One of the most asked questions I get while training others is how many reps and sets of an exercise are needed to achieve lean muscle growth, strength increase, and an overall improvement in body composition.
The desired repetition range for both men and women for just about all exercises is four to six repetitions for your last, heavy sets.
That doesn't include warm-ups or acclimation sets, just your last sets.
There is one and only one reason a muscle has for gaining lean muscle tissue and getting stronger....
....Progressively increased overload.
You need to progressively "force" the muscle into growing and getting stronger or it will not.
In order to increase overload, you need to increase resistance. In order to increase resistance, you need to increase the amount of weight, or work, you are doing.
Lower repetitions of an exercise will allow you to increase the overload to that muscle instantaneously. This forces the stimulation of new muscle fibers that will be recruited to handle the additional stresses that will be placed upon the muscle.
The repetition range for optimal muscle fiber stimulation will be between four and six repetitions for just about every heavy set of an exercise you do.
Low reps will not cause women to "bulk" up. Low reps will strengthen and "tone" your muscles quicker than higher reps.
Lighter weights and higher reps will basically keep you from making optimal gains. If you can do ten repetitions of an exercise, the weight is too light to achieve overload.
How do you know what weight to use? If you can do more than six repetitions on your heavy sets for an exercise, the weight is too light. If you cannot do at least four, the weight is too heavy.
So the low down on reps is 4 to 6 for all heavy sets. Warm up sets and intermediate can be 8 to 10 reps, but to get the muscle stimulating benefit of weight training, you must use lower reps to create enough of an overload.
The amount of heavy, intense sets per exercise will be between one and three sets, depending on the order of the exercise.
When you are warmed up, the number of all-out, intense sets will be three at the most, and on some exercises, just one or two sets.
It is the overload that causes the muscle to grow, not the amount of sets you do. There is no "universal law" which states that if you double the amount of sets you perform, you also double the results.
The key is to stimulate, not annihilate, the muscle into responding and growing. You do this with two, very intense sets of four to six repetitions. This will efficiently stimulate the muscles more than doing more sets with more reps at a lighter weight.
If we were doing bicep curls, we would do our warm-ups and then two heavy, intense sets of four to six repetitions. This exercise is now done. You have effectively overloaded the bicep muscles and will then proceed to the next exercise, if there is one.
As you can see, it is all about quality over quantity when it comes to producing results.
It is so much better to do one or two heavy sets at maximum intensity than 3 or more at an easier level.
More is not better....better is better.