And that’s a superb thing. The advantages of resistance training are countless and thoroughly proven: It extends longevity1, increases bone mass2, reduces stress3, improves cardiovascular health4, and so forth (we could go on for some time!).
But relating to the “best” strength training plan, things can get confusing. Should you lift heavier weights, or aim to do more reps and sets? How often do you really want to lift to see results? Different influencers provides you with all types of conflicting advice on what it is best to or shouldn’t do, while various ads bill themselves as the following biggest thing. For an extended time, even science looked as if it would offer murky answers.
“The research on the subject has not been all that clear with many papers sending mixed signals as as to if reps or weight matter more for developing strength versus muscle mass,” says Dustin Willis, DPT, a professor at West Coast University.
However, a latest, potentially landmark research paper5 that reviewed over 1000 studies—the biggest of its kind to this date on this topic—gives us increased insight into the matter.
To start off, the paper confirmed what’s already well-known about resistance training: Compared to no exercise, almost any combination of sets and reps, regardless of how heavy or how often you’re lifting, will result in increases in muscle strength and muscle size. That’s very likely not news to you!
Diving deeper, the researchers found that to extend muscle strength, the training programs that involved multiple sets or heavier weights were simplest. And those programs that included each multiple sets and heavier weights were the very best rated.
But when the goal was to construct larger muscles (what scientists call hypertrophy), how much weight you’re lifting wasn’t all that essential. Instead, the researchers found that multiple sets and multiple days of coaching per week had the best impact on muscle size.
What’s more, the researchers also explored the concept of “training to failure,” or doing as many reps as you may until you may’t do any more, as a way to construct muscle size. Interestingly, they found it typically made no significant difference. (Though, there was a caveat that this approach could potentially be useful for more advanced lifters.)
One other notable finding needed to do with the “minimum effective dose,” or the smallest amount you could have to lift to see some results. To gain strength, they found you needed to do resistance training for no less than two sets or two sessions per week, while for hypertrophy the minimum effective dose was resistance training for no less than two sets and two sessions per week.
To put all of it together:
If your goal is to get stronger, deal with lifting heavier weights (after all, do that in a methodical and progressive manner) for multiple sets. The minimum amount to get stronger is no less than two sets or no less than two training sessions per week, using the identical muscle groups.
If your goal is to get larger, don’t worry about how heavy you’re lifting, but deal with lifting weights more continuously (also in a methodical and progressive manner) for no less than two sets and two sessions per week specializing in the identical muscle groups. If you’re a starting lifter, then “training to failure” isn’t crucial but should you’re more advanced, it’s potentially useful to kickstart more muscle growth.
Other than that, there’s no must overthink it! Focus on moves you enjoy, and also you’ll see the #gains follow.
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the knowledge we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
- Coleman, Carver J et al. “Dose-response association of aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activity with mortality: a national cohort study of 416 420 US adults.” British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2022-105519. 11 Aug. 2022, doi:10.1136/bjsports-2022-105519
- Volek, J S et al. “Nutritional elements of girls strength athletes.” British journal of sports medicine vol. 40,9 (2006): 742-8. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2004.016709
- Gordon, Brett R., et al. ‘Resistance Exercise Training for Anxiety and Worry Symptoms amongst Young Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial’. Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, Springer Science and Business Media LLC, Oct. 2020, p. 17548, https://doi.org10.1038/s41598-020-74608-6.
- Westcott, Wayne L. “Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health.” Current sports medicine reports vol. 11,4 (2012): 209-16. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8
- Currier, Brad S et al. “Resistance training prescription for muscle strength and hypertrophy in healthy adults: a scientific review and Bayesian network meta-analysis.” British journal of sports medicine vol. 57,18 (2023): 1211-1220. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2023-106807