One of the most common areas of confusion among all exercisers has to do with how many sets per workout one should do for optimal muscle gains. So if you want to know what the research says about the ideal number of sets for maximum and fastest muscle growth then you need to read this article
On the one hand, we have the so-called “minimalists” who opt for lower training volume approaches with some saying that even one set (to exhaustion) in a workout is sufficient. While others favor higher volume training approaches with multiple sets that deplete every gram of glycogen within the muscle.
Who is right?
In this article, we will try to find the ideal approach using current scientific evidence to determine exactly how many sets per workout you should do to maximize your muscle growth.
But first, let’s discuss exactly what we mean by the terms “sets and reps” to clear up any misunderstandings.
Also Read: 10 MOST COMMON MISTAKES IN THE GYM
What do we consider a “functional set”
So let’s say you go bench press. You start a warm-up with 50% of the weight you would normally lift for 10 reps. Then add a few more pounds for another 10 reps.
At this point you feel pretty confident and load the bar with what you think is your max weight, managing to do 8 reps. Then you rest a few minutes and repeat the movement, but this time with only 7 repetitions. In this example, you have performed 2 functional sets.
So, to be clear, whenever we talk about a “set” in this article, we mean a functional set performed in the 6-12 rep range at your maximum weight (if you want to build muscle, this is the rep range you will concern you more). Preheating sets are not taken into account.
After clarifying the above let’s find out how many sets per workout are optimal.
More Sets = More Muscle Growth?
So we know based on recent research that to some degree, more training volume leads to more growth. For example, a 2010 meta-analysis by James Krieger found that as we increase the number of sets per exercise, we also increase our rate of muscle growth. Comparing 4-6 sets to just 1 set saw 80-85% more growth!
And in further support of this positive relationship between training volume and hypertrophy comes an even more recent 2017 meta-analysis. In this particular one, they found a clear response between sets per muscle per week and muscle growth.
So based on that alone, we would assume that the higher the training volume the better for the muscle gains we want to have…
Now, many reading this will assume that doing 20 sets for all exercises in their workouts, or doing as many total sets per workout as possible, is the key to muscle hypertrophy.
But upon further analysis, we realize that this is not the case – and in fact, this may even be harmful.
The “ceiling” for sets per workout
More is not necessarily better. That’s because there actually seems to be an upper limit to how many sets per muscle group you can do in a single workout before it starts doing more harm than good.
And for an estimate of that number, researcher James Krieger took a closer look at the previous meta-analysis we reported and found that the limit is around 10 sets per muscle group per week.
So, for example, on chest day, doing more than 10 strong sets will likely start to provide reduced performance and start to affect the recovery rate of the muscles. These are known as “junk sets”.
Now of course this:
- It varies from person to person
- It depends on the nature of the exercises you perform
- The limit is probably higher for more advanced practitioners
However, it is still a good rough estimate that is consistent with previous research on the topic.
But what exactly does this mean for you and how should you structure your training? This simply means that you should use the correct training frequency and space out your sets accordingly.
How to avoid excessive sets per workout
A well-planned exercise program will allow you to avoid doing too many sets for a muscle group in a workout, in order to minimize any excessive volume of “useless sets”.
So we know based on the 2017 meta-analysis mentioned earlier that around 10-20 sets per muscle per week is the ideal number to maximize muscle growth. With beginners being close to 10 and more experienced practitioners being at the higher end of that range.
Now let’s say you are a fairly experienced exerciser who requires 16 sets per muscle per week. Using chest as an example, instead of adopting a classic bro-split and hitting all 16 sets in a single day, it would be much more ideal to split the required volume of sets into 2 days per week and possibly “pair” it with 1-2 other muscle groups.
For example, by adopting an upper/lower split you will be able to:
- Perform these total of 16 sets with better “quality”
- Stay under the estimated limit of 10 sets per muscle per session
- Train each muscle at optimal frequency 2x/a week.
All of the above lead to faster and optimal muscle gains and more efficient recovery.
A study by Brigatto and colleagues looked at just the above example. The researchers compared training each muscle group once a week with 16 sets per session to training twice a week with 8 sets per session.
After only 8 weeks, they found that the 8 sets per session group experienced greater muscle growth. The exercisers also felt a significant improvement in the quality of their workouts compared to the 16 sets per session group.
Also read: MUSCLE GAIN AND STRENGTH WORKOUT PLAN
And the researchers speculate that these findings likely would have diverged even more if they were conducted over more weeks.
This is just further evidence to suggest that avoiding excessive volume for a muscle group in one session is likely the optimal approach for muscle hypertrophy in the long term.
- First, determine the total sets per week you want to do for each muscle.
- Then “break” these sets into 2 workouts.
- Each workout can consist of a total of 15-25 sets (depending on the level of difficulty of the exercises), but make sure that the number of sets for a particular muscle group does not exceed 10.
- Adjust based on how your body responds!
And finally, always remember that these surveys (basically all surveys) are talking about averages. Some people respond better to higher training volumes, while some people respond better to fewer sets per workout.
This means you should take the guidelines we’ve outlined in this article as a starting point and then adjust them over time based on your body’s rate of response.