What Is The Best Rep And Set Range For Building Muscle?

The Topic: What Is The Best Rep And Set Range For Building Muscle? Find out what people from our popular message boards think...

TOPIC: What Is The Best Rep And Set Range For Building Muscle?

The Question

If you were looking to build muscle as fast as you can, how many sets per bodypart and per workout would you perform? What rep range (or ranges) would you use per set? Give detailed reasons why you believe these ranges are the best, and use as much personal experience AND scientific proof as you can.

Bonus Question

What is the most muscle (not just weight) that a person can gain naturally in 12 weeks? What is the average amount that a person could expect to gain with a good workout, diet, and supplement plan?

The Winners

  1. ~jAmeZ~ View Profile
  2. ravadongon View Profile
  3. hepennypacker52 View Profile


The best response will get $50 in credit to use in our online store!

1st Place - ~jAmeZ~

Bodybuilders have known intuitively for decades that high volume training is the quickest way to big muscles. When bodybuilding split from Olympic weightlifting in the 1940s, most serious musclemen began training with higher reps and multiple sets (Fair, 1999). It's not because they "felt like it". It's because they saw that it worked.

Exercise science has come a long way since the 1940s. It's no longer a matter of "seeing is believing". We're now able to pinpoint why higher reps and multiple sets work so well at a biological level.

I'll begin by summarising (briefly) how weight training makes muscles grow.

Grow Baby, Grow

Muscle growth (hypertrophy) is caused by a buildup of proteins. Protein buildup can happen in three ways (Booth & Thomason, 1991):

  1. The amount of protein going into the muscle increases
  2. The amount of protein wasted from the muscle decreases
  3. Both 1 and 2

Weight training causes microtrauma (tiny tears in muscle fibres)(McDonagh et al, 1984; Gibala et al, 2000). The body responds to the damage by increasing the amount of protein going into the muscles. This continues for up to two days after weight training (Gibala et al, 1995b).

The rate of repair and muscle growth is also positively affected by testosterone and other hormones (Kraemer et al, 1990; Adams, 1998). Weight training increases the release of these muscle-building hormones in your body (Raastad et al, 2000).

The rate of hypertrophy that occurs during this "healing" process depends on the type of muscle fibre involved. Fast twitch fibres respond better than slow twitch fibres (Alway et al; McCall et al, 1996). Individuals with more fast twitch fibres will grow bigger, quicker.

Training for Ultimate Size

There is an inverse link between strength gains and hypertrophy (Sale, 1992). When you lift weights, your muscles learn to work better (through neural adaptation) and you become stronger. However, your body recruits less muscle fibre the more it adapts (Ploutz et al, 1994). And the less muscle fibre you stimulate, the less you grow.

Trained Olympic lifters, for example, were shown over a two-year period to have significant strength increases with barely noticeable increases in muscle mass (Hakkinen et al, 1988). I had a similar experience when I used AST's Max-OT principals. My strength went up like crazy, but I gained very little size.

Obviously, traditional strength training with low volume and low sets (1-6 reps, 3 or less sets) is not the best approach. Strength training does cause hypertrophy (Hakkinen et al, 1985), but it won't cause maximum hypertrophy.

High volume, multiple set programs (6-12 reps, 3 to 6 sets) have been shown to create greater hypertrophy for two important reasons:

  1. The higher workload is more effective at creating microtrauma because of the extra time under tension and extra number of fibres recruited (Shinohara et al, 1998; Smith & Rutherford, 1995; Moss et al, 1997)
  2. High volume, multiple set programs are more effective at increasing the body's production of testosterone and growth hormone (Kraemer et al, 1991; Kraemer et al 1990)

Remember the muscle-building process described in Grow Baby, Grow? Microtrauma stimulates increased protein synthesis, and muscle growth is positively affected by a number of hormones that are released after weight training. High volume, multiple set programs cause more microtrauma and greater hormone secretion-so the end result is more muscle!

This probably explains why I was unimpressed with HIT. Although HIT uses high reps, you only perform one "hardcore" set per bodypart. I actually lost muscle and began to feel like I didn't even train!

Now, there's one thing you should be aware of. High volume and multiple sets might pack on muscle quickly, but you shouldn't ONLY train this way. There's something called the "general adaptation syndrome", which means your body will adapt to the program very quickly and you'll run into a massive plateau (Selye, 1976).

An effective science-based way to pack on muscle quickly is to use a periodised routine that emphasises high volume and multiple sets. The periodic variation lets you alter the sets and reps of the program to boost muscle growth and recovery (Potteiger et al, 1995). Sets and reps can be varied per exercise, per workout or per week.

HST is an example of a routine that periodises on a per-exercise basis (i.e HST uses rep ranges between 2-15 for every exercise). I made good size gains using HST, but I didn't become a big fan of using such varied rep ranges each workout. I thought I could have been more productive. To me, HST felt like doing two half-arsed workouts in one session, with one aimed at hypertrophy and the other targeting strength.

Then I started periodising on a per-workout basis. I now workout with a 2:1 hypertrophy:strength rotation. This means that I do 2 hypertrophy workouts (8-12 reps, 6 sets) for every 1 strength workout (4-6 reps, 3 sets). It looks like a little something like this (using back and biceps day as an example):

  • Monday (Back and biceps)

  • Hypertrophy
  • Thursday (Back and biceps)

  • Hypertrophy
  • Monday (Back and biceps)

  • Strength

Got the idea? I've found that, by using the 2:1 rotation, I can give maximal attention to training each characteristic. Emphasising high volume, multiple set training gives me the quickest progression in muscle size.

Slotting in a strength day helps me lift more on my hypertrophy days. Lifting more weight for higher reps makes my muscles bigger. And so the circle of growth continues!

Bonus Question

The amount of muscle a person can gain in 12 weeks varies greatly according to their level of training experience. For this question, I'm going to presume that the person is a beginner.

As a newbie weight trainer, the immediate change they will notice is an increase in strength. Hypertrophy won't be very noticeable until about the 6th week (Phillips, 1997). Assuming a good regime, diet and supplementation, they could most likely gain anywhere from 2 to 5kgs after 12 weeks (the variation is due, of course, to other factors like genetics).

I have seen people put on 10kg of muscle in 12 weeks…but they were previously trained individuals who were coming back to training after a long layoff.


Adams, G. Role of insulin-like growth factor-I in the regulation of skeletal muscle adaptation to increased loading. Exercise and Sports Science Review. 26:31-60, 1998.

Alway S, et al. Contrasts in muscle and myofibers of elite male and female bodybuilders. Journal of Applied Physiology 67:24-31, 1989.

Booth, F and D Thomason. Molecular and cellular adaptation of muscle in response to exercise: perspectives of various models. Physiology Review 71:541-585, 1991.

Fair, J. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell. USA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Gibala, M et al. Changes in skeletal muscle ultrastructure and force production after acute resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 78:702-708, 1995.

Gibala M et al. Myofibrillar disruption following acute concentric and eccentric resistance exercise in strength-trained men. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 78:656-661, 2000.

Hakkinen, K et al. Changes in isometric force-and relaxation-time, electromyographic and muscle fibre characteristics of human skeletal muscle during strength training and detraining. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica. 125:573-585, 1985.

Hakkinen, K et al. Neuromuscular and hormonal adaptations in athletes to strength training in two years. Journal of Applied Physiology. 65:2406-2412, 1988.

Kraemer, W et al. Endogenous anabolic hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise in males and females. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 12:228-235, 1991.

Kraemer, W et al. Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise protocols. Journal of Applied Physiology. 69:1442-1450, 1990.

McCall, G et al. Muscle fiber hypertrophy, hyperplasia, and capillary density in college men after resistance training. Journal of Applied Physiology 81:2004-2012, 1996.

McDonagh, M et al. Adaptive response of mammalian skeletal muscle to exercise with high loads. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 52:139-155, 1984.

Moss, B et al. Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, loadpower and load-velocity relationships. European Journal of Applied Physiology 75:193-199, 1997.

Phillips, S. Short-term training: when do repeated bouts of resistance exercise become training? Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. 25:185-193, 2000.

Ploutz, L et al. Effect of resistance training on muscle use during exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 76:1675-1681, 1994.

Potteiger, J et al. Effects of altering training volume and intensity on body mass, performance, and hormonal concentrations in weight-event athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 9:55-58, 1995.

Raastad, T et al. Hormonal responses to high- and moderate-intensity strength exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 82:121-128, 2000.

Sale, D. Neural adaptations to strength training. In: Strength and Power in Sport, P. V. Komi (ed.). Oxford: BSP, 1992 (249-265).

Selye, H. Forty years of stress research: principal remaining problems and misconceptions. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 115:53-56, 1976.

Smith, R and O RUTHERFORD. The role of metabolites in strength training: I. A comparison of eccentric and concentric contractions. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 71:332-336, 1995.

1st Place (TIED) - ravadongon

Rep Range

Using Science

1-3 Reps

In this repetition scheme Neural Efficiency (as well as some Myofibril Hypertrophy) occurs. Neural Efficiency increases the percentage of motor units that can be activated at any given time (CNS efficiency).

This has very little impact on size gains but increases strength will be definitely be great. Little to no protein turnover occurs when using this particular rep range as load is too high and mechanical work is too low.

3-5 Reps

In this repetition range, mostly Myofibril and Sarcomere Hypertrophy and very little Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy occurs. Sarcomere hypertrophy increases contractile proteins in muscle thereby increasing strength directly and also size. Science says that growth here will be mostly myofibral/ sarcomere hypertrophy and will be accompanied with strength gains in other rep ranges and improvements in neural efficiency.

Therefore this is perhaps the best rep range for increasing strength, as there is a better balance of load/work done for hypertrophy. However with little Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy occurring working in this rep range, is not the most beneficial for size.

5-10 Reps

In this repertition range we have Myofibril, Sarcomere, and Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy occurring. Using this rep range you will receive lots of growth as well some strength gains.

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy does not directly increase strength, but it increases size, what a bodybuilder trains for. This is the best range, according to science, to train in as a bodybuilder.

10-15 Reps

Some Sarcoplasmic with little Myofibral and Sarcomere Hypertrophy occur in rep ranges of 10-15. More fatigue and a greater extent of waste products are produced when training in this rep range.

More Than 15 Reps

Capillary density increases with little Sarcoplasmic growth with rep ranges above 15. Muscle endurace begins to become a factor, but this is not what you are looking for as a bodybuilder.

Using Personal Experience

As we have heard countless times before, "everybody's different," and "science isn't always right" so I'll give you my personal experience with working in different repetition ranges.

1-3 Reps

I rarely step into this rep range (only when performing olympic lifts), so I cannot give you a real prediction to whether this is the optimal rep range to work in.

3-5 Reps

I often use sets of 4 with my compound exercises, as I am more a powerbuilder then a bodybuilder. I've found that working in this rep range the strength gains outweighed the size gains, however I still did get size gains working in this range.

5-10 Reps

This is the range I work in most the time, primarily towards the lower end (sets of 5 and 6), as I found it gives a nice balance of size and strength gains. However, when I begun training well (this was when I trained more as a bodybuilder, rather than a powerbuilder), I used to perform sets of 8, 9 and 10.

When working with these reps I found my size gains going through the roof. So I would say this is definitely the best rep range to work in for size, so far from my experience.

10-15 Reps

I haven't worked in this rep range, since my newbie days. Even then with limited training this rep range did not produce optimal size gains. When discovering that I was getting little results to show for my hard work in the gym, I lowered my reps.

More Than 15 Reps

I have never ventured into high repetitions, and don't think I ever will after seeing such great gains with medium to lower reps.

Conclusion: 5-10 Reps -> The Winner!

From what I have written in terms of both science and my personal experience, the best rep range to work in is between 5-10 reps. In terms of science this is the best rep range to work in because maximal sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increasing the volume of the tissue that supplies energy to the muscle or is involved with the neural drive) occurs.

This is also the case with my personal experience, as I have benifited using this rep range when training primarily for size. As we all know "different things work for different people", but I am quite sure in saying that working in the 5-10 rep range will work for the large majority in training for size above all.

Set Range

What Is The Optimal Set Range?

Compared to rep ranges, set ranges are much more based on the theory, "different things work for different people."

Some people respond fantastically to high volume splits where a 4 or more exercises are used per bodypart and set ranges are more often than not above 3 per exercise.

However, most people will find they overtrain with such high volume splits and consequently their gains are reduced. They may respond better to a more "abbreviated" style of training, where often 1 exercise per small muscle and 2 exercises per large muscle are used with sets per exercise never above 2, and often 1.

So in conclusion, with set ranges, it is really dependent on what your body responds well to, more than anything else.

Bonus Question

What is the most muscle (not just weight) that a person can gain naturally in 12 weeks? What is the average amount that a person could expect to gain with a good workout, diet, and supplement plan?

This is heavily based on the persons genetics and the time they have spent lifting. Obviously, people with more favourable genetics, will gain more muscle than those with less favourable genetics. Another factor as I said is the time they have spent lifting. The more weight you put on the harder it becomes to put on more weight, and therefore it takes longer.

For someone with favourable genetics, who hasn't lifted before, and has an immaculate diet, supplement and workout program, along with plenty of time to rest, it is fair to say that to gain at a rate of 1.5kg per week would be impressive, yet still possible. So to gain 18kg of muscle (sorry for using the metric system) in 12 weeks would be very impressive, yet still possible for those genetically gifted.

If we are looking at a newbie with average genetics with an well constructed diet, supplement and workout regime, along with plenty of time to rest, then to gain at a rate of around 0.6kg per week, would be expected, so he would end up gaining 7kg of muscle in the 12 weeks of training. Definitely possible for all newbies to gain that much, but it must be stressed that they would need to follow their diet, supplement and workout plan, almost religiously, and "avoid slacking off."

3rd Place - hepennypacker52

Set and Rep Range

"How many sets and reps should I do?"

The all commonly heard question, repeated again, and again, and again. The true answer is most commonly not liked to be heard, why? Because people are lazy. They don't want to invest time to figure out what their body best responds to, they just want somebody to tell them what to do in order to grow. It's those very people that go in and out of the gym with no results week after week.

Muscle Fibers

First off, a word needs to be put in on muscle fibers. There are two types of fibers, slow twitch, and fast twitch. Those can then be broken down into :

  • Type I - slow twitch
  • Type IIA - fast twitch
  • Type IIB - fast twitch

Since we're talking about building muscle, we're just going to deal with type II fibers. Without getting too scientific here, type IIa fibers do posess some aerobic qualties, and can also generate anaerobic qualities. These are used for mid to high rep exercises. Type IIb fibers are strictly anaerobic, but they can generate more force than type IIa fibers can, so these are used in low rep, high weight exercises (1-3 reps with greater than 90% of 1RM).

Another thing needed to be said about fibers is, your fiber type distribution is GENETIC. Some people have more type I fibers, and some have more type II fibers. Some people have more type IIa fibers, and some have more type IIb fibers. This is where you can't be lazy, you have to find out what your body best responds to.


Now that you have a little background on muscle fibers, time to show you what rep range works best for what fibers. The type of hypertrophy I'll be discussing is mainly sarcomere, since that makes up most of the muscle, that's what should be mainly trained. Below I'll type a mini chart of what rep ranges train each muscle fiber type:

  • Type IIa : 8 - 15
  • Type IIb : 3 - 5

Generally, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (not what we're dealing with now) rep ranges look like this:

    Type IIa : 16-25 Type IIb : 6-12

Now to answer the ultimate rep question:

What is the best rep range for building muscle?

3 - 15 reps!


Nothing special, see. Nobody can give you a magic number, it's up to you to find out what works best for you.


Oh boy, now this is where it gets very controversial. You have the Mentzer HIT "mob", who belives that all you need is one working set to failure in order to stimulate growth. On the other side of the fence, you have people like Bill Pearl, who believes that there are better ways than training to failure. They believe that staying away from failure will allow you to train more often, with more volume, and that will stimulate more growth.

Cool, now which side is the best? There could be arguments for years and years on this topic, and I'm not going to tell you what's best and what's not, because what works for me won't always work for you. What I will do is try to give you some background on each of the methods.

Training to failure

While training to failure will release more growth factors, and will damage the fibers more, they require a lot more time to fully recover. It also takes a lot of time for you to recover.

Training to failure will work better for people who are beginning to lift, and people with great genetics. Hey, if they can train like that often and grow a lot, then why should they stop what they're doing? They shouldn't.

Training with high volume/frequency

The idea here is that you stay a couple reps short of failure, and this way you avoid CNS drain, and will be able to workout more frequently, and use more volume. This way, you're not stimulating growth as much in one session, but you're doing it more often. Good arguments here.

So Which One Do I Choose?

Well once again, it's up to you to find out what your body can handle. You may be able to handle a lot of heavy lifting, or you may be able to just handle lighter (notice the er) weights more frequently.

What works for me

There's a chance that what works for me may not work for you, but for the purpose of the question, I'll state what I've been doing. I've been doing HST (www.hypertrophy-specific.com) while, and you use different rep ranges for that.

I found that I gained best (hypertrophy wise) with higher reps, about 8-15. I can conclude from that, that I have more type IIa fibers, so I take that and use it to my own benefit. I really don't see any point in discussing personal evidence, because it's not plausible.


What is the most muscle (not just weight) that a person can gain naturally in 12 weeks? What is the average amount that a person could expect to gain with a good workout, diet, and supplement plan?

Again, this is different for everyone. Mesomorphs and beginners will be able to add more muscle faster than Average Joe over here. Here's what I would consider applicable for 12 weeks (assuming that they're an intermediate lifter, besides the beginner):

  • Mesomorph (good genetics) - 8.5lbs
  • Beginner - 10lbs
  • Average Joe - 4.5lbs