How many reps should we be doing per set if our goal is to gain muscle size? In strength training, doing five reps per set is a popular way to build muscle. In bodybuilding, most people do sets of 8–12 reps. Which rep range stimulates more muscle growth?
Should we use different rep ranges for different lifts? If doing 5-rep sets on the bench press hurts our shoulders, should we use a higher rep range? If doing 12-rep sets of squats challenges our fitness more than our strength, should we use lower rep ranges? And what about compound versus isolation lifts? Should we use lower rep ranges for our compound lifts and higher rep ranges for our isolation lifts?
Finally, what if we want to gain both muscle size and strength? Does that mean we should use a mix of heavier and lighter loads? For instance, 5–30 reps? Does it mean we should use a rep range that’s halfway between strength training and bodybuilding? 4–6 reps, say?
Is there a hypertrophy rep range? And if so, what is it?
An Overview of the Research
Of all the studies comparing rep ranges for muscle growth, the most famous is the study by Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, that we covered in our strength training article. It found that the same amount of muscle growth from doing seven low-rep sets as from doing three moderate-rep sets.
- The strength training group did 7 sets of 3 repetitions. It took them 70 minutes to finish their workouts, and by the end of the study, they were complaining of sore joints and overall fatigue. Two of the participants dropped out of the study due to injuries.
- The hypertrophy training group did 3 sets of 10 repetitions. It took them 17 minutes to finish their workouts, they were eager to do more lifting, they finished the study feeling fresh, and they gained the same amount of muscle size.
That caveat, of course, is that the group doing 7 sets of 3 reps gained quite a bit more 1-rep max strength, showing that low-rep training is indeed an important part of training for powerlifting. It’s just that for gaining muscle size, using moderate rep ranges is much safer, more efficient, and easier to recover from, allowing us to stimulate more overall muscle growth.
The results of this study have been replicated several times (study, study, study). For instance, a recent study by Keitaro Kubo found that doing 7 sets of 4 reps (7×4) on the bench press built the same amount of muscle as doing 3 sets of 12 reps (3×12). As we’d expect, the participants lifting in lower rep ranges saw greater improvements in their 1-rep max strength, but the moderate rep ranges proved to be a more efficient way to stimulate muscle growth.
One problem with these studies, though, is that they match training volume—total pounds lifted—instead of matching the number of challenging sets. If we look at a systematic review of 14 studies, we see that sets of 6–20 reps stimulate a similar amount of muscle growth per set, provided that we take those sets close enough to failure. That means that if we’re lifting within a moderate rep range, it’s better to count how many challenging sets we’re doing than to count how many pounds we’re lifting. These studies aren’t doing that. They aren’t matching the sets, comparing 3×4 versus 3×12 to see which stimulates more muscle growth, they’re matching the volume, comparing 7×4 versus 3×12.
These volume-matched studies clearly show that doing 3 sets of 12 reps stimulates as much muscle growth as doing 7 sets of 4 reps, but we don’t know how much muscle growth would be stimulated by doing 3 sets of 4 reps. After all, perhaps an equal amount of muscle growth was stimulated by the first 3 sets, at which point no more muscle growth was stimulated. That’s not completely crazy. We do see diminishing returns as training volume climbs higher. I’m skeptical of that, given that the training volumes weren’t that high, but even so, there’s only so much that we can conclude from volume-matched studies.
The next question, then, is how hard the cutoff is. We know that doing 6–20 reps per set stimulates a maximal amount of muscle growth, but what about doing 5 or 30 reps per set? How much muscle growth do we lose, if any?
Are High Reps Good for Building Muscle?
There’s quite a lot of evidence showing that we can build muscle quite well in higher rep ranges. If we look at another study by Schoenfeld et al, we see that doing sets of 8–12 reps stimulates the same amount of muscle growth as doing sets of 25–35 reps. We have other examples of higher rep ranges stimulating plenty of muscle growth per set, too:
- A twelve-week study comparing 3×20 versus 3×10 found that both rep ranges produced the same amount of muscle growth.
- Another twelve-week study comparing 3×20-25 and 3×8-12R found that both rep ranges produced the same amount of muscle growth.
So the good news is that if you’re forced to use light weights or bodyweight training to build muscle, you can delve into those higher rep ranges. It will hurt, yes, but you can absolutely build muscle that way.
However, lifting in higher rep ranges is a nightmare straight out of Bloodborne, especially when doing the bigger compound lifts. Dr Schoenfeld noted that the participants doing sets of 25–35 reps were in incredible pain and would often throw up after finishing their sets. So if you have access to heavier weights, you can build muscle much more pleasantly by lifting in moderate rep ranges.
Higher reps are a good way to accumulate volume, and can be quite good for gaining muscle size, but it’s brutally hard to take high-rep sets close enough to failure. Most people prefer using moderate rep ranges, especially for bigger compound lifts.
Are Low Reps Good for Building Muscle?
The most controversial question, by far, is where the lower cut-off is. Lifting in higher rep ranges is so painful that most people won’t do it. It’s not a popular style of training. Nobody is really advocating for it. But lifting in lower rep ranges is quite pleasant and easy. Squatting for five reps is much easier than squatting for ten reps. But are low reps good for building muscle?
So, first of all, we do have some evidence showing that lower-rep sets don’t stimulate as much muscle growth:
- In this study, the participants lifting 2–6 reps needed to do 24 sets of the squat and bench press to build as much muscle as the participants doing 8–12 reps for just 13 sets.
- In this study, the participants lifting 2–4 reps for 3 sets gained less quad size than the participants lifting 8–12 reps for 3 sets.
- In this study, the participants lifting 13–15 and 23–25 reps gained a significant amount of muscle size in most muscle groups, whereas the participants lifting 3–5 reps did not.
These findings indicate that heavy load training is superior for maximal strength goals while moderate load training is more suited to hypertrophy-related goals when an equal number of sets are performed between conditions.Brad Schoenfeld, PhD
It’s important to note the one study by Mangine et al that showed greater arm growth from doing sets of 3-5 reps than from doing sets of 10–12 reps. Mind you, they were training their entire bodies, and the difference in muscle growth was only seen in their arms. If we compare muscle growth throughout their entire bodies, the effect disappears. But even so, this remains an example of a study that at the very least found equal muscle growth between lower and moderate rep ranges. This study appears to be an outlier, but until we have more research, it’s hard to say for sure.
When reps are low, the number of hard sets is not a good proxy for hypertrophy. Rather, when reps are low, total volume should be calculated.Mike Zourdos, PhD
It seems like when we’re doing fewer than six reps per set, we have to match the volume—total pounds lifted—when comparing those sets with moderate rep ranges. And when we do that math, we see that the muscle growth being stimulated per set drops quite a bit. For instance, doing 225 reps for ten reps is 2250 pounds lifted, whereas lifting 275 pounds for five reps is just 1375 pounds lifted. That’s why it seems to take nearly twice as many low-rep sets to stimulate as much muscle growth as a single moderate-rep set.
With that said, these differences in volume really only start to become significant when comparing rather different rep ranges. It’s possible that doing a set of five reps stimulates about as much muscle growth as doing a set of six reps. And even if it doesn’t, the difference is surely quite small. There’s no magic point as we move from six to five reps where all of a sudden people switch from gaining pure muscle size to gaining pure 1-rep max strength.
On the other hand, even small differences in rep ranges could result in different amounts of muscle growth over the longer term, and that could apply even within moderate rep ranges. It’s possible that doing sets of seven reps would eventually yield more muscle growth than doing sets of six reps. It’s possible that doing sets of eight reps could eventually stimulate more muscle growth than doing sets of seven reps. This is the point that Mike Zourdos, PhD, makes in Monthly Applications in Strength Sport:
While there isn’t necessarily sufficient evidence to say that the 15 reps would yield greater hypertrophy than the 6-rep example when sets are equated, without long-term data, it’s worth considering differential hypertrophy outcomes could occur over the very long term.Mike Zourdos, PhD
There’s nothing wrong with lifting in lower rep ranges, but it might require doing more sets to stimulate an equivalent amount of muscle growth. And since low-rep sets tend to benefit from longer rest times and can be somewhat difficult to recover from, using lower reps comes with an opportunity cost. Plus, the main benefit of lifting in lower rep ranges is that it gives us practice lifting close to our 1-rep max. That’s incredibly important for powerlifters, but for people who are more interesting in becoming bigger, stronger, fitter, and better looking, that benefit disappears. For non-powerlifters, there’s no major advantage to lifting in those heavier rep ranges.
If we’re trying to gain muscle size, it probably makes more sense to spend most of our time lifting in moderate rep ranges. Moderate-rep sets are not only more efficient per set, but they also allow us to perform more total sets per workout and per week.
Which Rep Range is Best for General Strength?
Many people are simply interested in building bigger muscles. I can certainly relate to that. When I was skinny, I was far more desperate to get bigger than I was to get stronger. Even just comparing the popularity of bodybuilding versus strength training, we see that bodybuilding is several times more popular:
But even so, most of us also care at least a little bit about improving our general health, general fitness, and general strength. Lifting in moderate rep ranges is great for improving our general health and fitness. Lifting more total pounds per set, putting greater demands on our cardiovascular systems, and building more muscle mass are all great for our health and fitness. But what about our general strength?
Powerlifters measure their strength by how much they can lift for a single repetition—their 1-rep max strength. This is a special skill that we can practice by lifting closer to our 1-rep max. That’s why strength training and powerlifting training use lower rep ranges. But that doesn’t make us stronger, per se, it just helps us specialize our strength for powerlifting.
This can get confusing because bodybuilding and hypertrophy training have no official way of measuring strength. No official lifts, no rules about how to perform them, and no 1-rep max test. For that, people often turn to powerlifting, thinking that they need to test their 1-rep maxes to see how strong they are. And to improve their skill at lifting 1-rep maxes, they turn to strength training, as they should—that’s what it’s for.
However, this can lead people to assume that heavier rep ranges are better for developing strength, whereas moderate rep ranges are better for developing size. That’s not quite right. Muscle size is almost perfectly correlated with muscle strength, so the rep ranges that are best for helping us gain muscle size are also the rep ranges that are best for helping us become stronger. If our goal is to become generally stronger, we can usually do that more efficiently by lifting in the 6–20 rep range. As we get stronger within that rep range, we’re getting stronger in general, too.
However, there’s another important aspect to general strength. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, yes, but we also need to make sure that we develop the relevant muscles. For instance, doing biceps curls will make our biceps bigger and stronger, but that won’t necessarily help us deadlift more weight. For that, we would need to build bigger hips, spinal erectors, and forearms. This is the problem that a lot of casual bodybuilders run into. It’s not that they’re “big but weak,” it’s that they aren’t big in the right places.
To become generally strong, then, we need to become better at lifts that develop our general strength. If we want to be able to pick up heavy things and carry them around, we might want to do conventional deadlifts and loaded carries. If we want to lift things overhead, we should be doing lifts like the overhead press. If we want to be able to carry stuff in front of our bodies, we might want to spend more time doing front squats. And if we want to be able to pull our bodies over things, we can do chin-ups.
So building general strength has more to do with building bigger muscles by doing the big compound lifts, less to do with lifting in lower rep ranges. The exception to that rule is powerlifting, where our strength is measured by how much we can lift for a single repetition. For everyone else, though, we can measure our strength by how much we can lift in a variety of different rep ranges. For instance, someone who can bench 300 for a single is similarly strong to someone who can bench 275 for 5 reps or 225 for 10 reps.
Perhaps more importantly, going from benching 185 pounds for 10 reps to benching 225 pounds for 10 reps shows a significant improvement in strength. That means there’s no need to train for or test our 1-rep max to gauge our strength.
A bigger muscle is a stronger one, so lifting in rep ranges that stimulate muscle growth is the most efficient way to gain general strength. Doing big compound lifts is an important part of developing full-body strength, but unless you compete in powerlifting, there’s no need to specifically train your 1-rep max strength.
Are 5×5 Routines Good for Gaining Size?
Sets of five reps are right on the cusp of being ideal for gaining muscle. But when we’re talking about small differences in rep ranges, the difference in muscle growth will likely be similarly small.
In the latest issue of Monthly Applications in Strength Sport, Greg Nuckols said that he suspects that sets of 3–5 reps aren’t as good at stimulating muscle growth as moderate-rep sets, but that they’re not that far off, either. We don’t necessarily need to do twice as many sets, but we might need to do a couple of extra sets.
My personal hunch is that low-rep sets (of around 3-5 reps) are a bit less efficient for muscle growth on a per-set basis, but not quite to the point of needing to equate for volume load.Greg Nuckols, MA
For instance, instead of doing 3 sets of 12 reps (3×12), we might want to do 5 sets of 5 reps (5×5). This is the approach we see in 5×5 programs, such as StrongLifts and Starting Strength. It’s not the most efficient way to stimulate muscle growth, no, but by adding in those extra sets, they make up for it.
Now, does that mean that 5×5 workout programs are good for gaining muscle size? Not necessarily. Doing 5×5 on the bench press might stimulate the same amount of muscle growth as doing 3×12 on the bench press, yes, but we also need to consider that these lower-rep sets require longer rest times, that they can be harder on our joints, and that we need to do more total sets to get an equivalent benefit. As a result, someone might spend twenty minutes doing their five sets of the bench press feeling tired and beat up, and then move on to a different muscle group, doing squats or rows or whatnot. The full workout takes 60-75 minutes, they’ve only done three lifts, and they feel like they worked pretty hard.
The problem is, although the bench press is great for stimulating growth in our chests and shoulders, it’s not ideal for stimulating growth in our triceps (study). If we want to maximize the growth of our triceps, we also need triceps extensions. It’s certainly possible to do 5×5 on the bench press and then move on to triceps extensions afterwards, and then lateral raises, and so on. But you can imagine how those workouts could get quite long.
Plus, this is assuming that muscle growth is maximized with just three sets per muscle group per workout. If we look at the ideal training volume for gaining muscle size, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems that muscle growth is maximized by doing 4–8 sets per muscle group per workout. That means that to maximize muscle growth, we wouldn’t be doing five sets of five, we’d be doing 6–10 sets of five. When volumes start climbing higher like that, it can pay to have an easier and more efficient way to stimulate muscle growth.
If we compare to how a bodybuilder trains, we can see the advantage of using moderate rep ranges. An intermediate bodybuilder might spend ten minutes doing 3×12 on the bench press and then another ten minutes doing 3×15 skullcrushers. Within that same 20-minute timeframe, they’ve stimulated the same amount of chest growth, they’ve doubled their triceps growth, and they’re probably still feeling fairly fresh. It’s a much easier and more efficient way to build muscle.
So it’s not that we can’t build muscle with 5×5 strength training programs, it’s just that hypertrophy training (aka bodybuilding) programs stimulate muscle growth more efficiently.
How Wide Is the Hypertrophy Rep Range?
If we look at the overall research, we see that sets of 1–3 repetitions, and perhaps even sets of 4–5 repetitions, don’t stimulate as much muscle growth as moderate reps do. They’re great for gaining 1-rep max strength, not so great for gaining muscle size. Then, with 30–40 reps per set, the workouts start to become increasingly miserable. And if we go any higher, we start to emphasize muscular endurance at the expense of muscle size and strength. This gives us a fairly wide rep range that we can train in.
According to experts like Greg Nuckols, MA, sets of 4–40 reps are ideal for gaining muscle size. According to others, such as Mike Israetel, PhD, sets of 5–30 reps are best for building muscle. We also have researchers like James Krieger, MS, favouring sets of 8+ reps. Still, all these hypertrophy rep ranges are essentially the same, and they become even more similar once we start putting them into the context of a good bodybuilding/hypertrophy program.
The hypertrophic stimulus and fatigue generated by each set between roughly 5 and 30 reps are about the same. Volume and intensity cause growth and fatigue, and when one goes up per set, the other goes down to preserve a roughly even effect.Mike Israetel, PhD
When we’re doing sets of 1–5, the sets tend to be harder on our joints and connective tissues, they can have higher rates of injury, and they can take longer to recover from. There are problems with doing sets of 20–40 reps, too. First, we need to take them closer to muscular failure to reliably provoke muscle growth. Second, taking high-rep sets to failure is so painful that it can make people vomit, give up, or hate training. And third, higher-rep sets can cause a tremendous amount of muscle damage, making our workouts harder to recover from.
Since training with more moderate loads may be more time efficient and carry a lower injury risk, you’re best off spending most of your training time in the more moderate load range, with low reps mixed in for strength benefits, variety, and personal preference.James Krieger, MS
So although sets of 4–40 can be good for stimulating muscle growth, it’s often easier to build muscle if we spend more of our time lifting in the 6–20 rep range. And even within that shrinking rep range, different lifts respond better to different rep ranges, narrowing it further still.
Different Rep Ranges for Different Lifts
When we’re picking our rep range, our goal is to challenge our muscles with enough overall volume, to make sure that we aren’t being limited by our cardiovascular fitness, and to avoid injury and pain. As a general rule of thumb, that’s why moderate rep ranges are so convenient. But, as you can imagine, different lifts challenge us in different ways.
When we’re squatting and deadlifting, we’re engaging tons of muscle mass, lifting heavy loads, sharing the load between several joints, and moving the weight through a large range of motion. It’s easy to be limited by our cardiovascular systems. As a result, it’s often better to use lower reps: 4–10 reps per set.
When we’re bulking up our necks, though, our neck flexors and extensors are rather small. We can do higher reps without being limited by our fitness, it doesn’t tend to hurt that much, and it might be safer. So with neck training, we might want to use higher reps: 15–40 reps per set.
So instead of doing 6–20 reps for every lift, we want to use different parts of the rep range at different times. Lower reps tend to be ideal for the bigger compound lifts, giving us loose rep range recommendations for our five big hypertrophy lifts of, say:
- Deadlifts: 4–10 reps per set.
- Front Squats: 5–12 reps per set.
- Bench Press: 6–12 reps per set.
- Overhead Press: 6–12 reps per set.
- Chin-Ups: 5–12 reps per set.
And then the ideal rep range climbs higher for assistance and accessory lifts, which are lighter, less fatiguing, and can sometimes tolerate a bit of technique breakdown. Here are some loose recommendations for some common isolation lifts:
- Biceps Curls: 8–15 reps per set.
- Rows: 8–15 reps per set.
- Dips: 8–15 reps per set.
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 8–15 reps per set.
- Skullcrushers: 8–15 reps per set.
- Romanian Deadlifts: 8–15 reps per set.
- Zercher Squats: 8–15 reps per set.
- Lateral Raises: 10–20 reps per set.
- Overhead extensions: 10–20 reps per set.
- Push-Ups: 10–30 reps per set.
- Wrist curls: 12–30 reps per set.
- Neck curls: 15–30 reps per set.
Genetics and personal preference will factor into what rep ranges you prefer, too. Some people’s shoulders ache when they bench too heavy, others when they bench too light. Some people’s lower backs get beat up with low-rep sets of deadlifts, whereas others get winded before they can finish a set of ten. There’s plenty of room for personal preference.
The ideal rep range for gaining size is around 6–20 reps per set, with some experts going as wide as 5–30 or even 4–40 reps. However, almost everyone agrees that using the middle of the rep range tends to make building muscle easier, safer, and more efficient. As a result, spending most of your time doing 6–20 reps per set is often best, but there may be a benefit to occasionally dipping as low as four reps or climbing as high as forty reps per set.
In strength training workouts, a fair amount of muscle growth can be stimulated with 5×5 routines, but it pales in comparison to the amount of growth that a bodybuilder can stimulate in the same timeframe. Bodybuilders lift in moderate rep ranges, stimulating more growth per set, doing more total set, using a wider variety of lifts, and thus are able to build muscle much faster.
If we want to gain both size and strength, as well as improving our general health and fitness, it’s usually wise to lift in a wide variety of rep ranges, but to still spend most of our time doing 6–20 reps per set. There’s no need to train our 1-rep max strength, either. We can gauge our strength by how much we can lift in moderate rep ranges instead.
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