength.
Although there is a lot of overlap between training for strength and training for building muscle, your focus and methods in your workouts will likely be different depending on your fitness level and experience.
Both strength and hypertrophy training require resistance-based exercises that progress over time. This means you need to increase the challenge to your muscles consistently.
In the case of hypertrophy training, increasing the volume of work you do over a set time (typically called a mesocycle, which is about four to six weeks) is one of the most sure-fire and well-researched ways of boosting muscle growth. More about lifting volume is below.
Determine How Many Reps and Sets to Build Muscle Per Week
Here’s where the “it depends” factor comes in — you need to know your current workout volume. Your current training volume determines how many sets and reps you need to build muscle and how to progress so you keep seeing results.
Your lifting volume is the number of sets multiplied by the number of reps multiplied by the amount of weight you lift.
As an equation, it looks like this:
Training volume = reps x sets x weight.
If you’re new to lifting weights for hypertrophy, or you’ve been off the wagon with weight training for some time and are detrained — that’s OK. There are somestandard volume recommendations you can use.
Sets and Reps for Hypertrophy Beginners (or Detrained)
If you’ve taken time off from training or are new to building muscle, start with the following recommendations. Make sure you use a weight that challenges you so that the last two to three reps are challenging (but not impossible) to complete. You can mix and match from the following rep ranges:
5 to 10 for compound (exercises that work multiple muscle groups) and larger muscle groups (think the glutes, quadriceps, back)
10 to 20 for isolation exercises (these target one muscle or joint by itself) and smaller muscle groups (think the biceps, triceps, calves)
20 to 30 for isolation and machine exercises
Sets per muscle or muscle group:
1 to 5 sets for beginners
2 to 10 for intermediate
3 to 12 for advanced Start with the least and add 1 to 2 sets each week over your mesocycle (more on that below)
Frequency: 2 to 3 sessions per muscle group per week
Sets of five to 10 reps are ideal for compound movements that work larger muscle groups, including bench presses, squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, and rows (along with variations of these movements). It’s enough reps to allow a good stimulus to the muscles without adding too much fatigue from higher rep work with these more demanding, fatiguing exercises. It also keeps reps within a range where you can really focus on technique without your form degrading and risking injury.
Sets of 10 to 20 reps are perfect for isolation exercises using smaller muscles, such as bicep curls, hamstring curls, calf raises, lateral raises, tricep extensions, or other similar movements.
Keeping the reps higher allows you to use a lower weight that won’t wear down the elbows, knees, and shoulder joints. These muscles also cannot lift heavier weights for very many reps and tend to respond and grow better with more volume, so keeping the reps higher is best.
Sets of 20 to 30 reps are also very effective for building muscle when it comes to isolation work on smaller muscle groups like biceps, triceps, lateral and rear delts (shoulders), calves, abdominals, and some glute isolation work. If you’re using machines or are more advanced and 10 to 20 reps are not enough volume to feel enough stimulus, then this rep range is ideal.
You can also do compound lifts in the 10- to 20-rep range, especially if you’re not used to lifting heavier weights needed for getting enough stimulus from five to 10 reps.
Sets and Reps for Those New to Weight Lifting
One caveat: If you’ve never trained with weights and aren’t very strong, then a program that uses rep ranges between three to six with compound exercises such as the bench press, squat, shoulder press, rows, and deadlifts is ideal.
For these clients, something like the 5x5 program, which requires five sets of five reps for these compound lifts, helps them build basic strength levels while also building muscle. When you’re brand new to lifting weights and building strength, you’re more likely to gain muscle more easily than someone who has been lifting for a while (though this isn’t true for everyone). So, a program with three sets of five reps or five sets of five reps will likely work to build muscle.
Keep in mind that learning how to complete each movement, perfecting your exercise form, and focusing on building overall strength should be your primary goals before you attempt to really hone in on hypertrophy. A personal trainer can help you learn movements and design the best program for your abilities.
How Many Sets and Reps Are Too Many?
The number of sets that are too many for you depends on your fitness level and how well you recover after your workouts. The key to hypertrophy training is to do the least amount possible to stimulate growth so that you don’t end up with too much fatigue. Recovery is when your tissues heal and grow. If you make the mistake of overdoing it and skimping on recovery, you’ll struggle to increase muscle mass.
You can tell how many reps or sets are too many by listening to your body. If your quads and hamstrings are still very sore when it’s leg day again, you likely did too much. While soreness is normal and, during the first week or two will be unavoidable, you don’t want to be painfully sore all the time.
Another sign of too many sets is if you can’t lift the same weight for the same number of repetitions in the next session. Ideally, you should be able to do more. If you can’t, that’s a sign you did too much last time, and you should remove a set from your total volume.
Example Hypertrophy Program (Mesocycle)
This sample five-week hypertrophy program will help you increase your volume over time; you should see results within four weeks. The fifth week is a deload week that will help you manage fatigue and recover to get ready for another mesocycle.
For this particular program, there are four lifting days. You can take one or two days off between workouts, but ensure you do all four lifting days within a seven-day week. Keep in mind four days may be too many for people brand new to lifting, and may not be enough for those who are very advanced.
Week One: Adaptation
During this week, your body will be getting used to each exercise. Track your results, such as reps and weights used for each exercise. During week one, choose a weight that allows you to leave three reps in reserve, which means you can do three more reps before failure when you stop the set (RIR3). All exercises will remain the same for the mesocycle.
Dumbbell chest press: 2 sets of 5 to 10 reps
Dumbbell one-arm row: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Overhead triceps extension: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell biceps curl: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell shoulder press: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Front squat: 2 sets of 5 to 10 reps
Stiff legged deadlift: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell single leg hip thrust: 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps
Assisted pull-up: 2 sets of 5 to 10 reps
Dumbbell incline chest press: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell lateral raises: 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps
Dumbbell hammer curls: 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell triceps extension: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell walking lunge: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Dumbbell sumo squat: 2 sets of 10 to 20 reps
Band or cable glute kickback: 3 sets of 20 to 30 reps
Week Two: Increase Load
During week two, increase the load for all your exercises if possible. You can also add a set of any exercise in which the body part is not sore. Keep your reps in reserve at three this week.
Week Three: Increase Load and Intensity
This week, add sets to any body parts that aren’t sore. You can even add two sets if you did not feel a pump or burning sensation during the previous training session for that muscle. Try to do more reps and/or add a little weight, such as 5 lbs, to larger muscle group exercises. Work to two reps in reserve this week.
Week Four: Peak Week
This is your peak week, meaning you will work to a level you likely cannot sustain, and after this week, you will need a deload where you take it easier and recover. Add sets to muscle groups to which you did not get a pump or burning sensation, and add sets if you aren’t sore. So, for instance, if last week you didn’t feel like your workout stimulated your biceps and you aren’t sore in them, add two sets to your biceps training in the next session. Work to one rep in reserve this week.
Week Five: Deload
You made it! This week, you should rest and recover thoroughly to benefit from all of your hard work and avoid overtraining. Complete all your exercises with only two sets using half the weight and half the reps you did for week one.
The above is a sample program and may not be the best case for you, depending on your current fitness level and experience. When you’re ready for more customized muscle-building workouts, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer.