How to Build Muscle: Rep, Set, and Weight Guidelines
First, a few things you should you know…
- You need to eat enough calories to build muscle.
- You need to eat enough protein to build muscle (read more about how much protein you should be having here).
- If 1 and 2 aren’t accounted for, it doesn’t matter how many reps you do or how much weight you lift. You won’t build muscle.
- There are tons of different rep/set ranges you can use. What you’re about to read is not the only way or even the best way to do it. They’re just a few of many examples.
- Building muscle takes time. Be patient, consistent, and work hard.
Ironically, building muscle is pretty straightforward. Lift, eat, sleep, repeat.
But since people like to overcomplicate things as much as possible these days, you might feel lost or overwhelmed in your journey to get jacked.
Not to worry. After reading this, you’ll learn:
- Common mistakes when trying to build muscle
- Progressive overload and why it’s important
- How many reps you should do to build muscle
- How much weight you should lift to build muscle
- And some other neat stuff you might find useful
Alright, let’s get to it!
COMMON MISTAKES WHEN TRYING TO BUILD MUSCLE
- Inconsistency. The biggest underlying factor when it comes to being successful at anything is consistency. If you’re not being consistent with your training and nutrition, you won’t build muscle. Fact.
- Doing the same routine forever. Your muscles need change in order to grow. Whether it’s lifting heavier weights or working in different rep ranges, they need to be stimulated with new challenges in order to build.
- Too much isolation work. You don’t need to do more calf raises. You need to lift heavy stuff using compound movements that work multiple muscles. Isolation exercises have their time and place, but not as the main priority of your workouts. If compound lifts are the main course, isolation exercises are dessert.
- Not lifting heavy enough. You know those cute little pink dumbbells your favourite influencer flails around in their “booty builder” workouts? That’s not going to help you build muscle. Not even close. You need to work in order to create an adaptive response in your muscles to stimulate hypertrophy effects. Building muscle takes effort.
- Ego lifting. On a similar note, don’t let your ego get in the way and try to max out every time you lift. You build muscle by completing reps, not failing them. More on that in a second.
- Not eating enough. Ya gotta eat! Get those calories and protein in if you want to build muscle.
- Not recovering optimally. Lifting weights literally breaks your muscles down. You won’t see the benefits of your hard work in the gym if you don’t let your body recover. Sleep 7-9 hours every night. Get your protein in. Drink water. You can’t cheat recovery.
Without making things overly complicated for the sake of making things complicated, progressive overload is just a fancy way of saying, “making progress”. Or making things “harder”.
People tend to reside in comfort. They follow the same routine over and over again with no results to show for it. They do the same exercises for the same number of reps with the same weights and don’t understand why they haven’t built any muscle.
The reason they haven’t seen any progress is because their program lacks any progressive overload. Their muscles aren’t being challenged.
Nothing changes if nothing changes. So if you want to see change, you have to change something in your program. That’s where progressive overload comes in.
Here’s how to use progressive overload to build muscle:
- Increase time under tension. Add pauses to your reps with isometrics and/or slow down the eccentric phases of your lifts to increase the total amount of time your muscles are working.
- Lift heavier weights. Duh!
- Do more reps. Try lifting the same weight you’ve been lifting but for more reps.
- Do more sets. Perform the same reps but do more sets for more total volume (i.e. total amount of work completed during your workout).
Example of Progressive Overload
- Week 1: 135lbs for 3 sets of 8
- Week 2: 135lbs for 3 sets of 10
- Week 3: 140lbs for 3 sets of 8
- Week 4: 145lbs for 3 sets of 10
You’ll see the lifter above started with 135lbs for 8 reps, then performed 10 reps with the same weight the following week. On week 3, they increased the weight and went back down to 8 reps then perform 10 reps with the new loading on week 4.
In this example, the lifter is being challenged every week to either perform more reps or lift heavier weight.
Note: This is a very basic example of progressive overload and is just one way (of many) to incorporate it into your program.
HOW MANY REPS YOU SHOULD DO TO BUILD MUSCLE
Here’s a (very) general breakdown of different rep ranges and their benefits:
- 1-3 reps: Power and maximal strength
- 3-5 reps: Strength
- 6 reps: Hypertrophy and some strength
- 6-12 reps: Hypertrophy
- 15-20 reps: Anaerobic endurance and hypertrophy
In a nutshell, all of the above rep ranges have the potential to build muscle as long as you’re implementing them optimally into your program.
But every individual case is different (as are most things training related).
How many reps you should do to build muscle should take factors such as age, training experience, and injury history into consideration.
How many reps should you start with?
Start by doing rep/set ranges you haven’t done before.
If you’re like most people, chances are you’ve been following the same rep range for quite some time. Remember, in order to build your muscles, they need to be challenged. And one of the best ways to introduce a new challenge to your muscles is to practice new rep ranges.
If you’ve always done the same 3 sets of 10 for who knows how long, try 4 sets of 8. Or 3 sets of 6.
Step out of your comfort zone and do something different.
HOW MUCH WEIGHT YOU SHOULD LIFT TO BUILD MUSCLE
Obviously, this is going to be different for everyone. But you already knew that.
There are two ways you can decide how heavy you should be lifting, depending on your training history and goals.
The 1RM Method
One way to determine how much weight you should lift is to test your 1RM (how heavy you can lift something for one rep) and use percentages to calculate how much weight to use for different rep ranges.
While this can be a useful method for powerlifters, weightlifters, or other strength athletes who need specific percentages for sub maximal loading, not everyone can (or should) test their 1RM.
In fact, most strength athletes rarely (if at all) test their 1RM in training and save it for the platform during competition.
The reason being is the risk to reward ratio just doesn’t make sense. By going all out for one rep, you’re putting your body at serious risk. And unless you’re an experienced lifter who’s prepping for a meet, you’re better off using a simpler (and safer) method which is just as effective for building muscle.
The Grit Method (A Simple Way to Build Muscle)
The Grit Method is just a name I made up while writing this. I was thinking about how I normally help my clients (and myself) figure out which weights they should be using and needed a nifty name to sum it up. Grit was the first word that came to mind.
Why? Cause you need some damn grit to do it.
How to do it:
- Pick a rep range (don’t overthink it, just pick a rep range)
- Do some warm-up sets (you should be able to complete your warm-up sets without breaking form)
- Work up to a weight that makes you really push to complete the last 2-3 reps
When I say really push to complete the last 2-3 reps, I mean you should really be working your ass off to get that weight up. Nothing else should be going through your head other than finishing your set.
If you can think about last night’s episode of The Bachelor or what you’re having for dinner, you’re not lifting heavy enough.
Watch the vid below to see what it looks like to work for your set. See my face? See how it looks like I’m passing the biggest kidney stone known to man? See how it looks like I’m contemplating life and questioning my decision to do this godawful (albeit, amazing) exercise?
This is what you should look like using the Grit Method.
On another note, if you can’t complete the number of desired reps or your form goes to absolute shit by the end of your set, you’re going too heavy.
TECHNICAL FAILURE VS. COMPLETE FAILURE
You get stronger by completing reps, not failing them.
Think about the strongest guys or girls you see in the gym. What do they all have in common? They’re usually quiet, focused completely on their workout, and practice perfect reps.
They go to what’s called technical failure.
Technical failure is when you can’t complete any more perfect reps.
Complete failure is when you can’t move at all and your form goes to complete crap at the end of your set.
By choosing a weight that forces you to really push yourself for the last 2-3 reps while maintaining optimal form, you’re effectively building up more volume (more total amount of work completed during your workout) which helps build muscle.
Yes, when you’re reaching the end of your set sometimes the last rep or two might not be perfect. There’s a time and place for everything, and sometimes you might need to put a little “body English” into your last couple reps.
But by emphasizing going to technical failure instead of complete failure, you’re completing more total reps during your workout which has a direct impact on your ability to build muscle.
What’s more, your risk of injury goes down drastically and you won’t fry yourself out every workout. So you recover faster between workouts also (which is HUGE when it comes to building muscle).
If you can look past the horny dog in the video below (Rambo was extra friendly that day), you’ll see I’m really pushing to complete those last couple reps. But my form stays pretty solid. I knew if I pushed it for one more rep I would’ve failed or it would’ve been ass ugly.
Generally, most people would benefit from changing their current rep scheme and lifting heavier.
Too many people do the same shit over and over again with no results to show for it. And those same people don’t push themselves to lift the weights they can and should be lifting to stimulate muscle growth.
These tips aren’t written in stone and don’t necessarily apply to everyone. So just take them into consideration and do what works for you.