Counting sets How to calculate your training volume

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Training volume is an important concept in strength sports. By that we mean the workload, usually expressed in number of sets per muscle group per week. But how exactly do you count those sets?


The total number of work sets per week per muscle group is the most effective measure of volume for muscle growth we have, says coach and researcher Menno Henselmans, based on research.

How many sets you need to build muscle optimally depends on your training status. Roughly speaking, we can say:

  • beginners: 10 sets per muscle group per week
  • intermediate: 15 sets per muscle group per week
  • advanced: 20 sets per muscle group per week

A beginner usually refers to someone who has been training (decently) for a maximum of one year. An intermediate is someone who has been training for one to three years and an advanced is someone who has been training seriously for three years or more.


To count as a set, it must meet the following conditions:

  • contain enough repetitions, but not excessively (you operate between 5 and 20 repetitions);
  • putting in enough effort, namely 1-3 Reps In Reserve (i.e. you train to or near muscle failure, and hold a maximum of 3 reps in the tank).

We also refer to this as ‘working sets’ or ‘effective sets’.

Warming-up sets do not count towards your training volume. These should therefore be trained a lot further away from muscle failure (> 3 RIR).


Which muscle groups are there? We make the following grouping. Keep in mind that some names, such as ‘legs’, are too generic. For example, the lower body consists of quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks.

front shoulders
side shoulders
back shoulders
trapezius top
trapezius middle and bottom

*possibly divided into erector spinae (back extensor) and latissimus dorsi (‘lats’)


You can see which exercises there are for which muscle group on this page.


Calculating training volume per week is very simple in principle:

number of exercises x number of sets

As a rule, you definitely train a muscle group with two different exercises, once or twice a week. The number of sets is usually three per exercise.


For the chest you do the following exercises: barbell bench press (2x per week), incline bench press (1x per week) and cable fly (1x per week). Your training volume is then:

4 x 3 = 12 sets per week.


The problem with counting sets is that there are compound exercises (also called multi-joint exercises), in which several muscle groups are trained at the same time: directly and indirectly. For example, with the barbell bench press you not only train your chest (directly), but to a lesser extent also the front of your shoulders and your triceps (indirectly). You can solve this by working with fractional sets. 3 sets of barbell bench press then means 3 sets of chest, 1.5 set of front shoulders and 1.5 set of triceps.

The 1.5 set for the indirectly trained muscle seems fairly arbitrary, but there is some research to support this: dumbbell rows (multi-joint), for example, only stimulate about half the muscle growth in the biceps as dumbbell bicep curls (single-joint).

Don’t overcomplicate it: don’t bother with crazy fractions and stick to that 1/2. Exceptions are the buttocks in barbell squats (2/3) and lunges (2/3).

You will notice: some knowledge of anatomy is necessary when calculating the exact training volume. You need to know which muscle groups work together in a particular exercise.


For triceps, do triceps dips (3 sets), triceps pushdown (3 sets), and close grip bench press (3 sets). In addition, you do some exercises in which the triceps participate as an auxiliary muscle, namely barbell bench press and dumbbell overhead press. We count that as half of the stimulus, so: barbell bench press 1.5 set and dumbbell overhead press 1.5 set. This makes a total of 12 sets per week.


Do no more than 10-12 sets per muscle group per workout. If you need to do more than 10-12 sets to grow, it is best to spread it over two or even three workouts, with at least 48 hours of rest between those workouts.


Below are some examples of how to calculate the set volume for a certain muscle group.

schoulders front:
barbell overhead press (3 sets), front raise (3 sets), barbell bench press (1,5 set), incline barbell bench press (1,5 set): 9 sets

barbell row (3 sets), lat pulldown (3 sets), dumbbell rear delt fly (1,5 set): 7,5 sets

mid and lower traps:
45° incline shrugs (3 sets), reverse fly (1,5 sets), barbell row (1,5 set), lat pulldown (1,5 set), face pull (1,5 set): 9 sets

rear delts :
rear delt row (3 sets), reverse fly (3 sets), barbell row (1.5 set): 7.5 sets

hip thrust (3 sets), cable pull-though (3 sets), barbell squat (2 sets), dumbbell lunge (2 sets): 10 sets


By training volume we mean the number of sets that a muscle group is trained during a week.

We recommend calculating that accurately. Therefore, do not only count the number of whole sets, but also the fractional ones, namely for smaller muscle groups that are also trained in multi-joint exercises in addition to single-joint exercises. For example, the biceps from biceps curls (1) and from barbell rows (0.5). Usually you do three sets per exercise, which in this example means: biceps curls 3 sets and barbell rows 1.5 sets.

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