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How Many Sets Per Workout Should You Do To Build Muscle?

by Jeremy Ethier - May 17, 2019

If you want to learn what research says is the optimal number of sets and reps to build muscle as quickly as possible, then you need to read this article. 

One of the most common areas of confusion among lifters is figuring out exactly how many sets one should do in a workout.
how many sets and reps
On the one hand, you have minimalists who opt for lower volume approaches. With some saying that even just one set taken to failure in a workout is sufficient.

Whereas others are in favour of higher volume approaches and working each muscle to the point of exhaustion each workout.

Who’s right?

Well, in this article we’ll figure out just that by using current scientific evidence to determine exactly how many sets per workout you should be doing to maximize growth.

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What Are "Sets and Reps"

So let's say you were doing the bench press. You lift the weight off the rack and manage to lift it 8 times, and then re-rack it. You then wait for a couple minutes and then repeat it again but this time are able to lift it only 7 times. In this example, you would have performed 2 sets. And in the first set, you performed 8 reps whereas the second set you performed only 7 reps.

And just to be clear, whenever a "set" is discussed in this article it will refer to a set performed within the 6-12 rep range. This is simply because it's in line with the research I’ll be going through. And if you're seeking to build muscle, this is the rep range that you'll be most concerned with. If you do less reps than this, you will need more sets whereas if you do more reps you will need less sets. Also, each set assumes that you're taking it close to failure with high effort. A warm up set doesn’t count.

With that being said, let’s find out how many workout sets is optimal.

 More Workout Sets = More Growth?

So we know based on recent research that to a certain extent, more volume leads to more growth.

For instance, a 2010 meta-analysis by James Krieger found that as you increased the number of sets performed per exercise, muscle growth increased as well.

In fact, comparing 4-6 sets to a single set, you’d experience around 80-85% more growth:
how many sets to build muscle
...and in further support of this positive relationship between training volume and hypertrophy is a more recent 2017 meta-analysis. They found a clear dose response between sets per muscle per week and muscle growth:
sets and reps to build muscle
So based on this alone we’d think that the more volume the better. In fact, many would now assume that performing 5 sets for all the exercises in our workouts or just doing as much as possible would be optimal for growth.

But, upon further analysis we realize that this isn’t the case - and in fact doing so can even be detrimental.

The "Upper Limit" For Sets Per Workout

More is not necessarily better.

This is because there actually seems to be an upper limit of sets per muscle group that you can do in a single workout before it starts to do more harm than good.
sets threshold per workout
And as for an estimate as to what this number is, researcher James Krieger provides some insight.

He took a deeper look into the previous meta-analysis I mentioned and found that limit to be roughly 10 sets per muscle group.

So for example, on your chest day, performing over 10 hard sets dedicated to your chest will likely just begin to provide diminishing returns and start to impair your recovery. This is something widely known as “junk volume”.
junk volume
Now of course this will:

  • Vary individually
  • Depends on the nature of the exercises you perform
  • The limit is likely higher for more trained individuals

...nonetheless it still is a good rough estimate that’s inline with past research on the topic.

So what exactly does this mean for you and how you should structure your training?

Well it just means that you need to use the right muscle training frequency and spread out your sets accordingly.

By the way, if you’re someone who enjoys learning about the ‘whys’ of training programming, you’re absolutely going to fall in love with our 2-on-1 coaching program. My team of experts here at BWS – and I – will always take the time to explain the rationale why you're training the way you are in your personalized program. Find out more about how we can help you achieve your dream physique below:

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How To Avoid Excessive Sets Per Workout

A well set-up training program will enable you to avoid doing too many sets for a muscle group in one workout in order to minimize any excess junk volume.

To clear up any confusion, let’s use a step-by-step example that you can follow.

Step-By-Step Example:

So we know based on the 2017 meta-analysis mentioned earlier that roughly 10-20 sets per muscle per week is the sweet spot for maximizing growth. With beginners being at the lower end of this range and more experienced lifters being at the higher end of this range.

Now let’s say you’re a fairly experienced lifter requiring 16 sets per muscle per week, using chest as an example.
Rather than using a bro-split and hammering all of the 16 sets in one chest workout:
It would instead be best to split the required number of chest sets into at least 2 days per week to be trained with other muscle groups:

...by for example using something like an upper/lower split:
upper lower split
This way you'll be able to:

  • Perform those 16 sets with better quality since you'll be more "fresh" when performing them
  • Remain under the estimated 10 set per-session threshold
  • Train each muscle at the optimal frequency of 2x/week.

All leading to better gains and more efficient recovery in the long run.

More Evidence

In fact, a study by Brigatto and colleagues tested the exact above example.

The researchers compared training each muscle group once a week with 16 sets per session, or twice a week with 8 sets per session.

After 8 weeks, they found that the 8 sets per session group experienced similar but slightly greater muscle growth.

They also experienced a greater improvement in training load volume when compared to the 16 sets per session group.

And the researchers speculate that these findings would likely reach greater significance if the study was done longer.

Which is just further evidence suggesting that refraining from doing too much volume for a muscle group in a single session is likely best for hypertrophy in the long run.

The Takeway For How Many Sets You Should Do

To sum the article up, here are the main points to keep in mind:
how many sets should i do
And that’s basically all there is to it. First figure out what you want to set your weekly target sets per muscle to be.

And then work backwards to split that up most effectively throughout the week. Each workout can consist of a total of around 15-25 sets, but the number of sets for a specific muscle group in that workout should be at around 10 or below.

Adjust Based On How Your Body Responds!

And lastly, just always keep in mind that research tells us about averages. Some people respond better to higher training volumes whereas some people respond better to lower training volumes.

Meaning that you’ll want to use the guidelines shown in in this video as a rough starting point... but you should then be adjusting it over time based on how your body progresses.

And for all-in-one science-based program that shows you exactly how to do this by optimizing every aspect of your training and nutrition for you... such that you can build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible, simply take the body type analysis quiz below to determine what approach is best for your starting point:

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That's it for this one – hope you enjoyed it and found it useful! Don’t forget to give me a follow and connect with me on InstagramFacebook, and Youtube as well to keep updated with my content. Cheers!

How Many Sets Per Workout Should You Do To Build Muscle?