Research Has Unveiled How Many Sets You Need to Do to Build Muscle

young man training on a leg machine in the gym
How Many Sets You Need to Do to Build Muscle?urbazon - Getty Images

New evidence has shed light on the optimal amount of sets we need to be getting through in our workouts in order to build muscle.

Until this point, various studies have suggested that muscle gain will increase as volume increases, with different muscle groups requiring different amounts of sets for optimal muscle growth. However, it hasn't been studied to the same extent as this recent research.

In a YouTube video shared by Dr Mike Israetel, a man who holds PhD in Sport Physiology, and sport scientist PhD Dr Milo Wolf, the two experts discussed the findings of the study which was published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise.

Focusing on the quadriceps and trained squats, leg presses and leg extensions, the study compared three training volumes:

  • Group 1 (Low Volume): 22 sets of quad training per week, split evenly over 2 workouts.

  • Group 2 (Medium Volume): 22 sets of quad training, adding 4 sets of weekly quad training every 2 weeks, resulting in 42 sets per week. This was 32 sets per week on average for the 12-week study.

  • Group 3 (High Volume): 22 sets of quad training, adding 6 sets of weekly quad training every 2 weeks, resulting in 52 sets per week. This was 38 sets per week on average for the 12-week study.

The results found that the high volume group (52 sets per week, 38 on average) resulted in greater muscle thickness and size as well as an improvement in strength gains. The study concluded that progressively adding four or six sets per week every two weeks elicited greater lower body strength and size over the 12 weeks.

Does this mean we should be completing 52 sets per week? The experts said it's unlikely. Linking this study back to our training, it's suggested that we could increase hypertrophy and strength by completing more than 22 sets a week. This could be achieved by adding 4-6 sets per week. However, that's not as simple as it may seem.

The study also mentioned that the limited certainty of the findings warrants caution due to the variation between results. For example, in the groups there were quite wide differences in results between participants. It's also important to add that in this study, the participants were training extremely hard.

To put this into context, the high volume group completed 26 sets of quads with 2 minutes rest. The programme contained:

  • 9 sets of squats

  • 9 sets of leg press

  • 8 sets of leg extension

It's pretty brutal to say the least, not to mention how much time this would take. A 30-minute lunch break workout this ain't.

MH says: Not everyone can add more volume to their training, especially to this degree and with every single muscle group. Doing so would likely sacrifice adequate recovery and therefore increase the risk of injury, so of course work within your limitations.

The key takeaway is that despite this study's findings, you don't have to work to such high levels as 52 sets per week. However, you could focus on increasing weekly volume from where you are now and ensure you are working close to failure at the end of those sets.

How Many Sets Are Recommended for Muscle Growth?

As a rule of thumb, work 0-5 reps from failure with an amount of sets suitable for your experience level. Referring to previous research published in the Journal of Sports Science, it found that 10 or more sets per muscle per week elicited greater hypertrophy than less than 10 sets. You could start here and increase weekly sets gradually as you get stronger and more acclimatised to the amount of work.

Using the new research as well as taking an individualised approach to your programming will likely improve your muscle gains, without you needing to skip to stairs.

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