Building mass and strength isn’t as simple as hitting the gym and training one muscle group or another. There’s a reason why top bodybuilders spend years perfecting their workouts and lifting techniques. Whether you want to get bigger, stronger, or leaner, you need to constantly challenge your body.
One way to keep your muscles guessing and overcome plateaus is to manipulate training variables.
These include the number of reps, sets, workout frequency, intensity, duration, volume, and rest periods. Your tempo, range of motion, and exercise order matter too. Adjusting these variables will allow you to get the most out of your workout and maximize your gains.
The number of reps and sets is one of the most controversial aspects of bodybuilding. Most gym buffs could argue for hours on things like high reps versus low reps, timed sets vs. rep based sets, one set vs. multiple sets, and so on.
But what’s the difference between sets and reps and why does it matter?
Believe it or not, these training variables are something more important than the amount of weight lifted. They also have a direct impact on workout volume, intensity and other factors that affect your performance.
How good is your bodybuilding knowledge? Here’s what you should know about sets vs. reps and how to perfect your technique!
What Are Reps and Sets?
Sets and reps are an integral part of any workout plan, but do you really know what these terms mean?
Repetitions, or reps, represent the number of times you perform an exercise, whether it’s biceps curls, leg extensions, squats, or crunches. For example, if you do six pull-ups, that’s six reps.
A set, on the other hand, is the number of consecutive reps you perform without rest. If you do six pull-ups in a row, that’s one set. If you do 10 squats in a row, pause for one minute, and then perform another 10 reps, that’s two sets.
Now that you have a better understanding of sets vs. reps, you’re probably wondering:
- How many reps and sets to do for hypertrophy, strength, or endurance?
- What rep range builds the most muscle?
- How long should you rest between sets?
- Is it better to do more reps or fewer reps with heavier weights?
- How to manipulate your sets and reps for superior results?
- What are drop sets, super sets, forced reps, and cheat reps?
- What’s the perfect training intensity?
We’ll answer these questions below. Let’s get into it!
Sets vs. Reps: High Reps, Medium Reps, Low Reps — What Does It All Mean?
There’s a lot of debate on what rep range builds the most muscle. Depending on how much weight you lift, you have three options:
- High reps (15+ reps per set)
- Low reps (1 to 5 reps per set)
- Medium/moderate reps (6 or 8 to 12 reps per set)
Sure, these numbers are not set in stone, but they should give you a better of the standard rep range. High-reps, for example, will have a different meaning for a powerlifter compared to a bodybuilder or a long-distance runner.
In general, each rep range serves a different purpose.
If you’re training for size, stick to the 8-12 rep range. If your goal is to get stronger, perform up to 5 or 6 reps with heavier loads.
Endurance athletes typically perform high reps (15-20) with light weights. This approach increases resilience to fatigue and improves muscle endurance.
Feeling confused? Let’s recap:
- Hypertrophy aka muscle growth: 6 or 8 to 12 reps per set, moderate weights
- Muscle strength: 1 to 5 or 6 reps per set, heavy weights
- Endurance: 15 to 20+ reps per sets, light weights
Let’s say you want to build lean mass, so you stick to a moderate rep range. Choose a weight that allows you to perform 8 to 12 reps with perfect form. If the load is too heavy, it will affect your form — and your gains. This can lead to injury and stall your progress.
Ideally, you should reach muscle failure by the time you complete the set. If you can perform more than 12 reps, the weight is too light. If you can only do 5 or 6 reps, the weight is too heavy.
Training for size isn’t the same as training for strength or endurance. A bodybuilder’s workout routine will look different than that of a powerlifter or strongman. That’s why you need to adjust these training variables based on your goals.
The Science behind Rep Ranges
Traditional rep range recommendations are based on the idea that low reps activate fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers, while higher reps recruit and develop slow-twitch (type I) muscle fibers.
The former are more effective at generating force but fatigue more quickly compared to slow-twitch fibers. Also, they’re responsible for muscle size and definition.
Slow-twitch fibers, by contrast, are activated when you strength train using lighter loads with slower movement tempos. Plyometrics and circuit training, for example, challenge these muscle fibers.
Compared to fast-twitch fibers, slow-twitch muscle fibers are more resilient to fatigue and can sustain force for a longer period of time. When a muscle contracts, they’re the first recruited. According to research, women have a greater distribution of slow-twitch fibers, which may give them a competitive edge in endurance sports, such as marathon running.
If your goal is to build size and strength, focus on activating the fast-twitch fibers.
To do so, it’s necessary to use low to moderate reps. High-rep training is better suited for endurance athletes. As the number of reps increases, there’s a gradual transition from strength to endurance.
High Reps or Low Reps for Hypertrophy?
Bodybuilders and gym-goers hit plateaus for one reason: their body adapts to exercise. If you continue to use the same set or rep scheme, you’ll eventually stop making progress.
Perhaps one of the most controversial topics in the fitness and bodybuilding community is whether high reps or low reps work best for hypertrophy. The research is conflicting, which only makes things more difficult.
The truth is that both low reps and high reps have their role in your training routine. By mixing them up, you’ll keep your body from adapting. Let’s see what the science says.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of low rep training versus moderate rep training. Athletes were divided into two groups:
- One group performed 3 sets of 10 RM (repetition maximum)
- The other group did 7 sets of 3 RM
Eight weeks later, both groups reported similar improvements in muscle thickness of the biceps brachii. Athletes who performed 3 sets of 10RM, though, experienced a greater strength increase in the 1RM bench press and squat.
These findings show that powerlifting-type training, which involves low reps, is more effective for strength gains.
Another study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, indicates the opposite. Researchers suggest that low-load high volume resistance training stimulates muscle growth to a greater extent than high-load low volume exercises.
Study by Journal of Applied Physiology
A third study states that both training methods are equally effective.
The research, which was featured in the Journal of Applied Physiology, shows that performing high reps with light weights (30% of 1RM) to failure works just as well for hypertrophy as performing low reps with a heavy load (80% of 1RM) and until failure.
It’s hard to tell which approach works best based on these studies.
Powerlifters, for example, prefer low-rep training — and they’re extremely strong. However, they lack the lean physique and muscle definition of a bodybuilder. This training method, though, can make your nervous system more efficient and give you the ability to push some serious weight, which will lead to massive gains.
Lessons from the Old School Bodybuilding Legends
Golden Era bodybuilders achieved great results with both rep ranges. Tom Platz, for instance, was performing dozens of reps — 30, 40, or even 50 — during his squat workouts. High volume training was a mainstay for this bodybuilding legend. We’re talking about a man who once squatted more over 500 pounds for 23 reps! However, Tom also practiced using heavy weights for low reps in the squat when he was in the formative stages of his career and focused on getting bigger and stronger.
Sergio Oliva was a fan of high-rep training too. His workout regimen consisted of high reps with heavy loads, especially for smaller muscle groups like the calves and arms. Some examples include 5 sets of leg raises of 20 reps or 10 sets of sit-ups of 50 reps. Oliva preferred the 5×5 rep scheme for heavy lifts like the shoulder press, chest press, and squats.
Arnold, on the other hand, was performing as many as 30 sets per muscle group. In general, he was using pyramid sets, decreasing the reps from one set to the next until failure. His workouts included a combination of high and low reps.
Vince Gironda, the Iron Guru, was using the “10×10 method,” which requires the completion of 10 sets of 10 reps. The key is to keep your rest periods short between sets. Also known as German volume training, this lifting method stimulates hypertrophy through the systematic fatigue of the muscles targeted.
Low Volume Workouts
Some bodybuilding stars preferred low-volume workouts consisting of 2 or 3 sets of up to 8 reps. Others performed high-volume workouts.
We recommend trying each training style for 4 to 6 weeks followed by a week off. This should help you determine what works best for your body and make it easier to push through plateaus.
Sets vs. Reps: Advanced Lifting Techniques for Mass & Strength Gains
Reps and sets are just two of the training variables that influence your gains. Workout frequency, intensity, volume, rest, tempo, and exercise selection all matter. While it’s important to choose the right load and rep range, that’s not everything.
Golden Era legends were constantly adjusting their training variables to make progress and bust plateaus. As we’ve mentioned earlier, Arnold relied heavily on pyramid sets. He also combined back and chest exercises into supersets.
If you check these crazy workouts of the 70s, you’ll see that staggered sets, supersets, and split routines were all the rage back in the Golden Era. But what exactly do these terms mean?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular lifting techniques for mass and strength gains.
These aren’t just for the big guys — try them yourself! They’ll allow you to go beyond failure and shock your muscles by adding intensity and variety to your workouts.
1. Drop Sets Challenge Your Muscles into Growth
Who says you need to finish a set once you reach failure? The whole point is to challenge your muscles into growth. That’s where drop sets come in.
This lifting technique was known as running the rack back in the ’70s. Arnold was using it during his shoulder workouts, but you can apply to any muscle group.
Drop sets involve performing a set of any exercise until you reach muscle failure and then continuing the set with a lower weight (10-30%). You can use dumbbells, barbells, or gym machines.
Let’s say you’re doing incline chest presses with two 80-pound dumbbells. Perform as many reps as possible without sacrificing form. Once you reach failure, switch to 60-pound dumbbells and continue the exercise. Feel free to “drop” down as many times as you want.
The first set will be the heaviest. Don’t take any breaks in between sets.
The general recommendation is to only use this technique for one exercise per muscle group to avoid overtraining. However, this depends largely on your experience and fitness level.
A 2016 Study
According to a 2016 study published in Experimental Gerontology, drop sets increase muscle mass, strength, and endurance. Subjects who took creatine experienced greater gains in muscle size.
Even though the study was conducted on untrained adults, it shows clearly that creatine can enhance the effects of drop-set training.
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2. Build Mass Faster with Supersets
When you’re short on time, you want to get the most out of your workout. Supersets, which involve performing two or more exercises in a row with little or no rest in between sets, might be the answer to your needs.
Also known as paired sets, this technique was used by Frank Zane, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, and other Golden Era legends.
When done right, it helps maximize hypertrophy and muscular endurance while cutting your workout time in half. It’s ideal for both fat loss and muscle growth.
In a 2010 study, supersets have been shown to increase energy expenditure and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption to a greater extent than traditional training.
A more recent study, which was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2017, shows that supersets and tri-sets improve training efficiency and produce better results in less time.
Use this lifting method when training opposing muscle groups, such as the back and chest, bicep and triceps or quads and hamstrings. This helps create the hormonal and biological environment necessary for hypertrophy.
For example, if you’re working biceps and triceps, perform 8 to 12 reps of barbell curls followed by 8 to 12 reps of skull crushers or triceps dips with no rest in between sets. Take a short break when you’re done and then start all over.
3. Push Beyond Your Limits with Forced Reps
One way to shock your muscles is to use forced reps. Basically, you complete a set until failure and then squeeze in a few more reps with the help of a spotter. This will allow you to increase workout volume and fatigue more muscle fibers.
Forced reps are extremely taxing and should be used sparingly. It’s not something you want to do for every exercise.
This lifting technique won’t make you stronger but it can help you bust plateaus and stimulate hypertrophy. The downside is that it carries a high risk of injury and can easily lead to overtraining.
For example, you can do a set of squats of 10 to 12 reps or until you reach failure and then complete an extra 1-3 reps with the help of a training partner. Think of it as a “beyond failure” strategy.
There are plenty of other muscle-building techniques you can use. It all comes down to your training goals and lifting experience. A typical workout may include:
- Pyramid sets
- Rest-pause training
- Burnouts (a combo of drop sets and pyramid sets)
- Giant sets
- Push-pull supersets
- Negative reps
- Cheat reps
- Partial reps
- Time under tension
- Mechanical drop sets
- Triple drop sets
- Pre-exhaust training
All of these strategies are plateau-killers! Some increase strength and power, while others work best for putting on muscle.
4. Sets vs. Reps: Train Smarter for Better Gains
When it comes to sets vs. reps, you can manipulate both to improve your gains. Instead of trying to cram more work into your training session, use the techniques listed above to get better results in less time. Remember, training to failure is challenging no matter what rep range you use.
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What’s your view on reps vs. sets? Do you prefer high reps with lighter weights or low reps with a heavy load? Share your favorite training strategies below!