How Many Sets Is Best?

Last updated 5/2/2018

How many sets do you need to do for each muscle group (or exercise) in order to build
strength and muscle? 

In the video below I argued that no one really needs to do more than one set per exercise or muscle group to produce gains in strength and muscle mass.


Since I made that video I have become aware of evidence that indicates that many – probably most – people will benefit from performing a larger volume of training, in the range of 6-9 sets per muscle group per week, which translates to 3-5 sets per muscle group per session, depending on whether you perform 2 or 3 sessions weekly for the muscle group. 

Some of this research shows that a large segment of people – especially older individuals – are due to genetics or aging more or less resistant to the resistance training stimulus and require more than one set per muscle group to progress.  Other research has revealed that larger set volumes produce more post-training protein synthesis, and that performing 6-10 hard sets weekly per muscle group results in greater gains in strength and muscle mass than less than 5 sets per muscle group each week.

While some people can build some strength and muscle mass doing less than 5 work sets per muscle group per week, most people will build more strength and muscle and get greater improvements in health by performing larger volumes of resistance training, in the range of 6-9 hard sets weekly.


The Genetic Factor

Colakoglu et al investigated the effect of genotype on response to single vs. multiple set training [1].  Humans have a gene coding for the angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE). The 'D' (deletion) variant of the ACE gene produces a higher ACE expression than the 'I' variant, and ACE plays a role in muscle hypertrophy in response to loading.  The D-allele has been associated with greater sprint capacity and higher fast twitch muscle fiber ratios, while the I-allele is overrepresented amongst endurance athletes and associated with muscular endurance, running economy, adaptation to hypoxia, and higher slow-twitch fiber ratios.

Colakoglu et al. found that people with the DD genotype – constituting about 40% of the population – respond better than either DI or II genotypes to resistance training of any type, and also respond just as well whether using a single-set or a multi-set resitance training program.  In contrast, people with the DI or II genotypes – making the majority (60%) of people – respond relatively poorly to single set programs and much better to programs including multiple sets.  Also, DI and II genotypes appeared to benefit more from using loads allowing 12-15 repetitions rather than only 8-12 repetitions.

How many sets for maximizing protein synthesis?

Accumulating research indicates that performing multiple sets of exercise for a muscle group in each training session will result in greater post-training protein synthesis and subsequent gains in strength and mass [2, 3].  This suggests that, for any given muscle group, 3 sets of exercise is more anabolic than 1 set and may over time lead to greater muscle hypertrophy. 

Kumar et al found no difference in muscle protein synthesis activity following either 3 or 6 sets of resistance exercise [4].  This suggests that it may be unnecessary to perform more than 3 sets of exercises for any one muscle group in any single training session.

How many sets for hypertrophy?

Schoenfeld et al reviewed and analyzed the results of 15 different studies including 34 treatment groups investigating how many sets of resistance training produces the greatest changes in muscle mass [5].  They found a graded dose-response effect, such that each additional set performed produces an increased gain of 0.37%.  Programs including less than 5 weekly sets per muscle group produced gains of 5.4%; 5-9 sets, 6.6%; and 10+ sets, 9.8%.  Less than 9 sets weekly produced average percentage gains of 5.9% while more than 9 weekly sets produced gains of 8.0%. 

Schoenfeld summarizes the results of this review on his own website.

Obviously, you can gain muscle mass using less than 5 weekly sets per muscle group, but you can gain more by doing more. 

How many sets for strength?

Ralston et al. reviewed and analyzed nine studies including 61 treatment groups.  They divided weekly set volume into low (<5 sets), medium (5-9 sets), and high (10+ sets).  They found a graded dose-response relationship between weekly set volume and strength gains.  Interventions with low weekly set volume produced the smallest pre- to post-training strength difference.  Novices and intermediate trainees obtained greater strength improvements with medium and high weekly set volumes. Advanced trainees were found to require medium or high weekly set volumes to produce strength gains.

These results likely reflect the fact that as Colakoglu et al found, most trainees are genetically better suited to respond better to higher volume training, and also that a trained individual is more resistant to the stimulus than a novice.  This is due to the principle of adaptation.  That is, the body adapts to stimuli it regularly encounters.  To overcome this adaptation, one must apply a greater stimulus.

How many sets for older adults?

Borde et al. reviewed 25 studies of the effects of resistance training on older people with a mean age of 65 or older, to find out how many sets produces the best strength gains [7].  They found that for both strength and muscle hypertrophy, the most effective volume was two to three sets per exercise, performed twice weekly for strength and thrice weekly for hypertrophy. 

How many sets for health benefits?

Figueiredo et al. investigated the scientific literature to find out how many sets of weekly resistance exercise produces the best general health outcomes [8].  They found that resistance training has a dose-dependent effect on health outcomes, and no evidence for an upper limit of set volume that produces negative effects. 

For example, one study demonstrated that 11 weeks of 3 sets of 8 different exercises thrice weekly – a total of 72 sets weekly – was significantly superior to a single set of the same exercises – 24 weekly sets – for reducing resting fat oxidation and triglyceride concentrations.  Higher training volume has also been shown superior to low training volume for decreasing blood pressure and improving blood sugar control.  One study found that for every 60 minutes of weekly resistance training, there was a 13% reduction in type 2 diabetes risk.

Moreover, older people with higher risks of chronic disease tend to exhibit anabolic resistance and reduced response to training stimulus, so it is likely they require a higher volume of exercise to obtain the health benefits produced by resistance training.

How many sets to warm up?

How many sets do you need to do warm up for each exercise you perform?  Unless you are doing very high load low repetition training, none.  Research has failed to find any benefit to performing specific warm up sets for sub-maximal resistance training (6-20 reps per set).  In fact, depending on how many sets you do for a specific warm up, you could actually reduce your performance on your work sets, which would result in less stimulus for improvement in strength and muscle mass.


Summary

Generally, research suggests that you should perform at least 6 and preferably 9 or more weekly sets per muscle group to get the most out of resistance training.  Read my page on Strength Training Guidelines to learn how to design a routine to get the most benefit from multiple sets per muscle group per session by using multiple exercises, or by using the Oxford method of loading if you use only one exercise per muscle group.

Notes

1.  Colakoglu M, Cam FS, Kayitken B, et al.  ACE Genotype May have an Effect on Single versus Multiple Set Preferences in Strength Training. Eur J Appl Physiol 2005;95:20-27.

2.  Burd, Nicholas A et al. “Resistance Exercise Volume Affects Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis and Anabolic Signalling Molecule Phosphorylation in Young Men.” The Journal of Physiology 588.Pt 16 (2010): 3119–3130. PMC. Web. 2 June 2017.

3. Mitchell, Cameron J. et al. “Resistance Exercise Load Does Not Determine Training-Mediated Hypertrophic Gains in Young Men.” Journal of Applied Physiology 113.1 (2012): 71–77. PMC. Web. 2 June 2017.

4. Kumar, Vinod et al. “Age-Related Differences in the Dose–response Relationship of Muscle Protein Synthesis to Resistance Exercise in Young and Old Men.” The Journal of Physiology 587.Pt 1 (2009): 211–217. PMC. Web. 2 June 2017.

5. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197. Epub 2016 Jul 19. Review. PubMed PMID: 27433992.

6. Ralston GW, Kilgore L, Wyatt FB, Baker JS. The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2017;47(12):2585-2601. doi:10.1007/s40279-017-0762-7.  <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5684266/>

7. Borde R, Hortobágyi T, Granacher U. Dose–Response Relationships of Resistance Training in Healthy Old Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2015;45(12):1693-1720. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0385-9.

8. Figueiredo VC, de Salles BF, Trajano GS. Volume for Muscle Hypertrophy and Health Outcomes: The Most Effective Variable in Resistance Training. Sports Med. 2018 Mar;48(3):499-505. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0793-0. PubMed PMID: 29022275.

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