When it comes to working out, knowing how many sets per muscle group to perform can be really confusing.
*When we mention “sets”, we are referring to how many sets per week, per body part.*
What’s best? 2 sets, 3 sets, 5 sets, 10 sets, 20 sets? There are so many training programs out there telling us mixed information on the best way to achieve results.
But who’s right and who’s wrong (probably everyone and no one)?
Let’s find out.
Knowing how many sets you need for each muscle group requires an investigation of sorts. Depending on who you ask, the answer generally lies between 1 and 25 sets per muscle per week—hardly definitive.
The question isn’t how many sets do we need for bodybuilder results, but instead, how many sets do we need to see great results in the least amount of time?
Here at Normal Joe Fit, we try to strike a balance between doing too little and doing way too much.
We enjoy the middle-ground. It’s where just enough effort is applied to enjoy 90% of the benefits.
With that in mind, let’s talk about how many sets we need to build some muscle without living in the gym.
How Many Sets Per Muscle Group Do You Really Need?
This year a trio of really smart guys (Brad Schoenfeld PhD, Dan Ogborn PhD, James Krieger MS) studied this very topic with a great meta-analysis research paper.
In case you haven’t heard of these guys, know that they are some of the most educated and respected minds in the exercise science field (yes, they get paid to study exercise—pretty sweet).
Their research findings stated the following:
“Clearly, substantial hypertrophic gains (muscle gains) can be made using low- volume protocols ( ≤ 4 weekly sets per muscle group). Such an approach therefore represents a viable muscle-building option for those who are pressed for time or those to which the conservation of energy is an ongoing concern (i.e., frail elderly).”
In other words, less than 4 weekly sets per muscle group can produce some muscle gains. That’s right, 3 or 4 sets of pull ups each week might be enough to build some muscle on that back after all.
The only downside is you won’t build it very fast (man, that would have been awesome).
But, it’s not all bad news. We should appreciate that you can finally breathe easy knowing you won’t be shrinking each week because you miss a workout or two.
For those crazy weeks where you might only get one or two workouts (i.e., Peaky Blinders returned on Netflix), take solace in knowing something is scientifically proven to be better than nothing. #minimalgainzarestillgainz.
Find the Middle Ground
We’ve established that less than 4 sets can build muscle, but it probably isn’t the best middle ground.
Let’s go and find some middle ground shall we.
Going back to the research review (15 studies), Schoenfeld and crew found something really interesting: participants who lifted +10 sets per week gained almost twice as much muscle as those who lifted 5 sets per week.
Seriously? Ya, big difference.
I’m no mathematician, but that’s like… double. I was surprised too.
What we’ve learned so far: Less than 5 sets per week builds more muscle than sitting around doing nothing (obvious I know), and +10 sets per week builds twice as much muscle as 5 sets per week. Got it…got it…
What about the middle child? Ya know, 6-9 sets.
Well, in typical middle child fashion, middle of the pack is a weird place. The same study found 6-9 sets yielded only a slightly higher increase in muscle than 5 sets (1.2%). Sorry middle children.
The good news is that if you have more time than zero (c’mon—we all do), 4-9 sets per week yields about the same results. If you have a little bit more time, +10 sets will give you the best results.
Identify the Sweet Spot—The Magic of 10 Sets
If 5 sets per week are better than 1 set and 10 sets are better than 5 sets, surely 100 sets are better than 10 sets?
Not so fast. The research review above couldn’t determine optimal. It appears that optimal results have a range (>10).
Optimal starts at 10 sets for most people and the upper threshold is completely dependent on genetics.
As a reference, many training programs in men’s fitness mags include workouts up to 30 sets per muscle while many sensible programs range from 8-15 sets.
Based on the evidence at hand, a bulletproof recommendation would be 10 sets per muscle group per week.
Put this Lesson into Action
Okay—we now know how many sets per muscle group: 10 sets. Just do 10 sets for each body part and you are golden right?
Yah…well no, or maybe, and not exactly.
Let’s make this as simple as possible.
Instead of thinking about working each individual muscle with 10 sets each week, think about working each major movement pattern with 10 sets each week.
Do this, and you are well on your way good sir’s.
For some clarity, let’s look at the major exercise patterns we should be training.
4 Major Patterns:
Upper Push: think pushing something away from your body using your arms.
Upper Pull: think pulling something towards your body using your arms.
Lower Push: think of pushing something away from your body using your legs.
Lower Pull: think pulling something towards your body using your leg
Upper push examples: bench press, push ups, chest flyes, shoulder presses.
Upper pull examples: pull up, chin up, lat-pull down, inverted row.
Lower push examples: squats, leg presses, lunges, leg extensions.
Lower pull examples: deadlifts, hamstring curls, nordic-ham curls, hyperextensions.
Most of these exercises will train both bigger and smaller muscles simultaneously. Great bang for your buck.
For instance, bench press trains both the chest (big muscles) and triceps/shoulders (smaller muscles). Pull ups train both the upper back (big muscles) and biceps/traps/forearms (smaller muscles).
Remember, we want to keep this simple and effective.
When we focus on training these 4 patterns equally, we automatically create more balance in our workout and our bodies are built symmetrically.
Many guys suffer from a balance issue: upper/lower push exercises far exceeding upper/lower pull exercises.
You start to look Quasimodo: big chest, rolled shoulders, huge quads, invisible hamstrings, green shirt, and a squinty eye.
When women think “meathead”, they think of the guy who’s all push and no pull.
If you’ve been pushing more than pulling in the quest for pecs and arms, it might be smart to train pull movements at a 2:1 ratio with push movements for a few months. You will look better and your joints will thank you for it.
And the smaller muscle groups? They need some isolated love too.
Minor Muscle Groups:
Traps | Shoulders | Biceps | Triceps | Forearms | Abdominals | Erectors (low back) | Calves | Abductors/adductors (hips)
Let’s not get too caught up in the details. I may have missed a minor-muscle or two that’s important to you, but let’s not major in the minor.
Working these smaller muscles groups directly are great. No one ever said you shouldn’t hit a few sets of bicep curls or calf raises if you have a lagging body part. Just make sure to hit your big 4 above each week first.
Putting It All Together—A Template To How Many Sets Per Muscle Group
Here is a simple example of using the NJF 10 set recommendation.
Workout days per week: 4
Sets Per Body Part: 10
Build Your Own Program
|Day 1:||Day 2:||Day 3:||Day 4:|
Upper Push Exercise
|Lower Push Exercise
|Lower Pull Exercise
|Upper Pull Exercise
Lower Pull Exercise
|Upper Pull Exercise
|Upper Push Exercise
Lower Push Exercise
Sample Program (Arm & Shoulder Specialization):
|Day 1:||Day 2:|
|Day 3:||Day 4:|
And that’s all there is to it. Replace any exercise with your favorites. There is no magic hither.
Keep it simple, keep it easy, and have fun.
A) Yes, we know sets and reps are referred to as volume. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we’ll continue to say sets and reps because it’s easier to read and it’s our rules.
B) Many strength coaches will include loaded carries, lunges, glute work, and core work as part of their core movement patterns. But, let’s not get buried in semantics.
C) We didn’t cover intensity. Assume your sets above are taken close to failure. Just work hard. We can hit intensity in another article.
D) We didn’t cover frequency. You can do a four day split like the example above, or a 3 day, 4 day, 5 day, 6 day…whatever your heart desires. If you can help it, try to avoid doing all 10 sets on 1 day. Exposing a body part to multiple training sessions each week is optimal.
E) We didn’t cover how many reps per set. That’s next. Stay tuned.
F) If you’re feeling savage one week and go for more than 10 sets, awesome. And if you’re feeling lethargic and do <10 sets one week, listen to your body and know you are still making progress.