It seems like a golden rule in strength training for muscle growth: do three sets per exercise. But why actually? Or is that number rather arbitrary?
1. There is no optimal number of sets per exercise during one training session. It is primarily determined by the way your training volume is structured: the number of sets per week, the training frequency and the number of different exercises per muscle group.
2. Keep in mind the Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio (SFR). This is often more favorable in the second or third consecutive set of an exercise than in the first. Then it decreases again. During a workout, therefore, preferably do 2-3 consecutive sets per exercise (instead of just one). Do a maximum of 5-7.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SETS
Why do we do multiple sets per muscle group at all? That’s because a muscle will only grow if, over a certain period of time (say, a week), it is stimulated by enough effective reps. Those are the heavy reps at the end of a set, right before the moment of muscle failure.
One set provides roughly five of those stimulating repetitions, provided you train that set for muscle failure (but not completely). However, that is not enough. In order to grow, you will really have to challenge your body a little more than that.
In very general terms, you can say that a natural bodybuilder should do 10 to 20 sets per week for each muscle group to create sufficient stimulus, based on sets in the range of 5 to 30 repetitions and with 1-3 RIR (Reps In Reserve: you train sets one to a maximum of three reps shy of muscle failure). Beginners can often suffice with 10 sets per week, while advanced users sometimes need more than 20 sets to achieve some muscle growth.
The number of sets is also referred to as the training volume. Warm-up sets are not included in this.
For optimal muscle growth, you need an average of 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week.
HOW MANY SETS PER WORKOUT?
In natural bodybuilders, muscle growth potential and recovery capacity are limited. As a result, you can only do a limited amount of productive and recoverable volume per workout.
In addition, the stimulus for a certain muscle group during a training is not linear: it already decreases after one set. By around five sets, you may have already achieved most of the potential muscle gains for a muscle group. The growth stimulus stagnates around ten sets.
Yet there are arguments why you should not suffice with one set per muscle group per training.
That is why the following applies: do 5-10 sets per muscle group per training. 10-12 sets is the absolute upper limit: doing even more sets will not result in extra muscle growth and may even be counterproductive. If you need more sets, spread them out over at least two weekly workouts.
Do 5-10 sets per muscle group and a maximum of 10-12 sets per workout. If you need more sets, spread them out over at least two weekly workouts.
HOW MANY EXERCISES PER MUSCLE GROUP?
Okay, now we know what the training load should be on a weekly and session basis. But how many exercises should you divide those sets over?
This differs per muscle group, but in general the following applies:
- To fully develop a muscle group, you usually need several exercises. For example, a horizontal and a vertical pull for the back, or a flat and an incline bench press for the chest.
- In addition to compound exercises, it is best to also do some insulating exercises, because they require less recovery capacity and spare other muscle groups. That is why it is better to do some leg extensions for your quadriceps instead of just barbell squats.
- If you only do one exercise for a muscle group, you may have to do many sets of it during a session, which from a certain point comes at the expense of the quality of the sets (among other things due to increasing fatigue and a decrease in the mind-muscle connection).
- A variety of exercises per muscle group provides variation in your training and that may increase your pleasure and motivation.
In general, this means that you do 2-4 exercises for most muscle groups, depending on the size of the muscle group.
For most muscle groups you need 2-4 different exercises.
AND SO… HOW MANY SETS PER EXERCISE?
The foregoing automatically means that you have to do several sets per exercise. Otherwise you will not achieve the necessary training volume to grow.
For example, if you need 12 sets for your chest and do 3 different exercises (bench press, incline bench press and chest flyes), you should do (12/3=) 4 sets per exercise on a weekly basis.
The question remains how many sets per exercise you do best in one session.
That depends in the first place on your training frequency. This dictates how many sets and exercises you put into one workout per muscle group, and therefore also how many sets per exercise. Formally, this can vary from a single set to ten sets per exercise.
But what is advisable?
According to coach Mike Israetel, you should especially keep an eye on the SFR: the Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio, or how much stimulus you create in relation to the fatigue that it produces.
As you do more sets of the same exercise in succession, the SFR decreases. Not only because of the increasing fatigue, but also because of the decreasing mind-muscle connection and mental strength. Therefore Israetel and his colleague James Hoffmann advise to do up to 5-7 sets per exercise in one session.
In principle, you can stimulate muscle growth with one set per exercise per session. Still, it might be better to do a few sets in a row, for example two or three. This is because the SFR often rises a bit during the first few sets. After all, the first set, although formally the most stimulating, is sometimes a bit awkward: your technique is not yet perfect, you do not yet have the optimal mind-muscle connection and you cannot yet estimate the number of RIR properly.
It is not for nothing that you often perform better in your second set and experience a better muscle pump than in your first set. Viewed from this point of view, it is a shame if you change your practice after just one working set, when you just get into the groove. Mike Israetel therefore recommends doing at least two to three sets per exercise.
Incidentally, the number of sets does not have to be fixed in your training program. More advanced bodybuilders in particular often do volume cycling. The number of sets during a mesocycle is gradually increased, for example from two sets per exercise in the first week to four sets per exercise in the sixth week. This is followed by a deload.
Keep in mind the Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio (SFR). This is often more favorable in the second or third consecutive set than in the first. Then it decreases again. Therefore, preferably do 2-3 consecutive sets per exercise during a training. Do a maximum of 5-7.
There is no optimal number of sets per exercise during one training session. It is primarily determined by the way your training volume is structured: the number of sets per week, the training frequency and the number of different exercises per muscle group.
Keep in mind the Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio (SFR). This is often more favorable in the second or third consecutive set of an exercise than in the first. Then she decreases again. During a workout, therefore, preferably do 2-3 consecutive sets per exercise (instead of just one). Do a maximum of 5-7.
In short, doing three sets per exercise is not ‘sacred’, but there is certainly nothing wrong with it.