How many sets per muscle group per week do you really need to build muscle? Some say just 1 set taken to all-out failure is best. Whereas others go high workout volume, doing 4-5 sets per exercise and taking over 3 hours to complete a workout. Who’s right? And more importantly, how many sets per muscle group per week should YOU do, especially as a natural? Well, the answer to optimal training volume might surprise you and is probably a lot less than you’re currently doing. Here’s how many sets per week you should be doing.
GRAB THE FREE WORKOUT PLANS HERE:
Click below for a fully customized, done-for-you training plan:
Click below to subscribe for more videos:
The first major analysis investigating the relationship between how many sets per muscle group per week and resulting muscle growth was done in 2017. They compared: 1-5, 5-9, and 10+ sets per muscle per week. While it suggested that more was better, it didn’t let us know the upper limit. Fortunately, 6 years later, a similar analysis compared lower volumes of less than 12 sets, moderate volumes of 12-20 sets, and high volumes of 20 or more sets per muscle per week. Overall, this analysis suggests the sweet spot seems to be 10-20 sets per muscle per week.
To find where within this range is best for you (i.e. exactly how many sets per muscle group per week you should do), there are 5 other factors you need to consider. The first of which is your individual response. Illustrating this is a 2016 study where they had 19 participants train one leg with 6-9 sets per week and their other leg with 15 sets per week. After 8 weeks, roughly a third of the participants had a leg that responded better from low volume, a third had a leg that responded better from high volume, and a third had a similar response in both legs. Suggesting that what one person can recover well and grow from may end up being too much for someone else.
Factor 2 for your workout volume: exercise execution. In most studies, a “set” is defined as going to or very close to complete failure. But we know from past research that most people don’t push themselves hard enough to reach this point. Or, as soon as they get anywhere close to it, they start cheating and using momentum. So you may not need nearly as much volume as you think you do if you simply fixed these more important areas instead.
Third factor that’ll decide your training volume, rest times. If you usually take longer rest periods between most of your sets, at least 2 minutes between sets, it’s likely that the lower end of the range would be best. Whereas the higher end of the range will likely be necessary if you mostly use shorter rest periods (less tha 2 minutes between sets).
Fourth, how you count your sets. Generally, researchers still count muscles that are indirectly worked with an exercise as 1 full set for that muscle. For example, during the bench press, they’ll count that as 1 set for the chest and 1 set for the triceps. Now whether or not this should truly count as 1 set for the secondary muscles is up for debate, but it does affect how many sets per week you should do. I also think this discrepancy in how people count sets is why high-intensity training, where you do just 1 set (max 2 sets per exercise) CAN work, and HAS seemed to work for many people.
Lastly, not everyone should be doing what’s “optimal”. Even though 10 or more weekly sets led to the most growth, 5-9 weekly sets still gave about 80% of the max growth. In fact, in some cases, even in trained individuals, just 3 sets per muscle week has been shown to build some muscle. So if you’re having trouble just being consistent in the first place, don’t chase the optimal guidelines.
So first off, I’d recommend starting off at the low end of the 10-20 weekly set range, especially if you’re a beginner. Dial in your form, make sure you’re pushing hard enough, take longer rest periods. As you get more experienced, if you’re sleeping well, pushing hard with good form, and eating enough, yet you’re still not seeing gains, then chances are you might actually need more volume. In this case, add about 2 more weekly sets, especially on muscles that are lagging behind, and see how you progress. Otherwise, you might actually need to take a break or consider decreasing your volume.
But remember, how many sets per muscle group per week is optimal is very individual. Experiment, listen to your body, and realize that you can still make incredible gains by just showing up and doing what you can, even if it’s less than what’s “optimal”.