Set volume (per muscle & week) and optimum muscle growth

October 13th, 2007 by Paul Johnson

How many sets you should do per muscle per workout, is a great debate among bodybuilders. Workout routines all vary widely, between one set to as many as 20 sets per muscle in a workout! Some also believe that different muscle groups, should have different number of sets. Workout routines also vary in how often they target the muscle. Some bodybuilders might hit the chest for 10 sets just once a week, others for 2 sets 3 times a week.

Studies on number of sets per muscle per workout:

The one set group believes that one set per muscle, if done intensely, is enough to stimulate the muscles adequately for growth. The multi-set group says you must do multiple sets in a row to fatigue, before the muscle is fully stimulated for growth.

A study published Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Apr;35(4):644-54 was done on 11 men to monitor their hormonal releases after various sets amount. They were put into 3 groups, the 5 rep (88% of 1 rep max) 3 minute rests, 10 rep sets (75% of rep max) 2 minute rest, and 15 reps (60% rep max) with 1 minute rests. The research showed no differences in testosterone in any of the groups, however HGH and cortisol increased with the 10 and 15 rep groups after additional sets. HGH and cortisol responses stopped increasing, after the 4th set for the 10 rep group and 6th set for the 15 rep group. This study shows that in the medium rep range(above the 5 reps), multiple sets seemed to stimulate a hormonal adaption up to a point, based on weight intensity used.

A study published J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):578-82 was done on three groups. The first group was 10 untrained men and women for 9 weeks, who did one set at 8-12 reps for 9 weeks. They then switched to 3 sets for another 9 weeks. The other group started with 3 sets and then after 9 weeks switched to one set. The control did not do weight training. The results showed the 3 set training had significantly better one rep strength gains than the one set group.

Two other studies J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Aug;15(3):284 9 and Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):525-9 I found also showed 3 sets were better than one for strength gains. Another study J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):157 63. showed that 3 sets did better than one for strength and muscle gains, but for lower body(legs) only. I think the fact they measured the trap muscles may be why, as traps are harder to grow especially if they chose the wrong upper body excercises.

A comprehensive study published in J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Feb;18(1):35-47 analyzed 16 past studies that met specific requirements for legitimacy. They concluded that in the very short term, single set programs were adequate in untrained, but for experienced multi-set routines gave better strength gains. Researchers Galvão DA, Taaffe DR at the School of Human Movement Studies Australia J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Aug;18(3):660-7 reported recent evidence showing that multi sets are superior to single set training routines.

These studies point to the conclusion, that multiple sets per muscle per workout, is better for strength and muscle gains. Although many of these studies measured strength only, muscle and strength are heavily correlated with each other anyways. Becoming stronger is often mainly a result of muscle growth. Muscle growth also usually follows strength gains, due to adaptions the muscles must make, provided you eat enough calories to build the muscle up.

Studies on total set volume per week:

Another thing to consider, is that increasing to multi sets in the previous studies, may have gave better results because it hit a total weekly set volume threshold, that was more optimum for muscle growth. Total volume of sets per muscle per week may be more important factor, than how many sets per muscle you do in a given workout.

Many of the top excercise researchers over the last years, Kraemer WJ, Adams K, Cafarelli E, Dudley GA, Dooly C, Feigenbaum MS, Fleck SJ, Franklin B, Fry AC, Hoffman JR, Newton RU, Potteiger J, Stone MH, Ratamess NA, Triplett-McBride T; as part of the American College of Sports Medicine published in Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Feb;34(2):364-80 a summary on resistance training and goals. They recommended multi set and higher volume programs, for maximizing hypertrophy.

A study done by the spanish olympic committe was published in J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):689-97 done on 51 experienced (more than 3 years) trained weightlifters, to see the effects of strength on different training volumes for 10 weeks with the squat, clean & jerk, and snatch. They were split into 3 groups of low, medium, and high volume group. All did excercises 4 to 5 times a week with a periodized routine using similiar excercises. The volume differences were LVG (1,923 repetitions), MVG (2,481 repetitions), and HVG (3,030 repetitions). The research showed all three groups gained strength. There was no significant differences between the low and high volume group, but the medium volume group had significantly higher strength gains than the other two groups.

A year later the same researchers did another similiar study published in J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Feb;20(1):73-81. The differences between this study and the previous, was that it was done on 29 experienced weightlifters and the total weekly volume(repetitions) was equal among each other and the previous study. They instead changed how many sets of these, were done at 90% percent of the 1 rep max weight. The LIG (46 repetitions), MIG (93 repetitions), and HIG (184 repetitions). Once again the medium volume group did better in strength gains than the low and high volume group.

These studies show that the medium group did better in strength just like the previous study, despite changes in intensity of some of the sets. The surprising thing about these studies, is the amount of sets they did at medium volume (2481 repetions). This would average out to 41 sets (if done at 12 reps) 5 times a week. The low volume group would be 31 sets(if done at 12 reps 5 times a week). Most bodybuilders would consider the medium volume group, actually very high volume, yet it seemed to do the best for these experienced weight lifters.

I have a couple of theories on why this very high volume of sets worked ok for these weightlifters in these studies. The first theory is, that with the small sample size(32 is not really that big) and them being very experienced athletes, it is possible that this group on average had very good genetics and recovery abilitiy. Therefore on average, they would respond better to a really high volume. The other theory and probably the most plausible, is that they normally did lower volume and only responded to this high volume because it shocked their muscles into new growth. Both theories could also explain why the medium group did better than the higher volume group because the high volume group, probably was overkill and did more harm than good, for shocking them out of a plateau or their recovery abilities.

Overall, most of the studies shown here and available out there, conclude that multi-set or higher volume workout programs are better for muscle growth than single set or lower volume routines. One must keep in mind, that you can’t do any workout program all the time. Your body will adapt to just one training program. You should follow periodization principles and change your workout volume and intensity every so often, away from your main workout, to keep the muscles from adapting. You of course though also have to gain weight to keep building muscle.

  1. Josh on February 1st, 2008

    when you talk about the number of repetitions done by the various test groups in these studies, are you talking about the number of repetitions per muscle group, or for all muscle groups trained? 41 sets for one muscle group per week is much different then 41 sets for all muscle groups trained. And that first study you cited, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Apr;35(4):644-54 , was there any difference in the number of sets between the group? And the secind study you cite, J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):578-82 , concludes that “the 3 set training had significantly better one rep strength gains than the one set group”. Both groups did 3 set training, which one did better? Without these details, some (myself included) will find this article confusing and frustrating.

  2. admin on February 2nd, 2008

    When I refer to how many total reptitions were done per week, that is for all muscle groups combined. These studies are for comparitive purposes using different volume.

  3. joe s on February 15th, 2009

    Paul, how does BONE size (reflected in wrist and ankle sizes in relation to height) bear on training volume? I’ve seen some data that puts those with smaller-than-average bone structure in a different situation than medium- or large-boned trainees, possibly due to neurological failsafes on inherent smaller-joint instability that consequently limit workout-capacity and recovery. Do you have any opinions on this issue?

  4. admin on February 28th, 2009

    Sorry Joe, I haven’t heard that before.

  5. Justin on April 14th, 2010

    What is the general equation for determining an ideal baseline set volume for a particular individual? What individual characteristics might adjust the calculated number?

  6. Fred on January 5th, 2011

    @admin: 2481 reps, isn’t that the 10-week total? If yes, it would average out to 4.1 sets (not 41 sets) 5 times a week.

    Interesting blog, by the way!