In this article, you’re going to learn exactly how many sets you should do in your workouts to build muscle, according to science.
Some claim that you should do as many sets in each workout as possible until you butt up against signs of overtraining like fatigue, joint pain, and a lack of progress, and then dial back your training to stay just below this ceiling.
Others believe that the key to safely and healthily getting bigger and stronger is to follow a minimalist approach and do as few sets as possible (sometimes even just one per week).
The right answer? Somewhere in the middle.
You want to do enough sets to make progress, but not as many as possible and definitely not so many that you begin to dread the gym or can’t add weight consistently.
What is this magic number of sets, then?
Read on to find out.
A repetition (or “rep”) is a single raising and lowering of a weight through a full range of motion.
For example, if you’re doing barbell squats and you sit down into the bottom position of the squat and then stand up, you’ve done one rep.
A set is a number of repetitions 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.
How many sets you should do in your workouts depends on your goals, but since you’re reading this, it’s fair to assume you probably want to gain muscle and strength.
And if that’s your goal, you first need to take a step back and ask yourself, “why am I lifting weights in the first place?” In other words, what about weightlifting makes your muscles grow?
In a word, tension.
Exposing your muscles to greater and greater levels of mechanical tension over time is the single biggest driver of muscle gain. Do that, and your muscles won’t have any choice but to grow bigger and stronger.
This is referred to as progressive tension overload, and the best way to achieve it is to lift heavier weights over time for a particular exercise in a particular rep range. For example, if your best bench press was 185 for 5 reps last summer, and you now bench press 235 for 5 reps, your chest, arms, and shoulders have grown bigger.
Now, while lifting heavy is necessary to build muscle, it’s not sufficient on its own. That is, you won’t make much progress if you just push, pull, and squat as much weight as you can for a single repetition a few times per week.
A good example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Mississippi, which found that young, untrained men who did 5 sets of 1 rep with as much weight as possible twice per week gained almost no muscle after 8 weeks.
The reason for this is that you also need to expose your muscles to a sufficient volume of tension to trigger muscle growth. You need to strike the right balance between intensity (the degree of tension in each set) and volume (the number of sets for each muscle group each week).
And assuming you’re continually adding weight to your exercises, the more sets you do, the more muscle and strength you’ll gain—up to a point.
A good example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, which found that weightlifters who did 5 sets of each exercise in each workout gained more muscle and strength than people who did 3 sets or 1 set per exercise per workout.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sports Science also found a linear relationship between the number of sets people did per week per muscle group and how much muscle they gained. The more sets they did, the bigger they got.
So, the meatheads were right?
“Bombing” and “blasting” your muscles with as many sets as possible is the best way to get bigger and stronger?
You can reach a point of diminishing returns past which doing additional sets causes no additional muscle or strength gain or even causes you to backslide. Instead of goosing muscle growth, each additional set eats into your recovery abilities and interferes with your ability to get bigger and stronger (largely by making you so fatigued that you can no longer add weight to your exercises).
For instance, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney had one group of weightlifters do 10 sets of 10 reps for each exercise in their workouts (known as German Volume Training), and another group do 5 sets of 10 reps.
Despite doing twice as many sets, the group doing 10 sets gained the same amount of muscle as the group doing 5 sets. What’s more, the weightlifters who did 5 sets per exercise gained more strength.
More evidence for this comes from a study conducted by scientists at California State University, which found that people doing 18 sets per week for their biceps gained more muscle and strength than people doing either 9 or 27 sets per week.
And finally, a study conducted by scientists at the Spanish Olympic Committee found similar results—a moderate training volume produced greater strength gains than very low or very high training volumes.
So, what’s the golden mean when it comes to how many sets you should do to build muscle and gain strength?
Research shows that a good rule of thumb is to do 10-to-20 sets per muscle group per week, ideally splitting up those sets into at least 2 or 3 workouts per week. An older review study also found that muscle growth tended to peak when people did 40-to-70 repetitions per workout (which works out to about the same number of sets identified in the first study).
For example, you could do 3 sets of bench press and 3 sets of dumbbell bench press on Monday and 3 sets of bench press and 3 sets of chest press machine on Thursday, which would give you 12 sets for your chest that week.
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.
Many people aiming to lose weight decide to bump up the number of sets they do in their weightlifting workouts. By their lights, the calculus is simple: do more sets, burn more calories, lose weight faster.
While this is sort of true—assuming you keep eating the same amount, doing more sets will burn more calories and thus help you lose weight faster—there are three reasons it’s unwise to try to lose weight by doing more sets:
- Weightlifting doesn’t burn that many calories. In most cases, a weightlifting workout that lasts around 45-to-60 minutes will burn about ~300-to-400 calories. Thus, if you add a few sets to your weightlifting workouts, you may only burn an extra 50-to-100 calories (and that’s assuming those are heavy sets of compound exercises like deadlifts—the numbers would be much smaller for isolation exercises like curls).
- Increasing the number of sets you do in your strength training workouts is a recipe for burnout, stagnation, and injury. Instead, you should gradually ratchet up the number of sets you do per week, adding a handful of sets to a few exercises and sticking with that for several months before adding any more.
- As explained earlier in this article, doing too many sets interferes with your ability to gain muscle and strength, and this effect is magnified when you’re in a calorie deficit. By doing too many sets, you may interfere with your ability to gain muscle and strength.
In the final analysis, you shouldn’t look at weightlifting as a means to lose weight. Instead, look at it as a way to improve your body composition by gaining or maintaining muscle while losing fat. And the best way to maintain a calorie deficit is to learn how to diet properly and do a moderate amount of cardio to burn some extra calories.
Since the goal of weightlifting while cutting is the same as it is when maintaining or bulking, you should do the same number of sets—10-to-20 per muscle group per week to start, and then adjust based on how your body responds. Most people find that they need to dial back their training volume slightly as they get deeper into a cut, but if you feel fine, you don’t have to.
+ Scientific References
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