What we are really talking about here is training volume. Training volume is a measure of how much training you are doing. Your total volume load can be calculated as:
Sets X Reps X Load
Training volume is often also measured in an easier to calculate metric of how many hard sets done per week per muscle group. Given that your volume load can be skewed fairly heavily by the rep range you use and the fact that you can build muscle across a broad spectrum of reps the hard sets approach is a more useful practical measure for most people, to base their training from.
After all we cannot provide volume load guidelines to different individuals because their strength levels will be different. Accumulating 10,000 tons of squat poundage will be very different if your 1-rep max is 60kg as opposed to 220kg!
This is why the question of, how many sets should you do to build muscle is a particularly relevant one. It can provide some broad guidelines to follow when building your training plan and is relative to the individual. Back in 2010 James Krieger conducted a meta-analysis to try and answer this question.
The first key point was that multiple sets provided about a 40% greater gain in muscle size than single-set training. This finding, while interesting, didn’t add too much to the existing body of knowledge developed from anecdote. So, Krieger (and various colleagues forged ahead with more research).
Another reason for more research was that Kreiger originally analysed sets per muscle, per workout. Brad Schoenfeld (another leading researcher) commented that a more useful marker might be sets per week. This led the two of them to work together in future studies. They conducted a follow-up meta-analysis to analyse the effect of sets per muscle group per week on muscle gain.
They looked at the existing research on the subject and divided training protocols into high and low volume groups. Their research indicated that higher volumes were associated with 3.9% more muscle (on average) compared with lower volumes.
Further investigation led them to categorise anything less than 9 sets per week per muscle group as low volume and anything over 9 sets as high. This distinction averaged out to high volume training yielding about a 2.4% increase in muscle mass compared low volume training.
To build on this and provide more clearly defined targets for people to aim for thy then divided the groups into the following three categories:
- <5 sets per muscle per week
- 5-9 sets per muscle per week
- 10+ sets per muscle per week
After analysing the data on the three categories they concluded that there was a clear dose-response relationship between training volume (sets per week) and muscle gain. That is to say that the more sets you do the more muscle you build!
More recently, they have published a study showing increases in muscle mass when training with as many as 45 sets per muscle group per week!
Note. That 45-set study while very interesting was short-term and deliberately designed to target a couple of muscles at a time. The whole body was not trained with 45 sets per week. Taking this info into account means that when you become very advanced and are trying to bring up a lagging muscle group, training other muscles at maintenance levels (very low volume per week) and blasting one or possibly two muscles at 45 sets per week might allow you to make rapid progress on those muscles.
Regardless, at this moment in time the research seems to be indicating a very positive relationship between high volumes and muscle growth.
So, more is better!?
Well kind of. There is of course a point of diminishing returns. At this point the investment in extra sets might not be worth it. For example, if 10 sets builds Y amount of muscle. 15 sets might build Y x1.2, 18sets might build Y x 1.3 and 22 sets might build Y x 1.31 (those numbers are completely arbitrary they just serve as an example of how your return on investment will diminish).
On this theory, how many sets you can (or should) do depends on various factors like your motivation/desire to eke out a few marginal gains, your work/life/gym balance, schedule, nutrition etc.
Even if you decide you’re super-motivated and want to set-up your life to maximise your muscle gains it does not mean that you should just drive the number of sets you do towards infinity!
There will come a point where you cannot recover from such high training volumes. In this instance, you will overtrain/under-recover. This scenario means you are killing yourself in the gym for inferior results which makes no sense. To maximise your results, you should shoot to do the most training you can recover from and make positive adaptations. This is a range between what Dr Mike Israetel calls your Maximum Adaptive Volume (MAV) and Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV).
Establishing your personal MRV for each muscle group (different muscles can handle different volumes) gives you invaluable data to build your programs to optimise your results.
Practical Guidelines (as I have identified, how many sets you should do is quite individual, however, the following guidelines work very well for the “typical” intermediate lifter who wants to make good progress but, has a life outside of the gym):
- You can build muscle with <5 sets per muscle per week (useful info if life is hectic)
- Higher volumes appear to provide superior gains in muscle mass than lower volumes
- Performing 10+ sets caused roughly double the gains on doing less than 5 sets
- In line with the principle of progressive overload you will have to do ore over time. While 5 sets might build muscle for you now it might not next year. So, the more advanced you become the more volume you will need to keep gaining more muscle.
- Individual and muscle specific differences will contribute to you own personal volume tolerance.
- Volume shouldn’t be set-in –stone. Much like my belief that training frequency should fluctuate over time for the best results, I believe in logically sequencing phases of higher and lower volume training to maximise your results