People very often ask how many reps are required to build muscle, often believing that a particular rep range is going to produce the most desired results. As if, that rep range will do something out of the ordinary when compared to the others, fueling growth in a way that the others can’t. Think about that for a second, doesn’t a change in numbers in regards to the rep count seem rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things when it comes to building muscle? If we include it in the basket of vital things such as training intensity and diet, does it have a chance to stand on its own? The answer might strike some as very controversial, but the answer is no. Although the proper rep range is an important component of building muscle, it is not an important component in regards to helping fuel the muscle growth in the first place, but for other reasons. Therefore, the question of how many reps are required to build muscle needs to be examined in a different light. Let’s get to it.
The standard understanding for how many reps are needed to build muscle is best grasped when examining the boundaries set for the different priorities that different rep ranges are said to be geared towards. In other words, let’s look at this in numbers:
Strength = 1-5 reps
Building Muscle (hypertrophy) – 8-12 reps
Endurance = 15+ reps
The numbers above are the generally accepted standard for measuring the priorities you are gearing your body towards. Therefore, if you’re attempting to prioritize muscle building, 8-12 reps is the best rep range for building muscle. Now, if that’s all you were really looking forward to seeing, you can stop here. Without knowing anything else that will appear in the article, you will have an answer that will not deceive you in your goals if everything is else is on point (nutrition, intensity, etc.). However, we’re trying to understand this whole concept of rep ranges for what it is in the grand scheme of things, instead of for what it is claimed to be, so sticking around might be very beneficial. Understanding things in terms of how they fit into the grand scheme of things is better than keeping a narrow view and being exposed only to the bare minimums, which may or may not be entirely correct (such as this whole rep-range importance concept).
Now, the main gripe I hold with these set boundaries is simple. If someone is eating enough food to grow, do you honestly believe that doing 4 reps instead of 8 is going to lessen the amount of growth that the individual induces through training? No, even if those 4 reps are more geared towards the adaptation of the central-nervous system due to a priority towards strength, they will see results as long as they are going to the limit and giving their body enough nutrients to grow through food. Here’s where the key concept many times overlooked comes in, going to the limit means achieving muscular fatigue. How many reps to build muscle is irrelevant in attaining this ultimate goal, in the sense that any rep range can help achieve it. The concept of putting on muscle size stems from Progressive Overload, where you attempt at each training session to move up from your previous training session in any manner possible (1 rep more than last time, less rest than last time, etc.). For a detailed look, check out that article. The point is, you induce growth through muscular fatigue. When your muscles are pushed to the limit, your body adapts by making them bigger (of course, if you feed it right).
The rep range to build this muscle is therefore irrelevant in terms of inducing that growth, it is not the rep range that does this directly. Meaning, doing 8 reps instead of 4 is not going to make you reach muscular fatigue any more than the other. People constantly overlook this. If 4 reps on the bench press tax your muscle to its limit, you have achieved your training goal for that session. If 15 reps tax your muscle to its limit, you have achieved your training goal for that session. This is why rep range is not the end all, be all necessity to building muscle. The same can be said for those attempting to gain strength. If I’m doing 10 reps of 40lbs, and 3 months later I’m doing 50lbs for 10 reps, I have still gained strength. The mix-up in regards to this matter comes from a false understanding of the scope of the situation we’re discussing. Here’s the common example:
“If you do 20 reps on bench press, you are only working endurance. You will not see substantial muscle growth over time” <- this is indeed correct, if that individual is not reaching muscular fatigue at rep 19-20. If he/she does 20 reps and could keep going, it is indeed an endurance workout. However, if their last few reps push them to their limit, they are training to build muscle. Their muscle is being taxed to its limit, forcing the body to adapt. How many reps to build muscle is therefore irrelevant. It is important in terms of time efficiency, not because it directly contributes to a particular goal (due to that particular rep range). Is it optimal to do 20 reps for strength gains? No, over time though, if you always train to the limit, will you achieve strength gains? Yes, as long as you are always taxing your muscle to the limit higher and higher with each workout as it adapts.
As you can see, how many reps to build muscle can be answered up at the top of the article. Stick to 8-12 reps, and you’ll be well on your way. However, understanding why that is not a black and white concept is important for those who really want a true understanding or are curious people in general. This is especially relevant to those who may find themselves on vacation or at home and don’t have access to the gym and high weights. Most automatically give up because they know that doing bodyweight exercises or small weights that push them past 12 reps will be mostly useless. Far from it. They just have to spend more time bringing their muscles to their limits, due to the lower amount of stress based on the lower weight they are taxing the muscle with. A workout that may take 45 minutes with 60lb dumbbels, is going to take longer with 30lb dumbbells but the same result can be achieved. That is the key. You might have to do 25 reps till your muscle can’t take anymore, as opposed to 10 reps, but the only thing different in the end will be the amount of time you have spent doing that particular set (the longer repped set obviously taking longer).
In conclusion, there’s really no reason to stop using the standard pre-set rep ranges for the specific goals you’re looking to pursue. However, if you find yourself in a position where you can’t do that particular rep range (whether it’d be for those recovering from an injury and doing lighter sets, or being away from the weights necessary to stop at 4 or 10 reps, etc.), you can still push your body to the limit. It is not the rep range that builds muscle, the rep range is only the catalyst for taxing your muscle to the limit. That is the key concept to building muscle, muscular fatigue. How you reach it is up to you, as long as you do. The results will come from there. In this grand scheme of things, how many reps to build muscle doesn’t seem so influential, does it? Visit our gain muscle article for more on how you can enhance your training and really get results. Good Luck!
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