Optimise Your Workout To Build Muscle Faster

Optimise Your Workout - Unlock Your Full Potential

When it comes to the details of your workout (set, reps, rest times and exercise order), how much thought do you really give it?

Are you squeezing every ounce of growth from your workouts or are you leaving progress on the table due to poor planning and execution?

If you want to get the most from your workouts you must train with purpose, you can’t mindlessly go through the motions and hope for the best.

If that’s your strategy, then it’s time for a change!

Often getting the most from your workout revolves around working hard and/or adding more weight to the bar over time to ensure progressive overload is applied. However, if your workout isn’t optimised in the first place then this won’t get you very far.

You’re leaving a huge amount of potential sitting there, untouched and untapped.

The good news is that this is easy to fix and by the end of this article you’ll know exactly how to optimise your workout to build muscle faster, train smarter and tap into your full potential.

Are you ready to optimise your workout?

The Variables: Reps, Sets, Rest Time & Exercise Order

To understand how to optimise your workout you first need to understand the variables, what they are and how to use them.

What Are Reps?

A rep is a single repetition of an exercise, whilst reps are multiple repetitions of a given exercise. They describe the amount of work you will do for any given exercise in your workout.

For example, you might do 8 reps of flat bench barbell press in your chest workout. This means you would perform a single movement of the bench press 8 times without resting.

Flat Bench Barbell Press

8 continuous repetitions

Repetitions usually come in amounts between 4 – 15 reps for the recreational lifter.

What Are Sets?

A set is a single group of repetitions, whilst sets are multiple groups of repetitions. Along with reps, sets describe the amount of work you will perform for any given exercise when working out.

For example, using the above example, you might do 3 sets of 8 reps of flat bench barbell press 3 times for a total of 24 reps, split into 3 groups of 8.

Flat Bench Barbell Press

1st set of 8 repetitions

2nd set of 8 repetitions

3rd set of 8 repetitions

Set groupings usually consist of between 2 – 4 sets for the recreational lifter.

What Is Rest Time?

Rest time is the amount of time you have between each set to recover and can also be used to describe the amount of time you have to rest when transitioning between exercises.

Rest time is important as it allows you to recover so that you can perform your next set without a diminished work capacity (above and beyond what is to be expected from the accumulation of fatigue from training).

Using the same example as above you may rest 2 minutes between each set of 8 reps on flat bench barbell press.

Flat Bench Barbell Press

1st set of 8 repetitions

Rest 2 minutes

2nd set of 8 repetitions

Rest 2 minutes

3rd set of 8 repetitions

Rest 2 minutes

Rest time usually consists of between 30 seconds and 3 minutes for the recreational lifter.

What Is Exercise Order?

Exercise order is the order in which you perform your exercises.

For example, exercise order can be used to describe whether you’re doing your big compound movements before your smaller isolation movements, your upper body exercises before your lower body exercises or your chest exercises before your back exercises.

Using the example above with the addition of chest flyes your exercise order may look something like this,

Flat Bench Barbell Press

3 sets of 8 reps

2 minutes of rest between sets and between exercises

Dumbbell Chest Flyes

3 sets of 12 reps

1 minute rest between sets

Exercise order usually has you doing your big compound movements before the smaller isolation movements for the recreational lifter.

The Details: Reps, Sets, Rest Time & Exercise Order

Now that you’ve got a handle on each of the variables let’s look at the details of each

How Many Reps Should You Do?

Finding definitive data on optimal reps and sets can be difficult but a research study exploring data on training frequency, volume and intensity found that an overall volume of 30 – 60 reps per body part per session appears to show the best results in trainees, with the best results seen around 60 reps.

I have found this to be true with myself and numerous clients over the years.

This same study also showed that the biggest improvement in the cross-sectional area of muscle came from training with 70 – 80% of your 1RM, showing that if you focus on getting stronger you will naturally build muscle as a result.

Based on the results of this study you can draw up some general guidelines for the number of repetitions to perform;

  • When using compound movements aim for 4 – 10 reps per set on average
  • When using isolation movements aim for 8 – 15 reps per set on average

As you’ll see when we discuss how to optimise your workout, these guidelines will not only allow you to maintain optimal intensity (particularly for compound movements) but it will also allow you to hit your rep goal without needing to perform a huge number of sets and unnecessarily increasing the total duration of your workout.

How Many Sets Should You Do?

Based on the above research we can build some general guidelines based a rep goal of 30 – 60 reps per body part per session;

Keep in mind when calculating reps for isolation exercises that you’ll often also be getting direct rep work from your compound exercises which counts towards your total reps.

For example;

  • The biceps are worked when you perform pulling or rowing movements
  • The triceps are worked when you perform pressing movements and dips

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work the smaller muscles, it just means that they don’t need as much direct work as people often give them.

How Long Should You Rest For?

The amount you rest between your sets and different exercises will vary depending on your goals, but a good rule of thumb is to rest longer (up to 3 – 5 minutes) between heavier sets, with lower reps particularly when using compound movements.

This boosts performance by allowing sufficient recovery between sets.

As you move to training smaller muscles, using isolation exercises with higher reps and less weight you will reduce the amount of time you rest between sets as your recovery needs will also reduce (1 – 2 mins).

How Should You Structure Your Workout?

As a rule, you should always train the bigger muscle first when you’re at your freshest. This means doing your compound movements before your isolation movements.

If you fatigue the smaller muscles first it will negatively impact your performance when training the bigger muscles.

For example, if you fatigue your triceps or shoulders before training the chest you’ll quickly discover you cannot bench anywhere near as much as normal.

This is why you always want to prioritise compound movements over isolation movements and the smaller muscle groups;

  • Chest before shoulders and triceps
  • Shoulders before triceps
  • Legs as a whole before individually doing glutes, hams or quads
  • Back before biceps

If you’re doing a combination of free weight, body weight, and resistance machines, then you want to give priority to the free weight and body weight exercises before switching to machine weights.

This is because free / body weight exercises require more stabilisation and therefore more overall work to perform in comparison to resistance machines.

The Exception To The Rule

If you’re training multiple big muscle groups using a few different compound movements then you want to prioritise the body parts that you want to focus on.

For example, if you can choose between training squats or bench press first, you would choose the body part you want to focus on the most as although they train completely different body parts, your performance will gradually decline as you fatigue, particularly if you’re training with heavy loads.

How To Optimise Your Workout

Now it’s time to look at your own workout and figure out how and where you can optimise your training to improve your workout.

This means reviewing the number of sets and reps you’re doing, recalculating your rest time and possibly re-ordering your workout.

Optimising Your Reps & Sets

We know that in order to get the most bang for your buck you need to be hitting 30 – 60 reps per body part per workout.

The key is to hit this target number, any less and you won’t be getting enough volume to maximise your results and too much more will see you spend hours in the gym and ultimately fall out of love with your workout due to the inability to sustain it.

Remember, at the end of the day we want to build something sustainable that works with your lifestyle, not something short-term that works against it.

The following formats are your blueprint for optimising your workout and getting optimal results with all factors considered i.e.; time in the gym, workout effectiveness, ability to apply progressive overload and enjoyment.

Example One

Compound Movement 1:

Deadlift – 3 x 4 – 6

Compound Movement 2:

Weighted Chin Ups – 3 x 6 – 8

Compound Movement 2:

Low Row – 3 x 8 – 10

Isolation Exercise 1:

Barbell Bicep Curls – 3 x 12 – 15

Isolation Exercise 2:

Reverse Flyes – 3 x 12 – 15

This example gives you a total of 72 reps combined with your compound movements which put you a little higher than your goal rep amount, but accounting for the fact that you won’t always hit the upper end of your rep goal you’re more likely to be around 60-65 reps.


With the addition of 26 – 45 reps per body part per isolation exercise the smaller muscles also get ample direct and indirect work.

Example Two

Compound Movement 1:

Incline Bench Press – 3 x 4 – 6

Compound Movement 2:

Flat Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 x 6 – 8

Isolation Exercise 1:

Cable Fly or Pec Dec – 3 x 8 – 10

Isolation Exercise 2:

Tricep Cable Pulldowns – 3 x 12 – 15

With this example your total combined compound movement reps are 42, again accounting for the fact you won’t hit the top end of your rep goal your total reps will be closer to 35.

However, with the addition of 24 – 30 reps from your chest focused isolation exercise you’ll be back up at 60 – 70 total reps.


With the triceps focused isolation exercise the smaller muscles will also get ample direct and indirect work.

Pro Tips


A good rule of thumb is to try and incorporate a little of all rep ranges between 3 and 15 reps in your training to get the maximum benefit.

When performing compound movements, I’d advise you to keep reps to the lower end of the scale and focus on building strength through progressive overload and then with some of the smaller, more stubborn muscle you can incorporate some higher rep work with light to moderate weight.


However, this comes with a word of warning…

As a natural lifter, you need to be aware of your limits. Don’t aim to go to failure all the time, try and leave a rep or 2 in the tank. If you constantly push yourself to failure, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to recover and will stop seeing progress.

As the old saying goes, “stimulate don’t annihilate.”

Optimising Your Rest Time

If you don’t rest enough between sets, you’ll continually struggle to hit your rep goal which means that you’ll also struggle to add weight to the bar.

All this adds up to no progressive overload which means zero progress and maximum frustration for you.

However, you can optimise your rest time to increase your performance and build muscle faster by using the correct amount of rest time for your goal. This will allow you to hit each set with intensity and purpose instead of floundering under increasing fatigue.

Compound movements

1 – 8 reps = rest 3 minutes between sets

8 – 12 reps = rest 2 minutes between sets

12+ reps = rest 1 minutes between sets


Isolation movements

8 – 12 reps = rest 2 minutes between sets

12 – 15 reps = rest 1 minutes between sets

15+ reps = rest 30 seconds between sets

Pro Tip

These guidelines are not absolute, if you need more then 3 minutes then take up 5 minutes but make sure you note this change in your workout diary, so you can account for any anomalies in performance.

Additionally, if the weight it too light then you can reduce the rest time to manipulate the difficult without adding more weight.

Optimising Your Exercise Order

Finally, once you’ve set up your reps, sets and rest time you need to optimise your exercise order to get the most from your workout.

The most obvious adjustment to make is to ensure you perform your big compound movements before your isolation movements.

However, depending on the set up of your workout you may have a few more decisions to make.

For example, will you;

1. Prioritise compound movements over isolation movements split by body part

For example, if you’re training legs and shoulder in one session will you do all your leg exercises first followed by shoulders or the other way around?

Although you would have less time to rest between different leg exercises you would create a greater build-up of metabolic stress and muscle damage which is beneficial for building muscle.

2. Prioritise all compound movements over isolation movements regardless of body part

Using the example above instead of doing all of one body part first you could do your leg compound movements followed by your shoulder compound movements before moving to leg isolation movements and then shoulder isolation movements.

This would reduce fatigue by giving you more time to recover from performing the heavy compound movements before working the isolation movements, which could increase performance and allow you to apply progressive overload at a faster rate, which can increase muscle growth.

3. Prioritise particular compound movements over others depending on your priorities

Going back to the above example, you would choose to do either squats or shoulder press first when you’re freshest depending on your training priorities.

Training your preferred muscle group first when you’re completely unfatigued can lead to an increase in performance, strength and muscle growth.

Pro Tip

@@There is no wrong answer, it’s a question of your goals, preferred method of training, levels of fatigue and recovery.@@

Summing Up

There are a number of variables which can drastically change the quality of your workout, if you can master these factors you’ll find you can optimise your workout to build muscle faster, train smarter and unlock your full potential.

Following the advice in this post, you can optimise your workouts to start making more progress.