Chances are you use the same formula for building muscle as every other guy in the gym. And typically, that’s also the same type of plan that bodybuilders have promoted since the ’80s: three sets of 6-8 exercises for each body part. So the question is, Are you a professional bodybuilder? Probably not. (And if you’ve ever seen them in the off-season, you wouldn’t want to be.)
Our point: You need a workout that’s designed for you: your body, your training level, and your ability. So while a conventional bodybuilding plan might work well for a while, it’s not likely to be optimal. We’re going to show you how to create a plan that is—starting right now.
CUSTOMIZE YOUR SETS
There’s an easy way to know how many sets you need: Let your body decide. How? You simply do as many sets as it takes to achieve “technical failure.” You’re probably familiar with the term “failure” as it typically pertains to lifting. It’s generally understood to be the point at which you can’t perform one more repetition, usually accompanied by a bulging forehead vein and a loud-mouthed spotter yelling, “It’s all you, man, it’s all you.” (For the record, it’s rarely “all you.”)
Technical failure, on the other hand, is the point at which there is a break in your form. This is your signal that you’ve worked the muscle sufficiently in order to stimulate maximal growth. It’s a bit subjective, but with a little practice you can easily learn to identify this point. Consider it a break in form any time there is a decrease in your bar speed or a change in body posture. For instance, if you’re doing a bench press and your bar speed slows when you hit your “sticking” point, you’ve just achieved technical failure. Whether you’ve done two sets or six sets, once you’ve eked out that wobbly rep, you’re finished with that exercise. Likewise, if you catch yourself rocking back and forth to complete an arm curl. You simply have to monitor your own form, rep by rep. The trick is knowing how much weight to use, and that depends on the number of reps.
PLAY THE HIGH/LOW GAME
For the best gains, you have to do reps at both ends of the prime muscle-building range of five to 12, not just one end or the other. Here’s why: Lower reps—for instance, 5-7—emphasize the growth of the contractile units of a muscle fiber (building most of your strength). Higher reps—the 10-12 range—increase the number of energy-producing structures in the muscle fiber. This, in turn, increases the fluid volume in the muscle fiber, which increases its size. We recommend alternating between workouts that train your muscles at each end of the spectrum. In one workout, do 5-7 reps using the heaviest weight that allows you to complete seven reps—known as your seven-rep max, or 7RM—before reaching technical failure. In the other workout, do 10-12 reps using the heaviest weight that allows you to achieve 12 reps—your 12-rep max, or 12RM—before reaching technical failure. Each week, vary the number of reps you do in the recommended range by one or two reps.
MASTER WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
Each time you train, your first task (after you warm up) is to test your repetition max for that day. This determines the amount of weight you’ll use. Here’s how it works: For each exercise, you’re going to have an estimate in your mind of what your rep max will be. (We’ll use your 12RM as an example.) You can base it on a previous workout or just make your best guess. Simply choose a weight and perform one set to technical failure. If you hit technical failure on Rep 13, you know that you estimated your 12RM correctly and can start doing sets with the prescribed rep range for that day. If you were able to do more reps, the weight was too light; likewise, if you achieved technical failure on Rep 12 or lower, the weight was too heavy. Take your rest period (1-2 minutes), adjust the weight, and try for your 12RM again. (The further away you are from your rep max, the more you’ll have to increase or decrease the weight.) This process should rarely require more than one or two sets to find your rep. max.