A weightlifting variable that has a huge impact on your results is your training volume – how many reps and sets you do per workout. Predictably, there is no absolute consensus on the “best” volume for muscle building, but one principle is well-established:
The more repetitions of an exercise you do, the fewer sets you should perform, and vice versa. This keeps the total number of reps you do of an exercise nearly equal, no matter how many repetitions comprise each set.
You will, of course, see people who are ignoring this principle and doing great. A beginner might get fantastic results by doing very low or high volume. More experienced lifters may require a very high volume. So what is the ideal range of sets and reps to get results for the average lifter wanting to put on muscle?
Weightlifting for Muscle Gain
The smart lifter does the least amount of work for his or her results – overkill can lead to overtraining. According to the Nick Tumminello, a leading bodybuilding and strength coach, building muscle requires 12-20 sets per week per body part, at an average of 8-15 reps per set. So, for example, if you want to build your shoulders, you need to do at least 12 sets of shoulder exercises in any given week. Very experienced lifters may require more than this and beginners less.
Can you break this up any way you please, such as 12 sets of one rep each? Or one set of 70 reps? You could, but that would be a pretty dumb thing to do. To put it simply, muscle fibers are recruited differently at different loads. You need to be in the moderate range – 6 to 12 reps – to recruit all the available motor units needed for muscle growth.
Whatever – I’m going to be integrating low, medium, and high rep ranges into my weightlifting workouts regardless, because that’s the best way to avoid plateau, build strength, and stay conditioned. If I always do 8 to 12 reps into eternity at some point I’m going to plateau. Varying the ranges is the hallmark of a good weightlifting program.
By the way, this means that your resistance should also be moderate to high – 70 to 85 percent of your one-rep maximum. Three to four exercises for big muscles and two to three exercises for smaller muscles are sufficient.
By the way, smaller muscles (biceps, triceps, and calves) may not need that much volume to grow. Bigger muscles (chest, back, legs) can tolerate more volume. The shoulders fall somewhere in between and volume is just something you’ll have to play with.
In the following example for shoulder training, our lifter is over 35, has joint issues, and needs more recovery time (although people of any age may have these characteristics):
Shoulder press: 5 sets of 6 reps (5×6)
Lateral raise: 4×10
Bent-over lateral raise: 3×8
Total shoulder sets for the week: 12
If our lifter sees better results at a higher volume and her joints can tolerate it, she could train shoulders again five days later:
Push press: 4×10
Face pull: 3×12
Upright row: 3×8
Total shoulder sets for the week: 22
Keep in mind that this is a muscle-building plan for training shoulders. Weightlifting volume should look different for endurance, fat loss, and strength (see this for more).
Finding the right volume for you may entail a bit of trial and error. When I’m designing programs for my virtual coaching clients, I look closely at what they’ve already been doing. If they’ve had symptoms of overtraining or have plateaued, I go a different direction. If their results have been on and off, I look at their consistency.
Instead of only thinking about the “how” when weightlifting, think about the “why.” Train with a purpose and results will follow.