How many reps do you perform to increase muscle mass? How do you “tone” your muscles? Generally speaking, I think there’s a lot of confusion about how many sets and reps to perform to build strength vs. muscle mass. There is an antiquated notion that exists stating that you should do a lot of reps to increase your muscle tone and a low number of reps to increase muscle size. Oddly enough, this is exactly opposite from the reality.
Before further discussing strength reps vs. muscle mass reps, I’d like to describe the difference between muscle mass and muscle tone. In Visual Impact, Rusty Moore provides a good analogy involving a water balloon. Getting big puffy muscles like a bodybuilder is similar to inflating a water balloon; it’s fast and easy. Getting dense, toned muscles would be like making the balloon rubber thicker which ultimately makes it denser and stronger.
The best way to increase strength is by doing low rep sets with heavy weights. More important than either the number of sets or reps is that you must avoid training to failure. You don’t want your muscles to feel fatigued at the end of your workout. Always keep one rep in the tank. This type of training allows you to tone your muscles, making them tighter and less soft looking. Usually 3-5 reps provide a good range for building strength. Because you don’t train to failure, you could easily perform 5-10 sets for this type of workout.
Muscle Mass Reps
The best way to increase the size of your muscles is through high rep training to fatigue. By exhausting your muscles, you force them to grow larger. However, with the increased size comes a tendency for muscles to look a bit softer and bulkier. A good range for muscle mass training is 12-15 reps. The most important thing is to ensure you work your muscles to failure. Because of this, you probably won’t be able to, or need to, perform quite as many sets.
An additional consideration when training for strength vs. mass is how long it takes to complete reps and how long to rest between sets. When performing strength reps, it’s best to take a controlled approach, nearly pausing between each rep to give your nervous system a brief instant to recharge. For mass reps, training to fatigue is the goal so you can perform a faster set of reps to really torch your muscles.
The same goes for resting time between sets. If you’re trying to build dense muscles with strength training, then rest 2-3 minutes between sets to ensure your muscles don’t get fatigued. For muscle mass building, 45 seconds to 1 ½ minutes is probably more than enough time since you’re trying to create cumulative fatigue.
The Best Approach
Needless to say, the best muscle building approach incorporates both muscle mass reps and strength reps. You can build bigger muscles with mass reps and then tighten those muscles with strength reps. Additionally, you can use different rep schemes for different parts of your body. For example, I want my chest to be tighter, not bulkier, so I’m performing 3 rep sets with heavy weights, ensuring that I don’t fail. However, I’d like to add some size to my biceps, so I’m performing 12 rep sets to failure with lighter weights.
For years, many have confused strength reps and muscle mass reps. Just remember that if you want your muscles to be tighter and more toned, do low reps of heavy weights, avoiding failure. If you want softer, but bulkier muscles, train with higher reps to failure.
Not Your Average Fitness Tips
- To build stronger dense muscles, lift heavy weights in the 3-5 rep range, and don’t lift to exhaustion.
- To build bigger, bulkier muscles, lift in the 12-15 rep range and do lift to failure.
- The less rest between sets, the more cumulative fatigue, leading to increased muscle mass.
- The best muscle building approach incorporates both strength reps and muscle mass reps.