What Is The Ideal Repetition Range To Build Muscle?

If you’re really trying to get stronger and build muscle mass, what repetition range should you be striving for? When do you know it’s time to add more weight?

I think these questions are more prone to beginners and intermediate weight trainers who aren’t really sure when they should be adding more weight or what repetitions range they should be aiming for when they add more weight.

Back in my early days, I didn’t really have a clue what repetition ranges worked best for me. I’d just load the weight on and go for 6 reps.

However, as I soon learned, I would usually hit a plateau because my body simply couldn’t handle the heavy weight, day in and day out for months at a time, with no change to my routine. Since than, I’ve come up with a plan that allows for me to lift as heavy as possible, keep improving month after month and spare my joints and connective tissues.

I’ve been in this game long enough to know when it’s time to add more weight and what repetition range I should be striving for. With that in mind, let me give you some of my personal guidelines as to when you should be thinking of adding more weight and what repetition ranges you should be trying to complete. By following this kind of progression, you will always keep improving and you will be sparing your joints and connective tissues.

The following technique is a wonderful way to build muscle and strength. It will spare your joints and connective tissues while providing an environment for muscle growth. I’ve used this technique for years when I want to improve one of my compound movements and it works like a charm.

Let’s take the bench press for an example. I’m going to assume, in this example that the max, single rep bench press is 205 pounds.

Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions:

The warm up is exactly that, a warm up. Under no circumstance should this set be difficult or hard to complete. This set is to warm the muscle tissues up and get the blood flowing in your connective tissues and muscles.

You should be using about 40% of you max. So, if your max is 205 pounds, you should be using 100 pounds for this warm up.

You should rest about one minute before attempting the next set. Have a drink of water and concentrate on that last set – Which of course is the growth set.

First set: 1 x 12 repetitions:

I like to think of this set as a second warm up. I use this set to prime my muscles up and get the blood flowing. Really, this set – sets the stage for my growth set (the last set). Remember, you should be using a weight that’s light enough to not cause any discomfort or hardship. These reps should be very smooth with no bouncing or going too fast. In terms of weight, you should be using about 55% of your maximum. For our example, you should be using about 115 pounds.

As you get stronger and stronger, you’ll add more weight over time but remember that you should not be struggling with this weight. This weight should be light enough to not to cause any burn or stress but heavy enough to get the blood pumping. Remember, you want to use 55% of your maximum and no more.

You should rest about one minute before attempting the next set. Have a drink of water and concentrate on that last set – Which of course is the growth set.

Second set: 1 x 8 repetitions:

This set is another warm up. I’ll add more weight than my previous first set, but this set is to prime my muscles up and get them used to handling heavier weights. Now, you will notice that the repetition range has dropped down to 8.

The reason I’ll drop the weight down to 8 is because my muscles are warmed up with two prior “warm up” sets. What I’m doing now is setting the stage to handle heavier weight. I don’t want to tire my muscles out because my ultimate goal is to tackle that last set with primed up triceps, shoulders, and chest muscles. By the time that last set comes around, I want my muscles to be warm but not tired. Very important.

Now, you may be wondering why these sets are easy to do. Well, they’re supposed to be relatively easy because this isn’t where the growth occurs. The real growth occurs on that very important last set. So, you want to conserve all of your energy for that last set. As Joe Bucci (80’s body builder) used to say “Last Set Best Set”.

So, if your max is 205 pounds, this weight should be using around 135 pounds. You should be using about 65% of your max for this set. Under no circumstance should you be approaching failure at this set. If you find your not able to complete the prescribed repetitions at this stage, lighten the load until you are able to comfortably complete 8 repetitions.

You should rest about one minute before attempting the next set. Have a drink of water and concentrate on that last set – Which of course is the growth set.

Third set: 1 x 8 repetitions:

Now, we’re starting to get into heavier weight but at this stage you shouldn’t be anywhere near your maximum. Yep, you shouldn’t be approaching failure or having a super hard time with this set. Now, you may be thinking, “What’s the point?” Well, as I said previously, the point is the last set. All your effort will be aimed at completing the repetitions for this set and that’s what your getting your body primed for.

You should be able to do 8 complete repetitions in a very fluid fashion. You don’t need any spotter for this set and shouldn’t need to. If you’ve reached failure at this set, you’ve peaked too early and your set is shot. You don’t want this because it will throw your bench press session off. Remember, you want to constantly improve and to do that, you need to concentrate on that last set.

You should be using about 75% of your maximum for this set. For our example, you should be using about 155 pounds. You may be able to complete this set and find it was relatively easy. Well, don’t worry too much about it because your working up to what is called “work set” in body building. This is all that matters.

Now, your body chest and triceps should be feeling tight, but loose. Your upper torso should be warm but not burning.

Do a bit of light stretching and rest for about a minute and a half because your going to tackle our work set next.

Final set – Work set 1 x 8 repetitions:

Well, we’ve reached our final set and this is where all the magic happens. What you want to do here is add enough weight that you are barely able to get out 8 repetitions. You will need a spotter because you might hit failure at your 7th or 8th repetition. This is very important. You shouldn’t be hitting failure on your 4th, 5th, or 6th repetition because your going to heavy. You want to be able to complete at least 6 repetitions on your own before hitting the wall on your 7th or 8th repetition.

On the other hand, if you can complete 12 repetitions with this weight, your going too light. For your next session, add more weight to the bar – say 20 pounds.

You should be using about 85% of your maximum. In this example, you will be using 170 to 175 pounds. You should be working hard at this set and it should be hard to do. If it isn’t, add more weight the next time you hit the bench press.

Now, this is where the magic of this type of training occurs and how you get strong. What you should be doing is keeping track of your weight and sets with a journal, you are, right? Once you log in the weight and sets, your going to tackle this same regiment for your next bench press session but with one big difference. All of your sets, reps and weight will remain the same except on the last set.

This is where you really start to grow. Your ultimate goal for you last set is to get 12 repetitions with that weight. Remember that magic number…12 repetitions with the same weight for the same rest period on your last set. So, let’s say in this session, you barely get 8 repetitions with 175 pounds. What you want to do for your next bench press session is to get maybe 9 repetitions. A week after that, you want to get 9 maybe 10 repetitions using that same weight. A week after that, you want to get 10 maybe 11 repetitions. A week or two after that, you want to get 12 repetitions. Remember, these are all un assisted repetitions. These should be clean with no help from a spotter. Of course, for safety sake, there should be a spotter but they shouldn’t be helping you.

Now, once you’ve reached 12 repetitions with that same 175 pounds you’ve basically increased your one rep maximum to about 230 pounds – congratulations. You’ve saved your joints from unnecessary stress and you built up a lot of strength. In about another two weeks, you should start to see more muscle growth.

Now, it’s time to add another 15 to 20 pounds to the bar for your last set and do the whole thing over. Remember, you want to keep everything else the same as before except that your going to add another 15 to 20 pounds to the bar for your last set and barely get out 8 repetitions. For this example, you’ll need to use about 190 to 195 pounds.

I know, you’ve heard that you need to do 4 repetitions and go to failure in order to build maximum muscle mass. No need. All your going to do is injure your connective joints and ligaments.

There you have it. If you want to build muscle mass and strength, this is a sure fire way to do it, without damaging your ligaments and joints. However, I will say that after every 12 to 14 weeks of this kind of training, you need to take a 2 week break. Go out and show off your new muscles and take some time to enjoy it because after 2 weeks, you’ll be back to break new personal records.

If your looking to build muscle, this is how your standard weight progression should look like if your wondering how much weight you should use. If everything is on track, you can only get stronger. That’s right, your body will adapt for the next workout by getting a little bit stronger.

Now, if you’ve stopped getting stronger and you are stuck at 8 repetitions, something is wrong. This can be due to a variety of factors which can include your diet and rest. Now, I’m not going to get into these here, but more than likely, these are the causes for your plateau. Read the following pages for more information:

Muscle Building Diet

Muscle Rest And Recuperation

There you have it, a straight forward, common sense way to building muscle and strength.

All the best,


Blake Bissaillion

Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.

Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.