“K-I-S-S: Keep it simple, stupid”- Kelley Johnson of the U.S. Navy
If you are someone who is serious about getting stronger and building muscle you’ve probably done a bit of reading and researching what are the best methods. That is probably what brought you to read this if that’s the case. Or maybe you’re just getting started and aren’t quite sure what the best way to go is. Let me try and simplify things for you.
You’re going to see a lot of “it depends” advice in this article, so if you’re looking for absolutes you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you want options and are willing to make your own choices based on what you need individually, keep reading!
How Many Sets to Perform for Each Muscle Group
Some of your muscles might grow quicker than others. All of us have that one muscle group that more or less takes care of itself with or without direct attention. And then we have the exact opposite. That stubborn will not grow muscle group. For your muscles that grow at a decent rate, you can perform fewer sets and the muscles that struggle you’ll put more emphasis on them with more sets throughout the week. A good guideline to follow for sets is 9 to 15 sets for each muscle group throughout your week. This can be spread through multiple exercises to work your muscles at different angles, with different loads, and ranges of motion.
So when you are making your workout program for the week, try to perform around 15 sets for the muscle group that you have trouble growing and 9-15 for the muscles that grow easier or that you’re satisfied with. Time, splits, and your frequency will all play a big part in whether or not this is feasible for you.
How Many Reps per Exercise
Your primary goal will play a big factor in the selection of reps per set or per exercise. If strength is your goal 16-25 reps spread throughout 3-10 sets with heavy loads (85% of 1RM or higher) are going to be ideal. If hypertrophy is the primary goal you’re going to want to work up closer to 40 reps per exercise. This can be spread out any number of ways with moderate to lighter loads (usually 75% of 1RM or lower).
Take 1-2 Sets to Failure
In order to do this, you’ll need to make sure your recovery and nutrition are dialed in.
Taking your last set of an exercise to technical failure can be a great way to push yourself. Technical failure means taking a set to the point where you can no longer maintain proper form. Exercises you’d do this with are your big compound lifts, think bench press, barbell squats, bent over rows, etc.
Exercises where you don’t want to sacrifice form for additional reps or weight. One set to failure for these exercises if you’re just starting out can be a great way to test out where your strength really is at. I don’t recommend taking numerous sets of these exercises to failure frequently.
Accessory movements such as chest flies, shoulder raise variations, bicep curls, etc. you’ll want to take to a blend of muscular and technical failure. Muscle failure means you’re no longer able to continue the set due to your muscles no longer being able to perform the movement due to fatigue.
This doesn’t mean I want you to do that crazy swinging, rocking chair-looking biceps curl thing people do. But if you swing or use some momentum to get the weight up, make sure you are doing a very controlled eccentric until your muscle taps out and then stop the set. These exercises can be taken to failure more frequently since you’re more than likely using a lighter load compared to a compound movement.
Frequency is Important
This is where things can get a little tricky if you’re someone who is busy or can’t be in the gym 5 days or more. Ideally you’re hitting each muscle twice per week. This can be done several different ways. The more days per week you’re able to workout, the easier it is to split up your workouts. If you’re someone who can only lift 3 or 4 days a week, you’ll want to do either an upper/lower split or full body workouts using the above protocols while focusing primarily on compound movements for each muscle group.
If you can lift 5 days per week you really have endless options on how to break those days up. Some of my favorite 5 day splits are:
For someone who lifts 6 days per week you have even more options. Discussing workout splits really can be a whole other article. Takeaway here is try to work each muscle group twice per week within your workouts, even if it is only 3 sets in one workout and 9 in another.
You’ll need to take several aspects into consideration when picking your exercises.
Your goals, your training history, your injury history, your equipment available, your enjoyment of exercises, how much time you have and more all come into play when selecting an exercise. I recommend picking 3-5 exercises per muscle group you plan to target within a single workout. If you’re focusing on compound movements this can make things a little easier.
A bench press will not only hit your chest muscles, but also your front delts and triceps will get some attention too, so you can count these for sets for your shoulders and triceps. Keep things simple when selecting your exercises and pick the exercises that best suit your individual needs and interests, but also serve a purpose.
How to Spread Out Your Workout
This is where I’m going to keep things extremely simple. By this point, you should know how many sets you need, how many reps you need per exercise, how many days per week you’re going to target muscles, and how many exercises you’re going to do per workout. So here is a simple way to put all those together. Each workout you’ll want to do the following for each muscle group you’re targeting.
Something Heavy: 3 to 8 sets for 3-10 reps @80% of 1RM or higher. Take one set to technical failure
Something Moderate: 3 to 6 sets of 8-15 reps @80% of 1RM or lower. Take one to two sets to technical failure
Something Light: 2-5 sets of 15+ reps @60% of 1RM or lower. Take 2-4 sets to technical/muscular failure
This is the easiest way to break up the movements and distribute your total workloads. An example upper body push workout using this method would be something:
Heavy: Barbell Bench Press: 5X5@85% of 1RM: Get all 25 reps
Moderate: Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3X8-10@75% of 1RM: 1 set to technical Failure
Light: Cable Chest Fly: 3X15+: Take 3 sets to technical failure
Moderate: Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3X8-10@75% of 1RM: 1 set to technical failure
Light: Dumbbells Lateral Raises: 4X15: 2 sets to failure
Light: Tricep Pushdowns: 3X15+ 3 sets to failure
In this workout, not including warm-up sets (which do count towards weekly volume), your chest is going to get 11 sets. Your shoulder muscles will get 15 sets (remember bench press variations are going to work the front delts too). Your triceps will get 14 sets (all three pressing variations include your triceps).
Lifting Basics Simplified
The more simple you can keep your lifting program, the better. Most of you reading this do not need fancy exercises, complex loading schemes, advanced methods, etc. You just need to focus on the basics and to be consistent with putting in the work over and over and over.
A Simple Recap
- 9-15 sets per muscle group per week
- 16-40 reps per exercise: Broken up across 3-10 sets
- Take 1-2 sets per exercise to failure depending on the intensity of the exercise
- Hit each muscle group twice per week
- Pick 3-5 exercises per muscle group. Compound movements can be included in multiple muscle groups (example: bench press also hits front delts & triceps)
- Load something heavy (3-10 reps), something moderate (8-15 reps) and something light (15+ reps). You should either achieve technical or muscular failure within these rep ranges. Achieved through load or increased time under tension