How many Sets and Reps to Maximize Muscle Growth?

If your goal in the gym is to build muscle, this question is of fundamental importance. How much volume should you be doing to maximize muscle growth?

If you like this article, check out some of my high-level programming available through the TrainHeroic App.

The Limitations of Research

I don’t want to imply that research on resistance training is useless. It is certainly useful and necessary.

However, we often take the conclusions of these studies as truth, without digging into them and really reflecting on them.

Are the subjects untrained? How much does the study actually relate to you as a lifter?

For example, many studies, like this one, have shown a dose-response relationship between training volume and hypertrophy. That is, the more volume you do, the more muscle you’ll build.

However, this “more is better” philosophy is not necessarily true.. and is at best, flawed.

One can look at studies on German Volume Training, which show that 5 sets of 10 reps is just as effective as the 10 sets of 10 prescribed, at building muscle.

Other studies show very similar results between 3 sets and 5 sets per session of an exercise..

So obviously, at some point, more is not only not better, but probably detrimental to your gains, bro.

So maybe the main variable shouldn’t be volume… But rather, effort.

Low Volume Training Can Produce Big Gainz

Lifters like Dorian Yates, Dante Trudel, Mike Mentzer, and many others have used a High Intensity model of training to build massive physiques.

High intensity training often calls for low volume and very high intensity. So why does it work?

It works because the amount of reps taken to (and often beyond) failure are the focus of the training.

In high intensity training, everything you do is meaningful.

It isn’t just how many reps you do that matters.. it is the quality of those reps that drives muscle growth.

I’ll expand more on this below. This is the essence of my point in this article.

What You Do vs. How You Do It

I say this a lot; It isn’t always what you do, but how you do it, that matters the most.

This is often not something that can be measured by a study.

Training volume is not a simple equation of “Sets x Reps.” This is a foolish way of looking at it as it relates to you actually building muscle.

Instead, you should be looking at the reps that actually cause Hypertrophy and challenge the body enough to cause a stimulus and adaptation.

Essentially that means taking sets to failure (or beyond), and counting the reps that slow down due to fatigue.. probably the last 3-5 reps of a set… the ones that are HARD.

People frequently do 3 or 4 sets of 8-10 reps, pyramiding up to a heavy set. Well, the first 3 sets were probably not very useful. and on the last set, only a few reps actually counted.

So, did you do 4 sets of 8? Or did you do 1 set of 3 or 4 meaningful reps?

Mechanical Tension

The primary driver of muscle growth is going to be mechanical tension.

This essentially refers to the amount of force being produced by the target muscle group.

As a muscle contracts more slowly, it produces much higher forces.

Those reps towards the end of a set to failure, as they slow down, produce much higher mechanical tension vs. the first few reps of the set.

As Arnold so eloquently stated, “you only start counting when it starts hurting.”

So, the question has to be asked… not how much volume are you doing.. but how much meaningful volume are you doing?

3 sets of 8 tells me nothing. Could you have gotten 10, 12, 15 reps? Or would you have failed at 8 even with a gun at your head? It matters a whole lot.

So How Many Sets and Reps Should You Be Doing?

The answer to this is of course, it depends…

I would argue that it’s better to focus on how hard you’re pushing each set, vs. how many you’re doing…

Generally, I believe people should not be training more than 3-4 days per week, unless you can justify why those extra days are necessary.

Most lifters are going to do well on 3-4 days of HARD training.

In fact, if you’re actually training very hard, you probably can’t do more than that, without crushing yourself and failing to recover…

Why are People Training So Much, Then?

What happens, in my opinion, is that people become obsessive about their training. They WANT to be in the gym more.

They want to do more sets.

It’s important to realize that has nothing to do with what’s actually optimal for you as far as building muscle.

I’ve trained many people who were previously working out 6 days per week until I brought them back down to 3-4 days and had them actually train to failure on every set.

The results are often that people are shocked at how sore they get, and how much more muscle they build over a period of time when they’re actually pushing themselves properly.

It’s simply too difficult for many people to train with adequate intensity (remember, meaningful reps are what matter) on 5-6 days per week.

You end up sacrificing meaningful training for more time in the gym, weaker sessions, and less recovery time, which is a recipe for suboptimal results.

3 Day Split as a Starting Point

I’m a big believer in starting off with 3 hard training days per week. On three days, you can train very hard and still recover.

You can analyze and assess your results and then determine if you actually need more training volume or a higher frequency.

There are some really solid 3 day split programs, such as Dante Trudel’s DoggCrapp training, or my own Swole Town team programming, where we stick with 3-4 days/week of hard training.

After a few months of this, if you feel that you need an additional training day to maximize your results, then you’ve taken the time to reach that decision intelligently, and know that you actually need it.

Experimentation is important in the gym to find what works best for you.

You cannot rely on some cut-and-paste program someone else does to work for YOU.

You cannot rely on a study performed on people who aren’t you, to determine what works for YOU.

Final Thoughts

The main point of this article is not to give you an exact set and rep formula that will be some magical set of numbers.

The purpose of the article was to get you to rethink the question in different terms.

It isn’t always what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it.

Are you truly pushing yourself in the gym? No seriously, are you leaving even an ounce of effort behind on each set?

Are you able to demonstrate progressive overload over a period of time? (meaning you’re getting stronger).

Or, have you become obsessive about training and no longer really have any idea what’s actually optimal?

The solution may be to take a step back, get a solid 3-4 day training split where you focus on really pushing yourself hard and ensuring adequate recovery, and progressive overload.

Then, after a few months, reassess and decide what changes need to be made.

You’re the only one who knows if you’re giving 100% in the gym..

If this article has a higher purpose, it’s to remind you that effort and fortitude (along with adequate recovery) are what will ultimately drive muscle growth, no matter what studies might say…

If you like this article, check out some of my high-level programming available through the TrainHeroic App.


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