How many sets should you do per muscle group and week for muscle growth and strength gains?
Next to how heavy and how many reps you do when you train, your training volume is one of the most important factors for your results.
In this post, we will take a closer look at how many sets you should do in your training. But first, here’s a summary of the recommendations.
Training Volume Recommendations:
- Up to 10 sets per muscle group and week, there seems to be a dose-response relationship, where more sets mean greater muscle growth and strength gains.
- Up to about 15–20 sets per muscle group and week can lead to even better results for a trained person with good recovery capabilities. However, there is an individual variation in volume tolerance.
- These figures apply provided that the set is taken close to or to failure. Sets stopped long before failure require less recovery, and thus enable you to train with higher volumes than those mentioned above.
That’s the short version of this article. For the longer version, and to figure out how many sets you should do per week, keep reading!
More Sets Per Muscle = Greater Gains?
The more you train, the better results you get – to an extent.
The strength and muscle gains from training volume are believed to follow the form of an inverted U-curve.1
Here’s what that means:
- In the beginning, you get a great return on every set you add. The biggest difference is when you go from zero sets to one set, but even two or three sets lead to ~40% greater gains in strength and muscle size than one set.
- After a while, an increase in training volume only leads to a small increase in results – and after a while, you reach the point where more training no longer leads to better results.
- After this point (the top of the curve), further training only leads to a deterioration of your results. You’re doing more training than your body can recover from.
Note, that the point for “optimal training volume” …
- Isn’t known. But we will shortly start looking at evidence in search for it.
- Is fleeting. It is constantly moving, from changes in factors like your training experience, sleep, stress, diet, and more that we will get into later.
With that said, let’s look at some broad recommendations.
How Many Sets Should You Do Per Muscle and Week?
Let’s start our search from the bottom up.
One set is better than no set. If you go from not training at all to doing at least one set per muscle group and workout, the trained muscle will start to grow and become stronger – even more so if you repeat the workout 2–3 times per week.
On this level, more is better, and if you advance to doing 2–3 sets per muscle group and workout, that will probably lend you roughly 40% greater muscle growth and strength gains compared to one set.2 3 4
A meta-analysis of 15 training studies found that more sets led to greater muscle growth, up to 10+ sets per week.5
Most participants in these studies were previously untrained, and in most studies, the sets were taken to failure (the point where you cannot do another rep).
So, on average, up to 10 sets (taken to failure) per muscle group and week, we still seem to be on the left, rising part of the inverted U-curve, even though we are talking about mostly untrained people.
But what happens if you train more?
And if you have lots of training experience?
How Many Sets Per Week Are Too Many?
When searching for the upper limit of training volume, there are no meta-analyses to lean on. Instead, we are left to look at individual studies that have examined the question. Of which there are not many.
Another problem is that the existing studies are quite different from each other, making it difficult to draw conclusions.
- One study showed that 16 sets of squats per week (divided into two workouts) led to greater strength gains for trained participants after six weeks of training, compared to doing 8 or 2 sets per week.6
- In another study, trained participants did 16, 24, or 32 sets per muscle group per week, divided into two weekly sessions, over an 8-week period. In this case, muscle growth was greater the more they trained. The increases in strength were also slightly larger, but the differences were not as large.7
And that’s about where the fun of high-volume training ends.
Several other studies have found no further benefit of high-volume training, or even a detrimental effect.
- One study had trained men to work their biceps with either 9 sets (in one session per week), 18 sets (divided into two sessions per week), or 27 sets (also divided into two sessions) per week. The sets were taken to failure, and the training lasted for six weeks. The researchers saw no significant differences at all in terms of muscle growth or strength gains. Looking closer, it seemed as if the group that did 9 sets x 2 sessions per week got slightly better muscle growth than the other two groups, but the difference was not statistically significant.8
- Another study examined the effect of trained women doing 5, 10, 15, or 20 sets to failure for one muscle during only one workout per week, and the training program lasted a full 24 weeks. Although there were no statistically significant differences in results after the 24 weeks, by examining the results in detail, one can see that both muscle growth and strength increases appear to be the largest at 5 and 10 sets per muscle, lower at 15 sets per muscle, and very small at 20 sets per muscle and workout. Again, not a statistically significant result, and it may be due to chance.9
- Yet another study hints at an overtraining effect: 5 sets x 10 reps per exercise and session were compared with 10 sets x 10 reps per exercise and session. Due to how they structured the training sessions, however, it was rather a comparison between about 14–18 sets per session, to about 24–28 sets, divided into 1–2 sessions per week. Although both groups increased their muscle mass and strength, the increases in strength were slightly greater in the group that did 14–18 sets per muscle and week, compared to those who trained 24–28 sets per muscle and week.10
So Where Lies the Upper Limit of Training Volume?
A problem with the studies above is that they are all characterized by very low numbers of participants, relative to how large of an effect one can expect different training volumes to yield. Had the number of participants in the studies been higher, we could have possibly been able to discern more differences between different approaches.
Low numbers of participants in the individual studies increase the need to meta-analyze the results. That is, to combine the results from all similar studies into one pool. But then we have the problem of heterogeneity: it is difficult to compare studies with such different approaches in terms of exercise choices and training sessions per week.
If we work ourselves from the bottom up, it looks fairly clear that about 10 sets taken to failure per muscle and week give greater strength increases and muscle gain than fewer sets. This is mainly based on research on previously untrained participants.
If we look at trained participants, it seems possible that a training volume of 15–20 sets to failure per muscle and week can give a slightly better result, at least if the training is divided into at least two sessions per week.
Most of all, this is uncharted territory, and the optimal training volume for different people will likely vary widely based on their circumstances, training styles, backgrounds, and more.
High-level bodybuilders, powerlifters, and weightlifters are outliers compared to the general population in training studies, and you will likely have to experiment for yourself to see what works.
What About StrengthLog’s Training Programs?
A common question we get when we discuss training volume is:
“If about 15–20 sets per muscle and week seem to be enough for most people, why do some of your training programs contain much higher training volume? Sometimes twice as many sets or more?”
The reason is that those of our training programs that have a very large training volume rarely include a lot of training to failure. In cases where the volume is far higher than about 15–20 sets per week, it is almost always in the form of percentage-based strength training where you stop your sets long before failure, like our bench press programs and powerlifting programs. This significantly reduces how tiring the set is, and you can therefore do more sets before you have done “too much”.
In those of our programs where the training is not percentage-based in the same way, the weekly volume often lands much closer to what is mentioned above. Exceptions may be some of our advanced training programs, for advanced lifters and bodybuilders.
Variability of the Weekly Training Volume
When you are training, a habituation effect takes place. This habituation means that your muscles will take the most damage from your training in the beginning when you do something new, and then take less and less damage as you get more used to the movements and loads.
That effect is called the repeated bout effect, and it means that a training set on a given exertion level is going to be less and less stimulating the more times it is repeated. Put another way, it will no longer disturb your homeostasis as much.
A logical consequence of the fact that a set is both less stimulating and that it no longer does as much damage to your muscles, is that you can and should do more sets over time. Both over an entire training career, but also within a given training cycle, as you become more and more used to the training you do.
However, if you continuously increase the training volume as you become more accustomed to it, you will sooner or later end up with an unsustainably high training volume. The risk at that point is that your training is now more on the endurance spectrum, where you now mostly train your work capacity, and no longer necessarily stimulates increased strength or muscle growth particularly effectively.
So, how do you get around that?
One alternative is to regularly vary your training volume.
”Load variability is one of the most important principles in the construction of the training process. Variability is the basis for stable progress.”
– Boris Sheiko
Boris Sheiko is one of the world’s most well-known powerlifting coaches. He has coached over 30 world champions and 100 medalists at the World, European and Asian Championships, and thousands of powerlifters worldwide use his programs.
One of Sheiko’s basic principles is to vary the training volume from week to week, and also from month to month. He leans against the hypothesis that this variation should help avoid the body getting used to the load, and that it should maintain the muscles’ sensitivity to the training stimuli. For this, there is some, albeit small, scientific support.11
One possible application of this is to structure shorter (~4–8 weeks) training blocks within which the volume starts low, but gradually increases to a high level. After completing the block, you start over at a lower volume again, but this time with more challenging weights or number of repetitions. According to some, such a volume increase within a training block is the most important principle for continued training progress.12
Avoid Failure, and You Can Do More Sets per Week
In research, training is often standardized to get comparable results, and participants in most studies are usually made to take their sets to failure.
However, recent research has shown that:
- Sets that end just before failure (one or a few reps before) seem to provide just as good muscle growth as taking the set all the way to failure.13
- Training that is stopped before failure does not require as many days of recovery time as training taken to failure, even if you compensate by doing more sets so that the total weight lifted is the same.14
So what does this mean for you?
You can do more sets per muscle group and week if you stop your sets short of failure compared to taking most of your sets to failure.
For strength athletes such as powerlifters and weightlifters, this means that they can do far more training sets per exercise and week than outlined earlier. More sets mean more practice, which generally translates to greater gains.
For bodybuilding purposes, we know that sets taken to failure and sets stopped a few reps before failure yield similar muscle growth, but sets taken to failure require longer recovery times.
Depending on your training goals, you can choose how close to failure you train (and in what exercises) and thereby affect how many sets you can do per week.
Read more: Training to Failure: Implications for Recovery, Strength and Muscle Gains
How Many Sets Per Week Can You Handle?
How much training volume you personally respond to best, or how much you can maximally tolerate, is determined by several factors, the most important of which are:
- Training background. How have you been training previously? The more you have trained before, the more training you can tolerate.
- Health. Are you healthy and strong or sick and frail? The better shape you are in, the better you can handle training.
- Recovery. Do you eat enough food and protein? Are you sleeping well? Forget gimmicks; eating and sleeping are the two most important things you can do for your recovery.
- Age. Young muscles are slightly more responsive to training than old (65+ years) muscles and probably tolerate a little more training.
- Other stress. Mind and body share the same resources, and a great deal of psychological stress, such as a demanding job or parenthood, affects how much physical stress you can cope with from training.
You can liken your body to a plant: it does not grow best by maximizing sun, water, and nutrition to the extreme, but by keeping the conditions comfortable for it to thrive and grow.
The better environment and conditions you can create for yourself in everything surrounding the training, the more training – and more sets – you will be able to benefit from.
Risk of Injury When Increasing Training Volume
While training volume is a potent and relatively easy way to increase the training stimuli, it is also risky. Your muscles adapt relatively quickly to training, at least in the sense that they quickly take less damage from it, thanks to the repeated bout effect. Something that does not adapt quite as quickly is your joints and ligaments. It is easy to train too much too soon, once you realize that more training can lead to better training results to a certain limit.
Too many are the lifters and bodybuilders who increase their training volume too much, too quickly and incur overuse injuries in their joints as a result. At best, you realize your mistake early on and the pain goes away after a week or so of rest; in the worst case, it is ignored for so long that the problems persist for years.
The best way to reduce the risk of overuse injuries is to not do too sharp increases in your training volume:
- Do you want to take your training volume to the next level, in the hope that it will lead to better results? Then work yourself up in volume, with discipline and patience, and keep a watching eye on how much training you are doing each week.
- Are you returning to training from a vacation, sickness, or a long break? Then your volume tolerance is low, and you’d be wise to start building it up again from a lower starting point than where you left off.
The best predictor of what’s the right training volume this week, is to look at how much you trained last week. Do not make too drastic increases in your training volume, take note of the general volume guidelines you find in this article, and you will avoid the greatest risks of injury when it comes to training volume.
Sets Per Week: Summary and Recommendation
In summary, this leads us to the recommendations with which we began the article:
- Up to 10 sets per muscle and week, there seems to be a dose-response relationship, where more training means better training results in the form of greater muscle growth and strength increases.
- Up to about 15–20 sets per muscle and week can, for a trained person with good recovery capabilities, possibly lead to even better results, even if there is an individual variation in volume endurance.
- These figures apply provided that the set is taken close to or to failure. Sets that are interrupted long before failure require less recovery, and you can thus train with higher volume than those mentioned above if you stay longer from failure.
- Variation of the training volume, for example by gradually increasing it during a training cycle, and then restarting at a lower level in the next cycle, could contribute to maintaining your muscles’ sensitivity to the training stimuli.
- Training volume is one of the most important variables for your training results, along with training sufficiently heavy and sufficiently frequently.
The basic principle of strength training is that if you want to increase your strength and muscle mass, you must in one way or another do more. More weight, more reps, or more sets are some of the best tools you have available.
Lifting more weight or more reps at a given weight is easier said than done, but performing one more set than last time is usually doable. In this way, increasing training volume is an effective tool for increasing the training stimuli, but at the same time it does not come without the risk of overtraining or overuse injury.
Where your individual level of optimal training volume lies is up to you to find out, but hopefully this article was a help along the way.
- How to Build Muscle: Exercises, Programs & Diet
- How Many Reps Should You Do to Build Muscle vs. Strength?
- Training to Failure: Implications for Recovery, Strength and Muscle Gains
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- J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-9. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.
- J Strength Cond Res 23: 1890–1901, 2009. Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: A metaregression.
- Sports Med 47: 2585–2601, 2017. The effect of weekly set volume on strength gain: A meta-analysis.
- J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):34-9. The effect of training volume on lower-body strength.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Dec 20. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003413. High Resistance-Training Volume Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men.
- Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2019 Mar 1;14(3):360-368. Dose-Response Relationship of Weekly Resistance-Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men.
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Mar;51(3):515-522. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001818. Evidence for an Upper Threshold for Resistance Training Volume in Trained Women.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2016. Effects of a modified German volume training program on muscular hypertrophy and strength.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 11, 2019. Mesocycle Progression in Hypertrophy Volume Versus Intensity.
- Strength & Conditioning Journal: March 07, 2019. Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy?
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Dec;117(12):2387-2399. Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure.