If you want to know what science has to say about how many sets you should do in your workouts to build muscle, then you want to read this article.
- Researchers wanted to see how doing more or fewer sets per workout affected strength, endurance, and muscle growth.
- On the whole, the more sets people do in workouts, the more strength, endurance, and muscle they gain.
- If you want to maximize strength and muscle gain or break through a plateau, then you want to do more sets, not less.
How many sets should you do to build muscle?
On the one hand, minimalists say you should do as few sets as possible to keep making progress.
Long-term progress, they claim, is all about adding weight (intensity) not volume (sets).
“Work smarter, not harder,” is their credo.
On the other hand, the maximalist camp says you should do as many sets as you can without getting injured.
“No pain, no gain, brah,” is their motto.
That’s what researchers from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil wanted to find out in a study published in 2015.
Let’s look at what they did.
What Did the Researchers Do?
The researchers had 48 men without any prior weightlifting experience follow a strength training program for 6 months.
The men were randomly split into 4 groups:
- One group did 1 set per exercise.
- One group did 3 sets per exercise.
- One group did 5 sets per exercise.
- One group only did body weight exercises.
The reason the researchers included the body weight exercise group is they needed a control group to compare the others to. They figured that the body weight exercise group could serve as a good representation of what people can achieve with a moderate amount of resistance training.
The only difference between groups was how many sets were performed on each exercise.
The strength training program included compound exercises like the bench press, military press, and leg press, and some isolation exercises like the leg extension, leg curl, bicep curl, crunches, and tricep extensions.
Everyone also took every set to failure and the weight was increased on every exercise when they reached the top of their rep range, just like you do in the Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs.
The researchers took a variety of tests to measure everyone’s progress. They measured:
- How much weight people could lift for 5 reps (to measure muscle strength)
- How much weight people could lift for 20 reps (to measure muscle endurance)
- How high people could jump (to measure power)
- How much muscle and fat people were carrying (to measure body composition)
- How thick people’s muscles were in different places (to measure muscle growth)
The research team was extremely careful to record how they took all of the measurements, and remeasured every subject twice to ensure they had accurate results.
Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t record what or how much these guys were eating. Calorie and macronutrient intake can make a big difference in body composition and, as you’ll see, this probably did hurt everyone’s gains.
What did the researchers find?
What Were the Study Results?
The group that did 5 sets per exercise gained more strength, endurance, and muscle than the groups that did 1 or 3 sets per exercise or body weight exercises.
The main finding was that the more sets people did, the better their results on the whole.
Let’s go over the highlights first and then dig into the details. The main takeaways were:
- People who did 5 sets gained more muscle than everyone else.
- People who did 5 sets gained more strength on almost every exercise than everyone else.
- People who did 3 sets gained more muscle than people who did 1 set or body weight training only.
- People who did 3 sets gained more strength than people who did 1 set or body weight training only.
- People who did body weight training actually lost strength on the bench press and leg press (lol, bummer).
- Every group lost about the same amount of fat (which makes sense—none of them were following a structured diet).
- Every group gained the same amount of power (which also makes sense, since none of them were training for that specifically).
Now let’s dig into the details.
How Your Workout Volume Affects Muscle Growth
Technically, there wasn’t a statistically significant difference in muscle gain between any of the groups.
That said, there was a clear trend for more muscle gain in the groups that did more sets.
Here’s what the results looked like:
- 5 sets: 7.3 pounds of muscle gain
- 3 sets: 6.5 pounds of muscle gain
- 1 set: 1 pound of muscle gain
- Body weight exercise: 6.4 pounds of muscle gain
One thing to keep in mind is that none of these groups gained as much muscle as they probably should have. If you’re doing everything right, you can usually expect to gain at least 10 pounds or so of muscle in your first 6 months of training, and everyone in this study fell short of that goal.
So, why the lacklustre results?
It’s likely these people weren’t following an effective muscle-building diet.
Almost everyone (except the body weight group) lost around 10 pounds of body fat, so they were probably in a calorie deficit most of the time. That also means that none of them gained as much muscle as they should have if they were bulking properly.
High-volume training takes more calories to recover from, so it’s likely that the 5-set group would have also benefited the most from a diet that provided more calories.
In other words, although the differences don’t look significant, they probably would have been bigger if these people were eating right.
How Your Workout Volume Affects Strength Gains
There’s a common idea floating around that to get strong, you only need to focus on adding weight to the bar every workout.
As long as you’re getting a bare minimum of sets, say 1, 2, or 3 per workout, and focusing on progressive overload, you aren’t going to benefit by adding any more sets.
This study shows otherwise.
When it comes to strength gains, the people who did the most sets got the strongest on most of the exercises, too.
Here’s how each group’s 5-rep max changed on each exercise throughout the study:
Bench Press 5-Rep Max
Body weight: -6%
1 set: +12%
3 sets: +17%
5 sets: +11%
Leg Press 5-Rep Max
Body weight: -2%
1 set: +16%
3 sets: +15%
5 sets: +18%
Overhead Press 5-Rep Max
Body weight: +13%
1 set: +22%
3 sets: +24%
5 sets: +35%
Lat Pulldown 5-Rep Max
Body weight: +3%
1 set: +19%
3 sets: +12%
5 sets: +17%
Average 5-Rep Max
Body weight: +4%
1 Set: +17%
3 Set: +17%
5 Sets: +20%
As you can see, the differences aren’t huge, though there’s more to the story. Everyone in the 5-set group started out significantly stronger than the people in the 1- and 3-set groups, meaning they were probably closer to their genetic limit for strength gains.
Normally, your rate of strength gain slows down the stronger you get, yet in this study the strongest people still made faster progress when they did more sets.
Of course, you still have to get stronger to get bigger.
You can’t just do more sets with light weights and expect to make much progress. That said, doing more sets and consistently adding weight to your lifts gives you the best of both worlds.
How Your Workout Volume Affects Muscle Endurance
When it came to how much weight people could push for 20 reps, the 5-set group came out on top once again.
In this case, the researchers only measured bench press and leg press endurance (probably because doing 20-reps on every exercise would have been exhausting).
Here’s how each group’s 20-rep max changed on each exercise throughout the study:
Bench Press 20-Rep Max
Body weight: +5%
1 set: +5%
3 sets: +17%
5 sets: +24%
Leg Press 20-Rep Max
Body weight: +5%
1 set: +12%
3 sets: +7%
5 sets: +36%
Average 20-Rep Max
Body weight: +5%
1 Set: +9%
3 Set: +12%
5 Sets: +30%
As you can see, the group that did 5 sets improved their muscular endurance by 18% more than the group that only did 3 sets, and the group that did 3 sets generally got better results than the group that did 1 set.
In the final analysis, the 5-set group gained more muscle, endurance, and strength on almost every metric than the 3-set group. There were a few measurements that were similar, but when you look at everything together the people who did 5 sets clearly made better gains across the board.
As the researchers concluded, there was a “dose-response” relationship between how many sets people did and their results.
In other words, the more sets people did, the more strength, muscle, and endurance they gained.
What Does This Mean for You?
The bottom line, and what the researchers concluded, is more or less what you’d expect:
The more sets you do, the better your gains.
Does this mean you should do 5 sets for every exercise, all the time, under all circumstances, though?
Does this mean more sets is always better than less?
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. There’s a point of diminishing returns when you do more sets.
Doing more sets usually does result in more gains, but the increase in muscle growth, strength, and endurance isn’t proportional to the number of additional sets you do.
That is, past a certain threshold, you’re getting smaller and smaller returns for more and more effort.
If you’ve already achieved the bulk of your natural strength and muscle gains, and you’re chasing that last 5 to 10% improvement, then you’re going to need to increase your workout volume substantially to get the job done.
But if you’re just starting out or trying to break through a plateau?
Probably not worth it.
In that case, you’re better off focusing on intensity (weight) while doing enough volume (sets), which is in the range of 9 to 12 heavy sets per week for most people.
2. More sets can be counterproductive.
Not only is doing more sets less and less beneficial, in some cases it can start to become detrimental.
In another recent study from researchers at the University of Sydney, beginner lifters who used 5 sets for their compound exercises gained more strength and muscle than lifters who used 10 sets.
The 10-set group also spent significantly more time in the gym.
These people were complete beginners, and jumping into a program that involved 10 sets for every exercise pushed them into a state of overtraining.
3. Gradual increases in volume are better than sudden jumps.
You should increase volume, but only as much as you need to keep making progress.
This is the real takeaway from this study.
On the whole, it’s clear that the more sets you do, the more strength and muscle gains you’re going to make, on several conditions:
- You can keep adding weight to your exercises over time, too.
- You can effectively recover from your workouts.
- You’re adding volume because you plateaued, not because you want to see how much abuse your body can take.
You also don’t need to do 5 sets for all of your exercises to see benefits.
Instead, what you can do when you plateau is add 1 or 2 sets to whatever exercises have plateaued or that you want to improve most.
For example, if you’re following the Bigger Leaner Stronger strength training program, you could add 2 sets to your incline bench press and overhead press so that you’re doing 5 total sets for each every time you train.
The bottom line is that doing more sets is better for gaining strength, muscle, and endurance up to a point, and your best bet for long-term gains is to gradually build your workout volume over time.