Every day I see a new article, blog, or video sharing tips on what I need to be doing in the gym to build more muscle, gain strength, or to develop this or that.
And naturally, all of these experts are giving out different, often conflicting, advice.
From German Volume Training to monster supersets, drop-sets, and pyramid sets, there’s a lot of different ways to lift weights – so if you’ve gotten lost in the process of developing your workout routine, it’s very understandable.
And I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so I’m going to tell you right now that there is no one size fits all prescription for how many reps and sets we need to build strength.
We’re all different and we all exercise at different intensities, so what our bodies respond to will vary from person to person.
And our weight lifting goals will play a huge role in determining what kind of reps and sets routine will be most effective.
That said, there are some solid guidelines that anyone trying to build strength should know.
To Build Strength, We Need To Challenge The Muscle
Our bodies are amazing – as a physical therapist, I’m reminded of this on a daily basis.
For me, the fact that someone can weight bear and walk hours after having a joint surgically removed and replaced with a metal transplant is nothing short of a miracle.
I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but our bodies are remarkably resilient and our tissues are constantly adapting to the stresses we put ’em through during daily life.
Injuries heal, tissues repair themselves, life goes on.
And the same goes for our muscles.
When you think about lifting weights, what we’re really doing is working the different muscles to the point at which they start to break down.
Or at least this is what we should be doing if we’re trying to make gains.
Recall that skeletal muscles are made up of different fibers that work together to contract, allowing us the freedom to move around as we see fit.
Well, turns out these muscle fibers are smart and it doesn’t take ’em long to get used to the loads and work they’re doing on a regular basis.
In order to make muscle adapt and get stronger, we have to work them to an intensity they’re not used to, forcing them to adapt to the new stresses.
If you remember your first weight lifting session, you know exactly what I’m talking about here.
Any time we do a new physical activity, assuming it’s taxing enough, we usually feel sore afterwards (often in muscles we may not’ve know we even had).
Well, that’s because those muscles were worked in a way they weren’t used to.
When this happens, the muscles are actually damaged and it’s the repairing process that makes them a little stronger than they were before.
The idea behind progressive weight training is that we are continuously stressing our muscles past their comfort zone and getting stronger every time they’re repaired.
The key here there, is that we have to stress our muscles effectively enough to get that growth.
Reps & Sets
When I started lifting weights for basketball in high school, we were all put on a rather basic routine.
We went through all the usual suspects (squats, bench press, calf raises, etc) and we all did the same rep/set schedule for each move.
Which I believe consisted of a warm up set and then 10, 8, 6 – while increasing the weight between each set.
This is your typical pyramid set and it’s actually a great place to start, but it’s not going to be what everyone needs as they progress through their fitness journey.
(When in doubt, I’ve often gone back to a similar pyramid set throughout the years, especially when starting up again from time off).
The first thing you need to do before you decide on a rep & set schedule is to decide what your primary goal is for lifting weights because your routine will vary depending on what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking to improve your ability to lift heavy weight or improve your 1 rep max , you’ll probably want to lift more like a power lifter.
Which means keeping your sets somewhere in the 3-5 range with your reps in the 2 – 6 range, according to Men’s Health contributor Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S.
This is a lot lower that what a lot of us might be used to, but if your goal is to lift really heavy weight, you have to practice lifting really heavy weight.
If muscular endurance is your goal, you’ll want to significantly decrease the resistance and go for a lot more reps – think 3 sets of 15 – 20.
Lifting with low weight and high reps likely won’t help you add a lot of muscle mass, but it’ll help tone and tighten and can help with cardiovascular performance as well.
If you’re looking for muscle hypertrophy (ie, bigger muscles), you’ll want be somewhere in the middle between the power lifters and the endurance lifters.
This means doing 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise.
If none of this sounds new to ya, that’s because this is good ol’ fashioned weight lifting 101 – unfortunately, there aren’t any new magical rep/set counts that are guaranteed to help build your strength.
The real key to making gains (regardless of what your goals are) is making sure you’re using a weight that sufficiently challenges you.
If you ask me, this is where most of us fall short, myself included.
Regardless of how many reps you’re doing, you need to pick a weight that makes it hard to finish those last 2 reps.
For example, if I’m doing a set of 10 reps, reps #9 and #10 need to be very challenging – we’re talking so challenging I couldn’t really do an 11th rep.
The whole debate on whether we need to work to the point of failure is for another day, but you should be damn close to failure by the time you get to your last rep.
If you aren’t, you probably aren’t working your muscles hard enough to get the gains you’re looking for.
Personally, I know I’m guilty of this all the time.
I’ll start with a weight I think I should be able to get for a certain set of reps and I’ll often stop a little earlier than I should – in my head I know I’m doing myself a disservice, but in the heat of the moment I don’t care.
I know a lot of us focus on getting those sets and reps in, but I think we should be spending more time focusing on the resistance we’re using.
The number of sets and reps we need to build strength depends on our individual strength training goals.
Generally speaking, power lifters need to keep their reps lower and their weights heavier and endurance folks need to do the opposite.
For everyone else trying to get stronger and bulk up a little in the process, I think 4 sets of 8 – 12 is the sweet spot.
I play with my set and rep ranges all the time (mostly because I get bored), but personally, I notice the most improvement when I do 4 sets.
I used to keep it to 3 working sets per exercise for a long time, but adding that 4th set seems to make a lot of difference for me.
That extra little addition of volume was enough to wake my muscles up and get them adapting again.
Speaking of volume, body building is a whole different animal.
Body building is all about developing symmetrical hypertrophy and if you’ve ever tried any workouts from the pros, you know their rep/set counts are a lot higher than what we’ve discussed so far.
Schwarzeneneggar’s workouts are infamous for their intense volume and if you’ve ever tired any of ’em, you know how challenging they are.
He would casually do 5-6 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise and things like that.
I did one of his workouts years ago and I remember one of the phases included 10 sets of 10 on bench press… I mean seriously?
These days I don’t have the time for that kinda lifting. Best case, I’ve got an hour to get my workout in and even that’s not a guarantee.
But these guys are pros and they’re working to add size to pretty much every muscle in their body – plus they have the time and resources to spend 6 hrs in the gym every day.
So don’t think this is necessary for building real strength.
Also, don’t think you have to do the same rep/set count for each exercise.
Our muscles like variety, so it’s a good idea to switch things up and try different sets/reps with different exercises.
Personally, at the moment I’m doing 4 sets of 8-10 for 2 exercises, and 2 sets of 10 – 15 for 1-2 exercise per body area.
This way, I feel like I’m getting a little bit of the strength building and endurance modes covered for each weight lifting session.
I’m also never doing more than 4 exercises per body part – again, I don’t have the time for it.
Oh, also keep in mind what your recovery periods are and don’t overlook rest and nutrition – these are all important components to building real strength.
In terms of rest between sets, generally speaking, the heavier you go, the more rest you should get between sets.
But again, that’s a discussion for another day.
Long-story-short, if you’re trying to get stronger, 4 sets of 8-12 to probably where you want to be… just make sure you’re using enough resistance to get the job done!