How many sets per workout? About the maximum productive volume per session

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Training volume for muscle growth is usually expressed in the number of ‘hard’ sets per muscle group, per week. But how many sets is it best to do in a single workout?

Key points:

1.   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.

2.   In addition, the stimulus for a certain muscle group during a training is not linear: it already decreases after one set. Around 5 sets you may have already realized most of the potential muscle gains for a muscle group. The growth stimulus stagnates around 10 sets.

3.   Therefore, increase your training frequency as soon as you reach the threshold of 8-10 sets per muscle group per training.

4.   Beginners need a maximum of 10 sets per week per muscle group to grow, intermediates around 15 and advanced around 20. All this at an average training intensity of 1-3 RIR.

5.   Do a maximum of 20-30 sets per workout, which equates to a maximum of 60 to 90 minutes of training.

6.   For most bodybuilders, training a muscle group 2 or 3 times a week is optimal. Advanced users with high volume needs may benefit from even higher training frequencies, such as 5 times a week.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETS

Muscles are especially stimulated by the exhausting repetitions in a set, also known as ‘effective (or stimulating) reps‘. In order to grow, they need to trained with enough of those reps each week. And since a set, if trained to (near) muscle failure, provides on average no more than five stimulating repetitions, you have to do several sets for each muscle group every week.

The number of sets per muscle group per week is also known as the training volume. The degree to which is trained to muscle failure is called effort or relative intensity.

You create a growth stimulus by doing enough sets and by making sufficient effort per set, so by training until (near) muscle failure.
In summary:
By doing several sets per muscle group, you increase the number of effective reps and thus the growth stimulus.

CRITERIA OF A SET

To count sets as training volume, they must be challenging and thus lead to serious muscle fatigue. In other words, they must deliver enough effective reps. Warm-up sets are not counted for that reason.

It therefore concerns the so-called ‘tough sets’, which, according to a meta-study, meet two criteria:

  • they contain enough repetitions, preferably between 6 and 20;
  • they are trained with sufficient effort, namely at least RPE 7 (ie you train to or near muscle failure, and keep a maximum of 3 reps in the tank)*.

* Although you have to make sufficient effort per set, it is better not to train to complete muscle failure. That hardly results in extra muscle growth, while it does cause a lot of extra fatigue. As a result, you can do less volume and therefore on balance less effective repetitions. Therefore, keep 1-3 Reps In Reserve (RIR) for most sets.

COUNTING SETS

When calculating training volume, we always include indirect work. That means we count fractional sets for muscles that help in large compound exercises. 3 sets bench press, for example, yields 3 sets chest, 2 sets (front) shoulders and 1.5 sets triceps. In our opinion, this way you get the most accurate calculation.

However, in training volume recommendations, most coaches only use direct sets. As a result, the recommended volumes for arms, shoulders and trapezius are lower. After all, these are muscle groups that are also trained indirectly.

In summary:
For the calculation of training volume, we assume ‘hard’ sets that are trained with medium to heavy weights and with sufficient effort (1-3 RIR).

VOLUME REQUIREMENT

How much training volume you need to keep growing depends in part on your training status. The more advanced you are, the more volume you need. This is because your body, through adaptation, gradually becomes insensitive to a certain volume.

Research shows that beginners can achieve optimal results with about 10 sets per muscle group per week. After one to one and a half years of training you can call yourself intermediate and you will probably no longer have enough of those 10 sets. Instead, aim for 15 sets per muscle group per week. Advanced users may need as many as 20 a week.

Roughly speaking, the volume requirement evolves during a training career as follows:

  • beginners: ~10 sets per muscle group per week
  • intermediates: 10-15 sets per muscle group per week
  • advanced: 15-20 sets per muscle group per week
  • more advanced : 20+ sets per muscle group per week
In summary:
Beginners can grow optimally with 10 sets per muscle group per week. As you get more advanced, the volume requirement grows to about 15-20 sets per muscle group per week.

VOLUME PRODUCTIVITY

If you look at the scientific literature, the above recommendations are not obvious.

Scientific author Chris Beardsley collected and analyzed six relevant, high-quality studies on the effect of training volume on muscle growth (see article). He noticed that the results of these studies differ widely and are more likely to contradict each other. In one study it appeared to make no difference whether you do more or fewer sets, while in the other study an increase in the number of sets led to significantly more muscle growth.

How can these differences be explained? Quite simple actually: through the training frequency. In studies in which high training volumes led to (much) extra muscle growth, it was found that high training frequencies were used. In other words, the weekly amount of sets was spread over several weekly sessions. Doing less volume per session apparently increases the effectiveness of your total weekly volume.

How can the latter be possible? Also quite simple: you can only do a limited amount of productive volume per workout. Logical, because your daily muscle growth potential and recovery capacity are limited (if you are a natural, that is). After all, otherwise you could have marathon training sessions every day and grow kind of endlessly.

Coach Christian Thibaudeau says about this:

The whole purpose of training to build muscle is to trigger protein synthesis. Once it’s been triggered, there is no added benefit in continuing to punish a muscle – it will not grow more. In fact, it might even lose size!

The study by Barbalho ea from June 2019 shows this in particular. In it, 37 moderately trained men followed a 24-week training program in which they did 5, 10, 15 or 20 sets per week for each muscle group. Please note: all sets were completed in one workout for each muscle group. At the end of the day, the men who did only 5 sets per week had achieved the most muscle gains, and participants in the 20 sets group the least.

This suggests that there is a growth ceiling of around 5 sets per training. If you do more sets (during that training), you will only cause unnecessary fatigue, which can be at the expense of muscle growth. Since, in principle, muscle failure was trained throughout the study, that ceiling will probably be a bit higher if you keep a few repetitions in the barrel.

Update 11-9-2020imperfections have been found in the design of this and other Barbelho studies. Its results are therefore called into question.

CONCLUSION

Beardsley concludes from the studies studied that you can do a maximum of 5 sets per muscle group of productive volume per training, if you train all sets to muscle failure. If you stay slightly away from muscle failure (1-3 RIR) you can probably do a little more productive volume, generating more stimulating reps on balance. But even then, the growth stimulus will decrease sharply after 5 sets, only to stagnate around 10 sets.

The growth stimulus during a training therefore approximately follows the curve below. The first set normally produces the most muscle gains, perhaps 60 percent of the total muscle gains you can achieve in one workout (per muscle group). After that, the growth stimulus already diminishes: the principle of diminished returns (or diminishing returns), for which direct evidence has been provided in a rat study .

After about 5 sets, the efficiency starts to decrease sharply, to stagnate around 10 sets.

JUNK VOLUME

Also according to hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld, it makes no sense to do more than 5-10 sets for a muscle group during one workout. Even if you could stimulate a little bit of muscle growth with the following sets, that does not outweigh the additional muscle damage, central fatigue, and tension on tendons and joints caused by this. In that case you are doing unnecessary, and even unnecessarily taxing volume (wasted sets, or junk volume).

Junk volume is the order of the day in the gym: how many people do five or six exercises for one and the same muscle group in one workout? How many people still use the old bro split (chest day, back day, …), where they train each muscle group completely once a week?

Besides the fact that junk volume is not productive and unnecessarily taxing, it often concerns sets of lower quality, both due to the increasing local fatigue (in the muscle) and central fatigue.

WHAT OTHER EXPERTS SAY

Chris Beardsley and Brad Schoenfeld are not alone in their assumption that the productive volume per session is rather limited. By far the most reputable bodybuilding coaches today recommend doing a maximum of 3 to10 sets per muscle group per workout. Among them: Eric Helms (source), Jeff Cavaliere (source), Menno Henselmans (source), Mike Israetel (source), Jeremy Ethier (source), Christian Thibaudeau (source) and James Krieger (source).

Menno Henselmans summarizes it as follows:

There is mounting evidence that you can only perform 5-10 productive sets for a muscle per workout. Beyond this point, signaling for muscle protein synthesis might be overshadowed by increased protein breakdown from muscle damage and recovery time may become an issue.

In summary:
You can only achieve a limited amount of muscle growth per training. In addition, the stimulus for a certain muscle group during a training is not linear: it already decreases after one set. Around 5 sets you may have already realized most of the potential muscle gains for a muscle group. The growth stimulus stagnates around 10 sets. Most experts therefore recommend doing a maximum of 3 to 10 sets per muscle group per workout. This is indirectly supported by studies into training frequency.

IS THERE A MINIMUM PRODUCTIVE VOLUME PER SESSION?

The recommendation of 3 to 10 sets per muscle group per session sounds like it’s not worth doing just one or two sets per workout for a muscle group. That is not necessarily so. Since the first set provides by far the greatest growth stimulus, you can even suffice with one or a few sets per muscle group per training.

You will have to train that muscle group almost daily to do enough sets on a weekly basis. If you are advanced and you need, for example, 20 sets per week for a muscle group to grow, you will certainly have to do 3 sets per training.

In addition, it offers specific advantages to do several sets in a row for the same muscle group. This way you will be able to achieve a better mind-muscle connection and technical execution in subsequent sets.

In summary:
It seems to be good advice to do at least 3 sets per workout for a muscle group, even though theoretically you could already achieve significant muscle growth with just one set.

WHAT IS THE MAXIMUM RECOVERABLE VOLUME PER SESSION?

Not only your muscle growth potential, but also your recovery capacity is limited. So in addition to maximum productive volume, there is also maximum recoverable volume. We call this the Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). It is difficult to put a number on that, but after 60 to 90 minutes of training, you’re usually finished, as you will automatically notice from your fatigue. That equates to 20-30 sets in total, highly dependent on the muscle group(s) you train and the type of exercises you do.

In summary:
Do a maximum of 10 sets per muscle group per session, and a maximum of 20-30 sets per session in total.

WHAT IS THE IDEAL TRAINING FREQUENCY?

From the above, the ideal training frequency actually comes to the fore. After all, we now know how many sets you can put in one workout per muscle group. We also know approximately how many sets you should do on a weekly basis, depending on your training status. In addition, we know how long you usually have to wait before you can train a muscle group again: 24 hours as an advanced, 24-48 hours as an intermediate and 48-72 hours as a beginner.

A beginner who needs about 10 sets per muscle group per week to grow may want to do all those sets in one workout, as long as the total session volume stays below his MRV.

If you need to do more than 10 sets to grow, which is usually the case with intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, it is best to spread your volume over at least two workouts per week. For example, if you cram 15 sets into one session, you would certainly do 5 sets more or less for nothing (the previously mentioned wasted sets, or  junk volume). Plus you get long workouts, which doesn’t benefit the quality of the sets.

Advanced bodybuilders, who are still struggling to achieve muscle growth (even at high volumes) should probably spread their weekly volume over as many sessions as possible. For example, if you do 3 sets (5×3) 5x a week, that will, in theory, yield more muscle growth than 1×15 or 3×5, because with 5×3 you achieve more growth stimulus per set. After all, you always ‘skip’ the wasted sets.

Scientist and author Greg Nuckols sums it up like this:

Having higher frequencies to a point is going to allow you to do more high quality volume per muscle group.

Translating this into concrete advice (especially for intermediate and advanced bodybuilders):

Spread your weekly volume over as many sessions as possible, provided you recover sufficiently from each session.

FINDING THE RIGHT TRAINING SPLIT

Average bodybuilders, who need between 10 and 20 sets per muscle group per week, can choose from a variety of training splits, such as full body three or four times a week, an upper/lower body split, a push/pull split or a push/pull/legs split.

In principle, one split is not better than the other. The choice is mainly a matter of agenda and personal preference.

As an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder, however, you should leave the bro split for good. That is the classic split where you train each muscle group once a week, if necessary with a load of exercises. Only beginners can get away with ‘chest day’, ‘arms day’ and ‘back day’ (provided they do a maximum of 10 sets per training), although higher training frequencies seem to be more optimal for them too.

PUSH/PULL SPLIT

One of our personal favorites is a push/pull split where we do just 5 or 6 sets for each muscle group, three times a week. This allows us to handle a fairly high weekly volume of 15-18 sets per muscle group, without sacrificing the productivity and quality of the sets.

Example of this protocol for the chest (all sets 1-2 RIR*):

Monday
dumbbell chest press (3 sets)
low-to-high-flyes (2-3 sets**)

Wednesday
incline dumbbell chest press (3 sets)
high-to-low-flyes (2-3 sets**)

Friday
dumbbell chest press (3 sets)
chest dips (2-3 sets**)

* in the last week of the mesocycle, before the deload, we train the last sets until muscle failure
** increasing from 2 to 3 sets during the mesocycle

5X A WEEK FULL BODY

For beginner to intermediate bodybuilders, training one muscle group three or four times a week seems like the maximum, as they usually require a minimum of 48 hours of recovery time, even at relatively small session volumes.

However, advanced users can recover faster: from small volumes (at 1-3 RIR) in principle already within 24 hours. That is why the less conventional ‘5x a week full body’ protocol has become fashionable among them. That is, five days in a row full body training, followed by two days of rest. Eric Helms says he has positive experiences with this (see recent interview). YouTube coach Jeff Nippard recently devoted a great video to it.

The main advantage of this method is now clear: the less volume per muscle group per session, the higher the quality of the total volume. In addition, full body training also offers specific benefits in itself. The two days of rest allow your body to recover from the fatigue that has accumulated during the five training days, so that you can start your next full-body training week sufficiently recovered.

In summary:
If you have to do more than 10 sets per week for a muscle group to grow, then the principle applies: divide your weekly volume over as many sessions as possible, provided you recover sufficiently from each session. For most bodybuilders, training a muscle group 2 or 3 times a week is optimal. Advanced users with a high volume requirement may benefit from even higher training frequencies, such as 5 times a week.

IN SUMMARY

1.    Muscles grow mainly due to the effective reps in a set (the repetitions near muscle failure). Doing multiple sets per muscle group means more effective reps and therefore more muscle growth. However, muscle growth and recovery capacity are limited, so that there is no return after a certain amount of sets.

2.    Beginners can already grow optimally with about 10 sets per muscle group per week. As you get more advanced, the volume requirement grows to about 15-20 sets per muscle group per week. All this at an average training intensity of 1-3 RIR.

3.    During a training session, after 5 sets for a certain muscle group, the growth stimulus starts to decrease sharply. It stagnates after 10 sets. Doing more than 10 sets therefore makes no sense and only causes unnecessary extra muscle damage and fatigue. So do a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per training, which usually comes down to 2-3 exercises per muscle group.

4.    Do a maximum of 20-30 sets per workout, which equates to a maximum of 60 to 90 minutes of training.

5.    If you need to do more than 10 sets per week for a muscle group to grow, then the principle applies: divide your weekly volume over as many sessions as possible, provided you recover sufficiently from each session. For most bodybuilders, training a muscle group 2 or 3 times a week is optimal.

6.    Advanced users with high volume needs may benefit from even higher training frequencies, such as 5 times a week.

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