In this article you are about to read, I am going to clearly and concisely lay out the best rep range for muscle growth.
I am somebody who tries to spend their time in the gym in the most efficient way possible.
If I am going to give up 45 60 75 min of my day in order to get a workout in, it better be yielding the result that I want.
If the result is muscle building, then there are certain protocols you can and should use in order to achieve that results.
One of them is the best rep range to use to make sure your time in the gym isn’t wasted for no gainz, bro.
No, but really, let’s make sure we take the time to learn this so your workouts can be worth the time and effort you put in, shall we?
Best Rep Range For Muscle Growth
How Does Muscle Growth Occur?
I think the right way to go about beginning to talk about the best rep range for muscle growth is to first talk about how muscle growth actually occurs.
I want to touch on a view different topics that are all going to play a massive role in building muscle, as well as themes throughout this article.
I am going to keep this short and sweet, but only because I have already written an entire in depth article about progressive overload on my website as well.
You can check that out HERE if you would like.
Yet for the “cliffnotes” version, progressive overload is very simply…
Doing more over a period of time.
So if 4 months ago you were lifting 10lbs for 8 reps, you better not still be lifting 10lbs for 8 reps today.
You better be increasing the weight you are lifting or the reps you are doing (to a degree, we will talk about this a bit later on!).
Let’s say now you are doing 25lbs for 8 reps, awesome progress man!
Or if last week you did 10lbs for 8 reps, cool.
Next week, you should try to look to do 10lbs for 9 reps. Or 12.5lbs for 8 reps.
This concept of progressive overload is quite frankly an oversimplified one, yet, it is one of the most important ones.
It is just making sure you are doing more “work” over a period of time. In this case, “work” is described as doing more reps or weight in the topic of building muscle.
Why does this need to happen?
Because as I have mentioned in previous articles, for your body to change you need to put a stress on it that is great enough to elicit an adaptation response.
Aka, in order for your body to CHANGE!
If 4 months ago you were lifting the 10lbs for 8 reps, and you are doing still doing that to this day, your body has no reason to keep changing.
It has already adapted to that! Your body doesn’t need to keep changing, it already changed enough to withstand that level of stress you are placing on it.
It did it’s job and it doesn’t need to do more than that. Remember, your body wants to maintain something called homeostasis.
This is essentially staying the exact same. Doesn’t wanna lose or gain anything, it wants to stay right where it’s at because that is the easiest and most efficient way to keep you alive.
YOU are the one who wants to build muscle, therefore YOU are the one who needs to create a stress great enough to elicit an adaptation response.
Which, is why, you need this progressive overload to happen.
Again, if you want more info on this as it is a crucial topic to understand, check out this article HERE or video version HERE.
The next part to discuss when discussing the best rep range for muscle growth is mechanical tension.
To define mechanical tension..
“In simple terms, Mechanical Tension can be defined as a force normalized to the area over which it acts..” (Schoenfeld, 30).
In my own personal definition, I just like to think of it as how much tension and force are you creating inside your muscle fibers when exercising.
Think about when you are doing a bicep curl.
How much tension and force are you creating inside that bicep muscle when you are doing that curl?
Are you just kind of dogging the movement, not really pushing yourself, and not putting in a ton of effort?
Or, is that bicep curl you are doing CHALLENGING.
This determines how much muscle is going to be built in that specific muscle.
High mechanical tension = more muscle growth.
Low mechanical tension = less muscle growth.
So the more force you produce within a given muscle is correlated to the amount of muscle growth you will potentially be able to see.
How can you create mechanical tension?
Well, again, without turning this article into a science research paper (because that is probably not why you came here!)
You can create mechanical tension through load (the amount of weight you lift).
The higher the weight you are lifting, the more mechanical tension you create inside a muscle.
So you lifting 100lbs for 5 reps is typically going to induce more mechanical tension inside a muscle than you lifting say 50lbs for 20 reps.
Though, mechanical tension can also be somewhat impacted by the duration of loading as well.
Potentially to a lesser extent, but it is still created.
Think like lifting with a little bit lighter weight and higher rep sets here.
So wait a minute, both heavy weight and low reps, plus, light weight and high reps, can induce mechanical tension?
So that means both are viable options for the best rep range for muscle growth?
Yes, because there is another way to produce high amounts of mechanical tension.
Let’s talk about it.
The Best Rep Range For Muscle Growth
They All Work!
Here is the honest answer to this question.
Technically, you can build muscle in any rep range.
Light weights for high reps technically can build muscle.
Heavy weights for low reps technically can build muscle.
Moderate weights for moderate reps technically can build muscle.
They all work (though, stay tuned, because there is a “best” one you will figure out later on!).
There is one key denominator that has to be present though.
This Is The Caveat.
You have to take your sets close to failure.
This is the caveat.
You can build muscle in any of these rep ranges so as long as you take the set close to failure because that is what triggers a high level of mechanical tension inside the muscle.
So if you are doing a bicep curl for 6 reps and you take it close to failure, you will have high mechanical tension, and you will be able to build muscle.
If you are doing bicep curls for sets of 20, and you take it close to failure, you will also have high mechanical tension and be able to build muscle!
Now, what do I mean when I say going close to failure?
This is something 99% of the average gym goer really doesn’t comprehend, and it’s a shame, because it may be the most important thing.
I am going to put a video here below of me performing a set that is taken close to failure, then, we can talk about it after.
In this video I am doing a 1 arm landmine row or a “Meadows” row, in honor of John Meadows, RIP.
I want you to notice something about this set that can make you look to understand what it means to “go close to failure”.
- Notice the speed of the reps. I am doing about 8 reps here. Look at the speed of reps 1,2,3 and 4.
They are moving at a pretty good pace right?
No real “struggle” yet.
Now, go back and look at the last couples of reps, reps 5, 6, 7, and 8.
Notice how I was moving the weight up on the concentric portion (concentric just means on the way up, so think up on a bicep curl or up on a shoulder press) at a good speed.
Yet as the reps got farther and farther into the set, the speed on the way up started to slow down. Involuntarily, I might add.
Meaning I was not trying to slow down on the way up.
It was purely happening because my muscles were starting to get fatigued and I was pushing close the failure.
The last rep or two you can really tell the speed slows down.
THAT, my friend, is how you know if you are truly close to failure or not.
If the speed on your last couple of reps starts to involuntarily slow down on the way up, then your muscles are getting close to failure.
If not, then you aren’t close to failure, and you either have to lift more weight or do more reps to get there.
Also take note of my form here.
I didn’t massively start to break down form and hump the air to get the weight up.
I was simply taking the set close to form failure.
If you are looking to build muscle, this is one of, if not the most important skill you are going to need to understand how to do.
If not you won’t be able to ever maximize your muscle growth, no matter what reps you are doing.
And before you ask me…
Yes, this is what EVERY SINGLE WORKING SET should look like.
If you don’t know the difference between a working set and a warm up set, or what a working set is, click HERE to listen to this podcast where I explain it in depth.
Seriously, I get that question upwards of 20-50x per day. The answer is in that podcast if you give it a listen.
Now, What Is The “Best” Rep Range For Muscle Growth?
Okay, so we know that technically speaking you can build muscle in any rep range as long as you go close to failure.
Cool, but that still doesn’t mean there isn’t a best rep range for muscle growth, because there is.
Typically I like to breakdown rep ranges into 3 categories.
“Heavy” – 1-5 reps
Moderate – 6-12 reps
Light – 12-20+ reps
( “heavy” is in quotation marks because we will talk about this later!).
Let’s break down the pros and potential cons of each rep range in their relationship to muscle growth.
Heavy 1-5 Reps
When you are lifting in the 1-5 rep range, you are inherently going to be lifting “heavier” weight.
Think about it. How much weight can you do for 3 reps of a squat vs 20 reps of a squat.
Let’s just say it’s 300lbs vs 150lbs.
For no other reason other than the lower rep range you can lift “heavier” weight.
Again, as we learned aboved, the lower rep ranges and higher weight typically lead to higher amounts of mechanical tension.
Which, is a good thing, when we are trying to build muscle!
Also, these lower rep ranges are able to work in a lot of neurological strength as well.
Most people don’t know but there is in fact a difference between building strength and building muscle.
You can have both at the same time and they often do go together, but they don’t have to.
Strength is a neurological adaptation.
Building muscle is a physiological adaptation.
You can get neurological stronger without necessarily adding more lean muscle mass to your body.
Vice versa though, you can add lean muscle mass, without necessarily gaining a ton of strength.
When you train with a bit heavier weights that allow for more mechanical tension, there is research to show this is also going to positively impact your strength gains / performance as well.
Therefore, higher weight and lower rep style sets can be great for building muscle AND strength.
Which, a stronger muscle has the potential to be a bigger muscle because it can produce more force and lift heavier weights.
Yet here are the potential drawbacks.
When you are doing such heavy, low rep work, inherently you are putting a ton of stress on your
- Connective Tissue
- Central Nervous System
This is okay in small doses, but in order to build any amount of significant muscle, you are going to need higher volumes.
When we talk about “volume”, I am referring to the number of hard working sets per muscle group per week.
Thus over time, if you need to perform a lot of sets in a lower rep range / higher weight style of training, all of those things listed above take a beating.
Not to mention mentally speaking hyping yourself up to do 5 sets of 3 heavy a** reps of a bench press or deadlift is nothing short of draining over time.
To show up in your workouts having to do that week over week can be a bit taxing over time. Which can lead you to not actually having the intensity needed to lift the weight you need to lift or push close to failure.
Thus, minimizing your results.
Therefore if we are solely focused on muscle growth, then doing higher amounts of muscle combined with lower rep, higher weight work can be a perfect cocktail for an injury and or under recovery over time.
Making it maybe not the “best” rep range to do a LOT of work in if your main goal is to build muscle.
Notice I said “a lot” of work..I don’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do ANY work here. More on that to come.
Light – 12-20+ Reps
You may have heard or seen tons of bodybuilders talking about lifting for “the pump”.
They would say the best rep range for muscle growth is by doing super high volume, tons of reps, tons of sets, just “burn” the muscle up.
And again, as mentioned previously, you can in fact build muscle in any rep range. Obviously so as long as you take it close to failure!
Yet here is the issue with light weight, high rep training when it comes to muscle growth.
First off, the mechanical tension you get from doing a set of 20 reps is inherently lower only because the weight is lower.
Yes, you can take this set close to failure, but even still the mechanical tension will be lower a tad lower.
If we know mechanical tension is higher with heavier loads, and mechanical tension is important for muscle growth, then we typically want to train in a way to MAXIMIZE that mechanical tension.
Also, while you may be able to build some muscle in this rep range (maybe, we will talk about that in a second!).
You are going to usually not build much strength in this rep range because the load you are using is so light that you don’t get the positive benefits of the neurological strength gains.
You may get some muscular endurance / stamina gains, but you most likely will not get any strength gains.
Therefore if you are someone who cares about getting stronger, these rep ranges may not serve you MUCH use.
Not to say they can’t be implemented, they certainly can, but I just wouldn’t make them a large portion of your training.
Not to mention that when we talk about going to failure with 12, 15, 20 + reps, we often don’t go to failure with our muscles.
Meaning, our muscular ENDURANCE or our cardiovascular system typically starts to fatigue before our actual muscle fibers do.
Therefore, you may be “burning out” during a 20 rep set.. But it isn’t because your muscle fibers are burning out, it’s because your muscular endurance and or your cardiovascular system is getting close to failure.
Which is why you may improve your cardiovascular system or muscular endurance because you are taking THAT close to failure, but you aren’t necessarily taking your muscles close to failure via mechanical tension.
Thus making this maybe not the best rep range for muscle growth.
Moderate 6-12 reps
You may have seen before that the best rep range for muscle growth is in that 6-12 rep range.
Truthfully, that would be about right.
In this rep range it allows you to..
- Lift “heavy enough” weight to maximize the heavy loading for optimal mechanical tension, without going TOO heavy where you beat your body up too much, or without going TOO light where you are working more muscular endurance instead
- Allow for proper neurological strength adaptations to come along with it as well – allowing for both strength and muscle gains
- Allow for proper training volume over the course of the week to optimize muscle growth (sets per muscle group per week) without being under recovered or increasing risk of injury
How To Split This Up?
I said earlier that you don’t need to NOT do 1-5 reps or 12-20+ reps.
There is merit to doing all types of rep ranges in your training in order to create a fully well rounded physique and performance within your body.
Here is how I typically like to split up the rep ranges when.
65-75% of your volume (sets and reps) should come the 6-12 rep range
25-35% should come from the 1-5 & 12-20+ rep range.
This can be over the course of a week or a single workout. I like to do a single workout split up.
I can drop an example here below.
BB Back Squat 3 sets of 5 reps (lower rep, heavy work)
BB RDL 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Reverse Lunge 3 sets of 6-10 reps
BB Hip Thrust 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Lying Leg Curl 2 sets of 12-15 reps (higher rep, lighter work)
Notice how the first and the last exercise were around the 1-5 and 12-15 rep ranges.
Then the middle 3 exercises were in that 6-12 rep range.
Out of the 13 total sets in this workout, roughly 65% were coming from the 6-12 rep range.
I like to dedicate the heavy, low rep strength work to the compound exercise for that day.
In this situation it is the back squat. You can get in some of the heavy work to increase strength to then help you over time continue to lift more weight in the 6-12 rep range.
Which, if you lift more weight in the 6-12 rep range, you can build more muscle due to heavier loading and more mechanical tension.
Then for the lying leg curl I did 12-15 reps.
Here you can work a little bit of the higher rep work, get more of that “pump” factor, and take it close to failure in a higher rep range.
I like saving the higher rep work for isolation work. Things like leg curls, leg extensions, bicep curls, tricep extensions, etc.
These isolation movements typically respond well to a tad bit higher rep work due to the inherent nature of only working ONE muscle group at a time.
By the the way, if you want to learn more about how to set up a daily workout routine, I did a super in depth podcast HERE on that if you want to check it out.
Earlier I mentioned “going heavy” and I put it in those quotation marks.
While yes, inherently lifting 5 reps you are going to lift more weight than you would for 12 reps, that’s true.
Yet all of your exercises should be “heavy” because you should be taking all of the exercises close to failure!
What might be “heavy” for a 5 rep squat might be different than what is heavy for a 12 rep bicep curl.
Yet for THAT exercise, in THAT rep range, you need to pick a weight that is “HEAVY” for that.
Just because it’s 12 reps it doesn’t mean you aren’t going “heavy”.
You are going “heavy” for that exercise and that rep range that is given because no matter what you should be going close to failure.
Best Rep Range For Muscle Growth
Well, that’s a wrap folks!
Hope you enjoyed this article and hope you got some value from it.
If you did, feel free to share it with someone.
As well as if you read this and you are like “hoooollyyyy … information overload!!”.
Don’t worry, we got your back.
We do in fact offer coaching options that take all of this guesswork out of it for you so you can just get the plan and dominate.
If you want to check out our group coaching The Clubhouse, I can link that right HERE.
Inside the Clubhouse I write a new workout program each month for the group.
Or, if you were more interested in in depth 1:1 coaching, you can fill out our application form HERE for that as well.
Either way hope it helps and look to chat soon.
One Reply to “What Is The Best Rep Range For Muscle Growth?”
Great article… I understand reps much better. I’m learning slowly but with better understanding.
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