“How many sets should I do to build muscle?”
That’s a question that baffles beginners and experienced weightlifters alike.
With so much conflicting information about how many sets it takes to build muscle, it’s understandable that people feel muddleheaded.
Should do just a handful of “quality” sets, like a powerlifter?
Or should you follow the traditional bodybuilding road and do as many sets as you can until your joints ache and your muscles are pumped, swollen, and sore?
Or should you shoot for a happy middle ground?
Learn the answer in this article.
Table of Contents
A set is a number of repetitions (reps) of an exercise performed back-to-back without rest.
For example, if a workout calls for 3 sets of 10 reps of bench press, you’d unrack the bar, do 10 reps (1 set), re-rack the bar, rest a few minutes, and then continue like this until you finish all 3 sets.
A set can contain any number of reps. For the purposes of this article, when we talk about how many sets per body part per week you should do to build muscle, we’re referring to sets that contain about 4-to-15 reps and that are taken to within about 1-to-4 reps of failure.
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When it comes to how many sets per week for hypertrophy, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer—it depends on your experience and goals.
Most research shows that, up to a point, the more sets you do per week, the more muscle you build. It also shows that it’s possible to build muscle doing 5-to-9 sets per major muscle group per week (or perhaps even fewer), but that you can get almost double the progress by doing at least 10 weekly sets per major muscle group.
Thus, doing 10 weekly sets per major muscle group is probably a good “minimum effective dose” for people looking to build muscle.
The maximum number of sets you should do to optimize muscle growth is more difficult to pinpoint.
Some research shows that for all intents and purposes, the more sets you do for a muscle, the more it grows (up to at least 45 weekly sets, which is as far as researchers have pushed the envelope to date).
Other studies have failed to replicate these results, though, which suggests there’s more we need to learn before we can say definitively that weekly sets and muscle growth have a perfect “dose-response relationship.”
Other shrewd skeptics, including Lyle McDonald, have also pointed out numerous methodological flaws in these studies and believe the body of evidence shows that the sweet spot for muscle-building is about 10-to-20 sets per muscle group per week.
This is because you reach a point of diminishing returns past which doing additional sets causes no additional muscle or strength gain and may even cause you to backslide by interfering with your recovery and making you so fatigued that you can no longer progress in your workouts.
For instance, in a study conducted by scientists at California State University, researchers found that people doing 18 sets per week for their biceps gained more muscle than those doing 9 or 27 sets per week.
Likewise, a study conducted by scientists at Southern Cross University showed that participants who did 14 weekly sets of triceps training experienced almost twice as much triceps growth as participants who did 7 weekly sets. However, those who did 28 weekly sets experienced no more growth than those who did 14 weekly sets.
It’s worth noting that this 10-to-20-target is a guideline, not holy writ, and how many sets you should do to make progress also depends on how long you’ve been lifting weights.
People with no weightlifting experience can make progress on even fewer sets than this, people who’ve been following a proper strength training program for 2 years or less will probably get by just fine with the lower end of this range (10-to-15 sets), and people who’ve been training for 2 or more years will probably make better progress using the upper end of this range (15-to-20 sets).
The reason for this is that as you approach your genetic ceiling for muscle growth, your muscles become more “resistant” to the muscle-building effects of strength training, and you may have to do more volume (sets) to continue making progress.
I also only recommend doing the upper end of this range for one or two muscle groups at a time for a few months at a clip before backing off and giving yourself time to recover and recharge.
In other words, even for advanced weightlifters, 10-to-15 sets per muscle group per week is a good baseline, but it can be productive to periodically bump this up for the muscle groups you want to develop most.
For example, you could do 10 sets per week for your legs and calves, 15 sets for your back, shoulders, and chest, and then 20 sets for your arms (if bringing up your biceps and triceps is a priority).
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We now know that when it comes to building muscle, doing 10-to-20 weekly sets per major muscle group is likely optimal for most people. This doesn’t mean you should do 10-to-20 sets for a single muscle group in a single workout, though.
An unpublished meta-analysis conducted by researcher James Krieger shows that there’s an upper limit of sets that you can do per muscle group in a single workout before it starts to do more harm than good. Here’s a graph based on his research that demonstrates this:
As you can see, there’s a clear benefit in doing around six sets per muscle group per workout. Once you go beyond 6 sets for a single muscle group in a single workout, though, muscle gain plateaus, and if you go as far as 14 sets, you may even begin to hinder muscle growth.
That said, there’s a lot of variance in Krieger’s data, which means it’s sensible to use it as a rough guide rather than take it as read. If we put it alongside other studies, it’s reasonable to estimate that most people can do 6-to-10 sets per major muscle group per workout before they reach a point of diminishing returns.
Of course, this also makes logical sense—you can only subject yourself to so much punishment in a single workout before your body needs a break.
There are no hard and fast rules about how to best divvy up your sets over the course of a week, but here are some good rules of thumb.
If you’ve been training for less than two years, you can effectively build muscle doing 10-to-15 weekly sets per major muscle group. A good way to split these is to do nine sets for a muscle group in one workout and three-to-six sets for the same muscle group in a separate workout later in the week.
For example, in Mike’s Bigger Leaner Stronger program, you do 3 sets of barbell bench press, incline barbell bench press, and dumbbell bench press for a total of 9 sets of chest training on day one of the program, and an additional 3 sets of close-grip bench press on day 5 of the program for a total of 12 weekly sets.
If you’ve been training consistently for more than two years, you’ll probably gain muscle and strength faster by doing 15-to-20 weekly sets per major muscle group per week.
There are many ways you can split weekly volume when you’re doing upward of 15 weekly sets per major muscle group, but one effective way is to do 8-to-10 sets for a muscle group in one workout and 7-to-10 sets for the same muscle group in a separate workout later in the week.
For example, in Mike’s Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger program, you do 4 sets of barbell bench press and close-grip bench press for a total of 8 sets of chest training on day one of the program, and an additional 3 sets of incline barbell bench press and barbell bench press on day five of the program, for a total of 16 weekly sets.
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To maximize muscle growth, most people should do 10-to-20 sets per major muscle group per week.
If you’ve been following a proper strength training program for 2 years or less, you’ll probably get by just fine with the lower end of this range (10-to-15 sets), and if you’ve been training for 2 or more years, you’ll probably make better progress using the upper end of this range (15-to-20 sets).
It depends on how your program is organized.
If you’d like to learn more about how the best strength training programs are structured, check out this article:
Based on the available evidence, it’s reasonable to estimate that most people can do 6-to-10 sets per major muscle group per workout before they reach a point of diminishing returns.
That said, this number is based on inconclusive data, so you may need to do some personal experimentation to find out what works best for you.
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