When it comes to building muscle size, finding the right combination of exercise choice, repetitions, and sets is essential.
However, this can be somewhat difficult and confusing because everyone one has a different opinion about how many repetitions you should be doing or how many sets you need to do in order to grow.
I actually did a quick search over at Yahoo answers and found a question on this very subject and the poor fellow had about 10 different answers to this question.
One person says you need one set, another said you need 10 sets, while another said you need 15 sets.
Everyone of those answers was different and I have to admit, some of those answer sounded like it came from a person who never lifted weights before.
You have to really be careful what you read and which advice you listen to when it comes to posting questions at Yahoo answers and other forum boards.
Anyways, everyone is different and will require different amount of workloads. That includes different amounts of repetitions and sets. Let me give you a personal example. In order for me to build muscle mass, I have to work extremely hard. It’s always been like that. I remember going to the gym and having to really bust a gut just to get a small increase in muscle size.
On the other hand, my buddy, used relatively light weights and didn’t work nearly as hard as me in the gym but he was a lot more muscular than I was. I was always stronger than this guy but he had better genetics than I had when it came to building muscle size. He had these big, full muscles that he didn’t really have to work hard for. I hated that guy 🙂
The point I’m trying to make is that we all have different thresholds when it comes to getting stronger and building muscle. You have to understand that threshold and work with it until you find that magical combination of exercise, repetitions, and sets.
When it comes to sets, the only thing you should be really concerned about is the amount of intensity needed to complete that set. Personally, light sets are nothing more than warm ups for the heavier ones which are always called “work sets”.
You may have heard the term “work sets” before and they mean exactly that, hard working sets. These are the sets that make or break you and really cause you to work extremely hard. These are the sets that build muscle.
Let’s say you’re doing the bench press and your repetition and set scheme is as follows:
Although there are four actual sets, the only one you should be counting is the last set, which is the set that forces you to work the hardest. You see, if your looking to build muscle and strength, the first three sets are mere warm ups and shouldn’t be counted because they work up to the only set that counts, which is the work set.
I’m not saying the first three sets aren’t important because they are, but when it comes to building muscle, it’s the intensity set that will do it, not the warm up.
Let’s say you’re doing three exercises, the bench press, the incline dumbbell press, and the flat bench fly. Let’s say the following progression for each of the exercises is as follows:
Progression as above.
Incline dumbbell press
Flat bench fly
• 3 sets of 12 repetitions – work sets. 65% of maximum but high repetitions and intense.
As you can see, there is only one work set for incline dumbbell press and 3 work sets for flat bench fly. However, in total, there 11 “actual” sets performed for the entire chest workout but for our purpose, which is to build muscle, it’s only those sets that force your body to work the hardest that count.
In the above example, there are only 5 “real” sets being performed for the entire chest workout. This may not seem like much but those sets are the hardest and most gruelling to perform.
I remember reading an interview about Tony Pearson’s (famous late ‘80’s bodybuilder) weight training program and he stated that he only did 6 to 8 sets per body part. The interviewer asked him why he only did 6 to 8 sets, because to the interviewer, this seemed very low. Of course, at that time, everyone was doing 20 sets per body part.
Anyways, Tony went on to say that 6 to 8 hard and heavy sets is more than enough to build muscle size and if you can do more, you’re not working hard enough. You may be doing 15 sets but really, how many of those sets are truly “work sets?” How many of those sets take your body to its maximum work threshold?
It’s all about intensity and it’s those sets that really challenge your body and basically force it to grow. I’m going to say that you probably don’t need anymore than 6 to 8 work sets per body part to build quality muscle mass.
Now, here’s the most important point that I can make when it comes to performing your sets and building muscle. You must, I repeat, you must improve on your working sets from workout to workout . You absolutely must improve on your work sets that you did in the previous workout. This is what builds muscle size, not doing 15 or 20 sets per body part with no real improvement from workout to workout.
If you were to improve on one set with each passing workout, it would do more for your muscle building efforts than if you did 15 sets for that same muscle group with no improvement. For example, let’s say you had the following progression for the bench press on week 1:
On week two, you will want to keep everything the same except the last set. For that set, you will want to add another 10 pounds or do another one or two more repetitions than you did in the previous workout. Your set might look as follows:
Can you see the pattern here? Your warm up sets are not the growth sets, only the work sets. With each passing workout, you want to improve on that set only, not the warm ups. This is an optimal way to build muscle size. In my opinion, if you were to try and improve upon your warm up sets, you’d tire yourself out by the time you got to the work set, which is the set you want to be concentrating on. Remember, target your work sets, not your warm up sets.
Now, there are exceptions to the above. For beginners and intermediates, you will be following a repetitions and set pattern that doesn’t take your body to it’s maximum limits because you don’t have the necessary balance and inner body awareness yet to do this.
However, you will be following the same kind of pattern of improving upon your last set. You may not be taking your set to failure or anything like that, or doing 3 or 4 warm up sets, but you will be concentrating on that last set. For example, as a beginner/intermediate, your bench press progression might look like this:
Your last set is the one you should be really concentrating on and it’s the one set that you should be improving on, from workout to workout. You should be handling a little more weight, and do the same amount of repetitions, or do more repetitions with the same weight that you did in the previous workout.
So, how many sets do you need to build muscle? You need to concentrate on one set per exercise and you need to improve with each passing workout on that same set by using 1) more weight with the same repetitions than you did in the previous workout; Or 2) do more repetitions using the same weight than you did in the previous workout.
Remember to follow this sort of set scheme and you’ll start to build some impressive muscle size.
All the best,
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.