Hypertrophy Reps and Sets: Evidence-Based Guide
In order to maximise the amount of muscle you gain through your training, understanding the most effective numbers of sets and reps for hypertrophy is essential. In this guide, we're going to look at:
Let's jump right in...
How Many Sets and Reps to Build Muscle
I'm not in the business of wasting anyone's time, so if you just want the broad, TLDR, super-quick answer, then...
"2 to 6 sets of 5 to 30 reps per exercise per workout, and 4-15 total sets of 5 to 30 reps per week for each muscle group."
And if you want to understand why that's my recommendation, read on
How Many Sets Should I Do for Hypertrophy?
Research (Schoenfeld et al. 2017) shows that for the most part, more sets per week equals more muscle growth.
Which makes sense; you do more work, you get more results. However. There is a trade-off.
More total sets per week also equals more fatigue, which over time can build up and have negative effects like...
Increased injury risk
Low energy levels
Poor job and/or school performance
Plus, although occasional DOMS are sort of fun, having to live with ridiculously, cripplingly, can't stand up or raise your arms levels of sore muscles all the time is pretty miserable.
So we have to find a balance between doing enough and not doing too much.
The good folks at Renaissance Periodization coined the terms MEV, MAV and MRV, which I find useful to use for this.
MEV: is your Minimum Effective Volume, the least possible amount of work you need to grow muscles
MRV: Is your Maximum Recoverable Volume, the most amount of work you can tolerate before the fatigue becomes unbearable.
MAV: The sweet spot right in the middle of those two extremes.
So How Do We Find the Hypertrophy Sets Sweet Spot? (MAV)
Simple, we start at our estimated MEV, and build up over time.
So we might start with something like 4 total sets for a muscle group per week, then based on things like our pump and soreness, we can choose whether or not to increase that number of sets over time.
Eventually, you'll keep increasing sets until you reach a point at which performance starts to decline, and you cannot add more reps or weight for 1-2 weeks in a row. At this point, it's very likely that you've reached your MRV, and need to deload.
The exact number of sets will vary per person, and per muscle group, so some experimentation is needed.
What About Sets Per Session for Hypertrophy?
This depends on the person and the muscle group, but most people tend to find that the quality of sets for a muscle group starts to fall off after about 8-10 sets.
So if you've already done 5 sets of bench press and 4 sets of flies, then chances are you're not going to get much more out of doing any more sets that session. This is why I'm a big fan of training muscle groups more than once per week, so that we can increase the total number of sets per week whilst keeping quality really high.
What Rep Range is Best for Muscle Growth?
Research (Schoenfeld et al. 2017) suggests that hypertrophy can be achieved throughout a wide range of rep ranges, approximately 5 to 30 reps. This is something I would also agree with based on my years of coaching and training experience.
When I say this, people often have two questions...
Is 5 reps enough for hypertrophy?
To which I say yes, absolutely. But these low reps lend themselves better to certain exercises. 5 reps of pull-ups, bench press or squats is a good hypertrophy stimulus. Whereas 5 reps of an isolation based exercise like a single-arm cable bicep curl is probably not so useful
Can high reps build muscle?
Sets of 20-30 reps can 100% build muscle. Even without looking at the studies, just think about how many callisthenics and gymnastics guys get absolutely jacked upper bodies just through doing loads of high rep bodyweight exercises.
With that said, sets of 20-30 aren't always appropriate. 20-30 reps of isolation work like curls or leg extensions is great, you get a fantastic pump and a real mind-muscle connection. Whereas sets of 20-30 squats or deadlifts are just a miserable experience, where your heart rate and breathing skyrocket and you just hope to survive.
What is Periodization for Hypertrophy?
Since you've got a pretty wide range of effective sets and reps, you can implement periodisation strategies for best results. Periodisation is simply the changing of your training stimulus over time. Adding sets via the MEV to MRV set progression described above is one form of periodisation A second type which you can use on top of this is the periodisation of rep schemes, for example, let's say that you do 3 training blocks, each about 5-6 weeks long.
Block 1: Most sets in the 5-10 rep range, with some in the 10-20 range.
Block 2: Most sets in 10-20 rep range, with some in the 20-30 rep range and some in the 5-10 range
Block 3: Most sets in the 20-30 rep range, with some in the 10-10 range and a small amount in the 5-10 rep range
This allows for each rep scheme to get a certain level of focus and keeps providing your body with a novel stimulus for hypertrophy.
Hypertrophy Workout Template
There are genuinely dozens of ways that you can arrange your training for hypertrophy, so the template I'm going to provide here is just an example of how to apply the principles we've talked about.
For specific workouts that you can use to fill in this template, check out my related article on Mass Gain Workouts.
Week 1 Sets Per Muscle
Week 2 Sets Per Muscle
Week 3 Sets Per Muscle
Week 4 Sets Per Muscle
Week 5 Sets Per Muscle