Today I’m going to do a deep dive into how many reps for muscle mass and also how many sets for mass. It’s the sets question that is the most open to debate.
Quick Answer For How Many Reps For Muscle Mass: in order to make our muscles bigger (muscle mass), we need to use a weight that is not only heavy, but also one that we can lift for a high number of reps. My rep recommendation is 67%-85% of 1 RM for 6-12 reps is the starting guideline for muscle hypertrophy.
How Many Sets For Mass?
How many sets for mass depends on if you are taking the sets to muscular failure or not. I am going to say you are because that gives us something tangible to build off. Based on my training with the ISSA, I use this information:
Research*1 shows that for beginners, taking sets to muscular failure to achieve muscle hypertrophy isn’t necessary. But, if you’ve been training with weights for at least a year, the research shows the opposite effect.
When it comes to trained individuals, you will see greater increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy after high-intensity resistance training workouts taken to muscle failure. The research can’t tell us exactly how many sets are needed to get to muscle failure because again, everyone is different.
I start with one to two sets per exercise for 2-3 exercises for muscle mass. I’ll do some warmup sets as well which contribute to a little extra volume. When you don’t train to failure is where you see 5×5 strength stuff or more popular bodybuilding programs with 3 exercises for 5 sets of 10 repetitions and the like.
And of course, there is everything in-between because EVERYTHING works for a while if you are stressing your muscles and not overtraining.
Now let’s go deeper…
The Science Of Sets And Reps For Muscle Mass
Rep ranges are a funny thing. Lots of people talk about doing this many reps for this many sets but really have no idea why they are doing that particular number or the effect it will have on their bodies.
Now Remember This: The body does not have a goal of creating muscle size. The body has performance goals. It first wants to achieve an ability to perform an action in response to external demands.
So we need to know which of those “action abilities” will give us the muscle mass we want.
In other words, the body will try to get stronger, faster or build endurance but what we are looking for is the muscle mass that the body creates to get stronger and which sets and reps scheme we need to do.
Here is the short answers on what each rep range does performance wise:
- 3-8 repetitions are most productive for creating absolute strength.
- 10-20 repetitions produce anaerobic strength endurance.
- 20-40 repetitions produce aerobic strength endurance.
The reason for such varied ranges even within a category of rep range is because people will take varying amounts of time to complete the rep. We know that it is not the actual number of reps but the time that the muscle is under tension that really causes the adaptive response.
So if you do 4 reps that take 6 seconds each and I do 6 reps that take 4 seconds each, we have both worked in the 3-8 range and caused that adaptation response that would be caused by putting a muscle under 24 seconds of tension.
Is 5 reps enough to build muscle and will 5×5 make be bigger?
Yes, 5 reps is enough to build muscle but it is not the most efficient rep range to do so quickly in my opinion. You will be missing out on cell volumization as a means of growth. That in addition to other size increases due to responses to longer times under load. Unless you tweak it like I mention in the conclusion.
The Muscle Fiber Types For Muscle Growth
Now on to fiber types. There are actually 3 major types of muscle fibers in the body that we are concerned with. Type 1, type 2a and type 2b. Some people have natural tendencies to do well at certain activities more so than others and this is because of the ratio of one muscle fiber type to another, among other things. Type 1 muscle fibers (or slow twitch muscle fibers,sometime called red) are your endurance muscle fibers because they are very resistant to fatigue and injuries. The sad part is that their ability to produce power is very low also.
Type 2a muscle fibers (fast twitch muscle fibers – intermediate – sometimes called white) are much larger and stronger than type 1 muscle fibers. These fibers have a high capacity for glycolytic activity and can produce high force output for longer periods of time.
Type 2b muscle fibers are the extreme end of the power scale. These are the survival fibers. The whole purpose for 2b muscle fibers is to allow enough power and strength to survive emergency situations. Sixteen percent of an inactive persons body is 2b fibers. Now even though these fibers are powerful, they have no resistance to fatigue or injury. Fact of the matter is that if and when you need to use these guys, most untrained people will damage that tissue beyond repair.
Is 3 Sets Enough To Build Muscle?
Yes, 3 sets is enough to build muscle if you take those sets to failure, in the 5-12 rep range with a heavy enough load. Also, you may increase sets (volume) in an attempt to create a new stimulus. This is where you must watch for overtraining.
Research has show that it is the white muscle fibers, the type 2a and 2b that give the greatest returns in size and strength when trained. These white muscle fibers are for high force output, that means lots of calories burned along with a tissue that requires alot of calories to stay alive.
So what about the red muscle fibers, the type 1? Well your body becomes efficient at what it is needed for. So if all you do is only cardio and other high rep activities, your body is going to favour the development of type 1 muscle fibers and in the end rob you of your ability to achieve your maximum strength, size and power.
What if strength, size and power are not your goals? Well not having at least some of those attributes will result in a suppressed metabolic rate. That means you will not burn as many calories in a day. This means that if you are on a weight loss program, you need to work the type 2a muscle fibers in the 10-12 rep range in order to boost your metabolism and stay strong and healthy.
Now the body can only handle increasing levels of stimulus in a particular area for a given amount of time. This is why in good programs you will find several totally different workouts, each stressing a different muscle fiber type for a given period of time.
An individualized program has the majority of the workout time spent in the phase that best effects the goal that is trying to be achieved.
In Conclusion – What I Do For Sets And Reps To Gain Muscle Size
This is NOT an exact science. Many set and rep schemes are pushed for gaining mass. This is because many work and they have all worked for someone because we are all different.
There is definitely a sliding scale between what works best for strength vs size vs endurance.
Because of this, when chasing muscle mass I cover all the basis by doing the following for sets and reps:
- 1 exercise at 5×5+ (2 warmups, 3 sets at a static weight, the last set taken to failure. 5+ reps indicating an increase in weight required) – usually my biggest compound exercise
- 1 exercise at 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Exercises are trained to failure
- The last set of the 4×6-8 being a triple drop set where I do three weight drops to failure for maximum pump.
- If a muscle requires three exercises I will make the third exercise 3 sets of 10-12
- On a rest week I will reduce volume and go to three full-body workouts doing only 1 exercise per bodypart at 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
- I usually do a rest week every four weeks when chasing the muscle mass dragon.
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