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What's the Formula for Building Muscle Mass?

Search just about anywhere online (even here!) and you will read all manner of suggested figures and combinations of repetitions, set counts, and the percentage of your one-rep maximum to use for an exercise. Some start in the single digit range of 3 to 6 reps while others are epic pyramids of 100+ reps in just one set. The truth is simple and far less formulaic than you might think. There doesn't exist a perfect right or never do range when considering the repetitions, sets, and weight lifted during an exercise. With so many other factors at play, such as your body and muscle type, the goal of your session, and the state of muscle hypertrophy from the last time you trained. It all contributes to your ideal range.

We are all unique in our DNA, our body structure, our chemistry, the foods we consume, and how we supplement with nutrients, vitamins. Some of us can handle a lot more intensity than others. While some people struggle to switch on to train above 10 reps per set mentally, others love the endless challenge brought on by considerably more than that number. To each, their own.

Dialing in Your Reps and Sets

From countless hours spent in the gym training with weights, much of which while in the pursuit of an athletic and functional but unmistakeably a bodybuilding physique, I have dialed in my own formula for building muscle mass, fast.

Rep Counting for Mass

My ideal repetition range is between 6 to 12 reps paired with forced repetitions and occasional drops sets. This has been my most effective and efficient means to achieve gains and build mass.

6 to 12 repetitions + forced reps / drop sets

Get Ready, Set.

When it comes to sets, I typically perform 2 working sets and an additional 1 to 2 warm-up sets. If I have truly gone to failure during the first and second sets, the third set is usually much weaker and tends to have an unintended impact of reducing my motivation. So that third set usually doesn't happen for me!

1 to 2 warm-up sets, 2 working sets

Remember, the key here is to get stronger over 8 to 10 reps, not to have the endurance to run high repetitions for 3, 4, or even 5 sets! If you can max out on a rep range of 8 to 10 reps for more than 5 sets, you are not reaching failure in those first few sets and/or you could be resting for too long between sets. Increase your weight, lower your rep count, and watch the clock. Try to rest somewhere between 45 seconds and 1 minute and 15 seconds between sets, no longer.

Balancing Muscle Growth (Hypertrophy)

Let’s set a few things straight when it comes to muscle growth, known as hypertrophy when performing resistance training exercises:

  • Feeling "the burn" in your muscles over the duration of a long set will not necessarily cause efficient muscle growth.
  • Attempting to max-out every rep within a set or lifting insanely heavy weights to the point your whole body is shaking and the capillaries in your eyes begin to burst will not help much either.
  • What WILL help: understanding that muscle growth is stimulated from resistance exercises and a combination of mechanical tension and fatigue induced metabolic stress and to some degree, muscle damage. 

    In short, when you optimize mechanical tension and metabolic stress, you will maximize muscle hypertrophy (growth). The best way to do this is to pick a weight in which you can apply a maximum load (versus tension) to the working muscle.

    Time Under Tension ("TUT")

     45 to 90 seconds of TUT

    Over the years, and from my own training and many hundreds of others, I can confidently say that anywhere from 45 to 90 seconds of continuous muscle tension is the best duration for maximizing muscle stimulus. Additionally, when you train with a weight that you can control while accessing your full range of motion (ROM), you will be on the path towards maximizing your muscle growth and intensity of your exercise.

    Keys to Success

    To wrap this up, here are the highlights from this article you should consider or adapt to fit your next training session, and be sure to share this article (or knowledge) with your friends, fellow gym rats, and the rest of social media.

    6 to 12 repetitions include forced and drop sets
    1 to 2 warm-up sets + 2 working sets
    45 to 90 seconds of muscle tension per set



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