Training Volume: How Many Sets for Strength and Muscle Growth?

How many sets should you do in your training?

Next to how heavy and how many reps you do when you train, your training volume is probably 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 brief summary of the recommendations.

Recommendations:

  • 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 volumes 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.

That was the short version of this article. For the longer version, and to figure out how many sets are right for you, keep reading!

How Much Training Volume 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. This applies to both the long (several years) and short term (the last weeks / months).
  • Health. Are you healthy and strong, or sick and frail? The better shape you are in, the better you can handle a lot of training.
  • Recovery. Do you eat enough food? Are you sleeping well? Can you relax regularly? All this affects your ability to recover from your training.
  • Age. Young muscles are slightly more responsive to training than old (65+ years) muscles, and probably also tolerate a little more training.
  • Other stress. Mind and body share the same resources, and a great deal of psychological stress, for example from a demanding job or parenthood, affects how much physical stress you can cope with from training.

One analogy I often use is to liken the exercising body to a plant: it does not grow best by maximizing sun, water, and nutrition to the extreme, but by keeping the conditions at a reasonable level for it to thrive.

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 positively adapt to.

What Kind of Sets Are We Talking About?


Before we start talking about how many sets you should do per muscle group and week, we need to define the type of set we are talking about.

In research, this is often standardized to obtain comparable results between studies, and in research studies, participants are therefore usually made to take their sets to failure. That is, the point when they cannot do another repetition.

Recent research has shown, however, that:

  1. 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.1
  2. 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 number of pounds/kilos lifted is the same.2

So what does this mean for you?

Two things:

  1. That you can train more sets per muscle group and week (and thus reach a higher total tonnage) if you stop your sets short of failure, than if you would take a majority of your sets to failure.
  2. That the research results that we are about to take a look at, should be interpreted with this in mind: most sets in those studies are taken to failure.
training volume weightlifting
In olympic weightlifting, the majority of sets are stopped well short of muscular failure, thus enabling larger volumes of training.

Read more: Training to Failure: Implications for Recovery, Strength and Muscle Gains

Dose and Response: Training Volume and Results

The more you train, the better results you get – to an extent.

There is a hypothesis that the results from increased training volume follow the form of an inverted U-curve.3

  • In the beginning, you get a great return on every set you add. The biggest difference is when you go from 0 sets to starting to train at all.
  • 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 train more than your body can recover from and positively respond to.
inverted u-curve for training volume
The inverted U-curve. More training is better, until it isn’t.

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 the factors we listed at the beginning of this article, and it will even move while you follow an ongoing training program.

With that said, let’s look for it.

How Many Sets Should You Do?

Let’s start our search from the bottom up.

One set is better than no set, and if you go from not training at all to doing at least one set per muscle group and workout, the trained muscles will start to grow and become stronger – especially 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.4 5 6

A meta-analysis, that is, an analysis that compiles the results from several similar studies, found a dose-response relationship where more sets led to greater muscle growth, up to 10+ sets per week.7

number of sets per week for muscle growth

The meta-analysis was based on 15 different training studies, most with participants who were previously untrained, and with all sets taken to failure.

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 are used to training?

Searching for the Upper Limit of Training Volume

training volume deadlift

When searching for the upper limit of training volume, there are no meta-analyses to lean on. Instead, we are referred to look at individual studies that have examined the issue – 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.8

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, the muscle growth was greater the more they trained. The increases in strength were also slightly larger, but the differences were not as large.9

And that’s about where the fun of high-volume training ends.

Another study on trained men had participants train their biceps with either 9 sets (on one session per week), 18 sets (divided into two sessions per week), or 27 sets (also divided into two sessions) to failure per week for 6 weeks, and saw no significant differences at all in terms muscle growth or strength gains. Examining the results in detail, it seemed as if the group that did 9 sets x 2 sessions per week had better muscle growth than the other two groups, but the difference was not statistically significant. What this means in this context is that it is uncertain whether the result is only due to chance or not.10

Another study examined the effect in 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.11

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.12

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 difference 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 at least fairly clear that about 10 sets taken to failure per muscle and week give greater strength increases and muscle growth than less training. This is mainly based on research on previously untrained participants.

If we look at trained participants, it seems possible that a training volume upwards 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. In my personal experience, I also seem to have seen that a training volume upwards of 15–20 sets to failure per muscle and week, can yield additional gains for someone who has previously mostly done around 10 sets to failure per muscle and week.

For some people, even more sets than that can probably be beneficial, at least during certain time periods, but then we are probably starting to talk about special cases rather than general cases. Note that, for example, a high-level bodybuilder or powerlifter may very well be a special case.

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. 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 the order of magnitude we have mentioned above. Exceptions may be some of our advanced training programs, for advanced lifters and bodybuilders.

Variability of the 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 some 30 world champions, and over 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 training stimuli. For this, there is some, albeit small, scientific support.13

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.14

Risk of Injury When Increasing 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.

Summary and Recommendations

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 volumes 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.

Read more:

References

  1. Strength & Conditioning Journal: March 07, 2019. Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy?
  2. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Dec;117(12):2387-2399. Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure.
  3. Sports Med. 2018 Mar;48(3):499-505. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0793-0. Volume for Muscle Hypertrophy and Health Outcomes: The Most Effective Variable in Resistance Training.
  4. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-9. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.
  5. J Strength Cond Res 23: 1890–1901, 2009. Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: A metaregression.
  6. Sports Med 47: 2585–2601, 2017. The effect of weekly set volume on strength gain: A meta-analysis.
  7. 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.
  8. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):34-9. The effect of training volume on lower-body strength.
  9. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Dec 20. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003413. High Resistance-Training Volume Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. J Strength Cond Res. 2016. Effects of a modified German volume training program on muscular hypertrophy and strength.
  13. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training.
  14. Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 11, 2019. Mesocycle Progression in Hypertrophy Volume Versus Intensity.

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