How many weekly sets should we be doing per muscle group per week when training for hypertrophy? That’s a good question but also a tricky question because of how many factors are involved:
- What rep ranges are you lifting in?
- How long are your rest times?
- How close to failure are you going?
- How often are you training each muscle?
- Are you aiming for overall muscle growth (bulking) or are you focusing on a few muscles (specialization)?
In this article, we’ll start by going over the ideal type of volume for building muscle—the ideal number of reps per set, how close to failure we should be lifting, and how long our rest times should be. Then, once we’ve narrowed in on how to lift for muscle growth, we can talk about how much volume we should be doing to build muscle as fast as possible.
- What is Training Volume?
- How to Train for Hypertrophy
- The Optimal Volume for Hypertrophy
- The Minimum Volume Needed to Build Muscle
- So, How Many Sets to Build Muscle?
What is Training Volume?
Before we can talk about the ideal training volume for building muscle, we need to define what training volume is, at least in the context of hypertrophy training. There are a couple of popular definitions:
- Pounds lifted per week: sets × reps × weight. For example, if we did ten sets of front squats for five reps each with a load of 225 pounds, then our weekly squat volume would be 11250 pounds. And if that’s the only training we do for our quads, then we could say that our weekly training volume for our quads is 11250 pounds. (This is a bit simplistic, mind you, since it doesn’t account for the range of motion or leverage.)
- Challenging sets per week: number of sets taken within a few reps of failure. For example, if we do ten working sets of front squats per week, and if squatting is the extent of our quad training, then we could say that our weekly quad volume is ten sets.
Both of these definitions are correct, with researchers like Brad Schoenfeld, PhD favouring the first definition and researchers like Greg Nuckols, MA, favouring the second. Both definitions can be useful, too. For example, if we’re trying to improve how much overall work we’re doing per week (work capacity), then the first definition is better. That’s not particularly useful information when trying to build muscle, though.
When building muscle, we don’t need to know how much work we’re doing, we just need to know how much muscle growth we’re stimulating. Since challenging sets stimulate similar amounts of muscle growth regardless of how much work we’re doing, a better way to measure our training volume is to simply count the number of hard sets we’re doing. (I think this idea was popularized by Nathan Jones.)
However, the catch when counting the number of hard sets is that these need be sets that are designed to stimulate muscle growth. The rep range needs to be moderate (6–20 or perhaps 4–40 reps per set), we need to take those sets close to failure (usually within 1–3 reps), we need to rest long enough between sets (usually 2+ minutes), and we can only count those sets for the muscles that are our limiting factors.
For example, a set of 10 reps on the bench press brought to within 2 reps of failure counts towards our weekly volume for our chest, but probably not for our triceps (since they aren’t being sufficiently challenged). So because of all this nuance we need to consider, it can help to go over the various factors and how they effect muscle growth. Once we’ve done that, we can talk about the ideal training volume for hypertrophy.
While bulking, our training volume is best defined as challenging sets per muscle group per week. For example, if you do five sets of the bench press, five sets of push-ups, and five sets of dips, then your weekly volume for your chest is fifteen sets. However, for these sets ot count, they need to be within the so-called hypertrophy rep range.
How to Train for Hypertrophy
How Many Reps Should You Do?
In some situations, the repetition range that we lift in can affect the amount of muscle growth we stimulate with each set. For example, there was a famous study by Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, that we covered in our strength training article. It found that the same amount of muscle growth from doing seven low-rep sets as from doing three higher-rep sets.
- The strength training group did 7 sets of 3 repetitions. It took them 70 minutes to finish their workouts, and by the end of the study, they were complaining of sore joints and overall fatigue. 2 participants dropped out due to joint pain.
- The hypertrophy training group did 3 sets of 10 repetitions. It took them 17 minutes to finish their workouts, they were eager to do more lifting, they finished the study feeling fresh, and they built the same amount of muscle.
If we look at the overall research, we see that sets of 1–3 repetitions, and perhaps even sets of 4–5 repetitions, don’t stimulate as much muscle growth per set as higher-rep sets do. They’re great for gaining strength, not so great for building muscle.
Then, at the other end of the strength–endurance spectrum, once reps move beyond 30–40 reps per set, they become better for improving muscular endurance but start stimulating less muscle growth.
According to experts like Greg Nuckols, MA, sets of 4–40 reps stimulate maximal amounts of muscle growth per set. According to others, such as Mike Israetel, PhD, sets of 5–30 reps are ideal for building muscle. We also have researchers like James Krieger, MS, only counting sets of 8+ reps in his hypertrophy volume research. Still, all these hypertrophy rep ranges are essentially the same, and they become even more similar once we start putting them into the context of a good hypertrophy program.
The hypertrophic stimulus and fatigue generated by each set between roughly 5 and 30 reps is about the same. Volume AND intensity cause growth and fatigue, and when one goes up per set, the other goes down to preserve a roughly even effect.Mike Israetel, PhD
When we’re doing sets of 1–5, the sets tend to be harder on our joints and connective tissues, they can have higher rates of injury, and they can take longer to recover from. There are problems with doing sets of 20–40 reps, too. First, we need to take them closer to muscular failure to reliably provoke muscle growth. Second, taking high-rep sets to failure is so painful that it makes people vomit. And third, higher-rep sets can cause a tremendous amount of muscle damage, making the workouts harder to recover from.
So although sets of 4–40 or 5–30 can technically stimulate maximal amounts of muscle growth, hypertrophy training tends to go a lot smoother if we spend more of our time lifting in the 6–20 rep range. And even within that shrinking rep range, different lifts respond better to different rep ranges, narrowing it still further.
Because of how heavy and tiring they are, the lower side of that range tends to be ideal for the bigger compound lifts, giving us loose rep range recommendations for the five big bulking lifts of, say:
- Deadlifts: 4–10 reps per set.
- Front Squats: 5–12 reps per set.
- Bench Press: 5–12 reps per set.
- Overhead Press: 6–12 reps per set.
- Chin-Ups: 5–10 reps per set.
And then the ideal rep ranges climb higher for assistance and accessory lifts, which are lighter, less fatiguing, and can tolerate a bit of technique breakdown. Here are some loose recommendations for some common isolation lifts:
- Biceps Curls: 8–15 reps per set.
- Dumbbell Rows: 8–15 reps per set.
- Barbell Rows: 10–20 reps per set
- Dips: 8–15 reps per set.
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 8–15 reps per set.
- Skullcrushers: 8–15 reps per set.
- Romanian Deadlifts: 8–15 reps per set.
- Zercher Squats: 8–15 reps per set.
- Lateral Raises: 10–20 reps per set.
- Overhead extensions: 10–20 reps per set.
- Push-Ups: 10–30 reps per set.
- Wrist curls: 12–30 reps per set.
- Neck curls: 15–30 reps per set.
Genetics and personal preference will factor into what rep ranges you prefer, too. Some people’s shoulders ache when they bench too heavy, others when they bench too light. Some people’s lower backs get too beat up with low-rep sets of deadlifts, whereas others wind up winded before reaching the end of a ten-rep set. There’s plenty of wiggle room here.
Anyway, the point is that sets of 4–40 reps, and certainly sets of 6–20 reps, all stimulate near-identical amounts of muscle growth, allowing us to simply count the number of challenging sets per week.
If you’re doing sets of fewer than four reps or greater than forty reps, count them as half a set.
What About Reverse Pyramid Training?
There are a number of set and rep schemes that are used to build muscle, including strategies like reverse pyramid training, where we take some weight off the bar between sets, moving into higher rep ranges with every set, like so:
- First set: 100 x 8
- Second set, 10% lighter: 90 x 10
- Third set, another 10% lighter: 80 x 12
This is a perfectly fine way of training for muscle size and strength, but it doesn’t seem to offer much of an advantage, either. Recent research comparing straight sets against pyramid sets showed virtually no differences when the training volume was equated:
- 7.6% growth from 3–5 traditional sets.
- 7.5% growth from 3–5 pyramid sets.
What’s neat about this study is that they compared the participants against themselves. They did straight sets with one leg, pyramid sets with the other. Both legs grew the same amount, and so we know with a fairly high degree of certainty that reverse pyramid training doesn’t have much impact on muscle growth. We can use pyramid sets if we prefer, so long as we’re doing a reasonable number of sets and reps overall—so long as we’re using a reasonable training volume.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?
A decade ago, bodybuilders would use short rest times between sets to get better muscle pumps, keep their workouts short and focused, improve their conditioning, and, they thought, to build more muscle.
Recently, new research has been coming out showing that longer rest periods are ideal for building muscle. That way our muscles can better recover their strength between sets, allowing us to maintain more of our performance from set to set. And so nowadays, most bodybuilders rest 2–5 minutes between sets.
What’s neat is that both ways of training can be ideal. Yes, resting 2–5 minutes between sets seems to be better for gaining muscle and strength on a per-set basis:
- 3-minute rest periods yielded more muscle growth than 1-minute rest periods in the 8–12 rep range (study).
- 5-minute rest periods roughly doubled the amount of protein synthesis compared to 1-minute rest periods (study).
- 30-second rest periods yielded similar muscle growth to 30 second rests resulted in similar hypertrophy to 150 second rests when using low loads (40% 1-RM), but the percentage changes favored the long rest group, particularly in the thighs
However, if we reduce our rest times, we wind up doing more sets in the same amount of time, and so we wind up building just as much muscle mass—sometimes more. This means that people who are pressed for time could sneak in some drop sets to quickly boost their volume up into the ideal range.
Furthermore, different rest times provoke different adaptations in our muscles. The longer we rest, the better it is for gaining strength. The shorter our rest times, the better it is for improving our fitness, work capacity, and oxygen delivery. In some cases, by using higher-rep sets and shorter rest times, we can get even more muscle growth than longer rest periods. For example, this study found that using shorter rest times roughly doubled muscle growth:
- Long rest times, 8 reps per set: muscles grew 4.73% bigger.
- Short rest times, 20 reps per set: muscle grew 9.93% bigger.
If we use examples of extremely short rest periods, such as drop sets, where we lift to failure (or close to it), reduce the weight by 20%, and then immediately start lifting again, we see some nifty research findings:
- Normal sets with 90-second rest periods (3 sets total): muscles grew 5% bigger.
- A normal set immediately followed by three drop sets (4 sets total): muscles grew 10% bigger.
In this case, what we’re seeing is that drop sets can allow us to build more muscle in less time, perhaps simply by increasing the number of challenging sets we’re doing in our workouts—by increasing our training volume.
So instead of saying that longer or shorter rest intervals are better for hypertrophy, it’s more accurate to say that when we’re aiming for strength and size, we should use lower reps and longer rest periods. On the other hand, when we’re aiming for size and fitness, we should use higher reps and shorter rest periods.
Hypertrophy training is the combination of increased strength and muscular work capacity.Eric Helms, PhD
The trick, again, is to make sure that the various factors line up.
- Big compound lifts: best to use longer rest times so that we can lift heavy and gain strength. However, using short rest times can be a great way to improve our fitness, so they have a role as well.
- Smaller isolation lifts: shorter rest times can work very well, allowing us to sneak in a ton of extra volume in a short amount of time, build up a fearsome pump, and improve nutrient delivery to those muscles.
- Strength phases: if you’re trying to build muscle and gain strength, it can help to use longer rest times.
- Fitness phases: if you’re trying to improve your cardiovascular fitness, lifting fitness, or general health, it can help to use shorter rest times.
- Longer workouts: if you’re doing long workouts, then feel free to take some extra rest time. You’ll be able to do higher volumes and recover your strength between sets.
- Shorter workouts: if you don’t have much time to lift, it’s probably best to cram as much volume as you can into your workouts, and so short, strict rest times are usually ideal.
If our goal is to build muscle, gain strength, improve our health, and become better looking, it’s probably best to use both long and short rest times at various points in our training.
How Close to Failure Should You Lift?
Just like all the rest, how close to failure we lift depends on what kind of routine we’re following. The first factor is the rep range we’re lifting in.
- 4–5 reps per set: we probably want to leave 2–4 reps in the tank on most sets to keep the lifts safe and to keep ourselves feeling fresh enough to lift heavy weights.
- 6–15 reps per set: we might want to inch a little closer to failure, leaving just 1–3 reps in the tank, and perhaps taking some final sets to failure. That will allow us to stress our muscles enough to provoke optimal muscle growth without radically increasing our recovery needs.
- 16–40 reps per set: if we want to stimulate muscle growth in higher rep ranges, we need to take our sets pretty much all the way to failure. Best to grit our teeth and lift until our form starts to break down.
The next thing to consider is the type of lift we’re doing.
- Heavy compound lifts: with our deadlifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses, and chin-ups, we generally want to leave a little extra in reserve. The first consideration is making sure that we’re practicing good technique and lifting safely. And besides, we normally start our workouts with these lifts, so we don’t want to kill our horses right out of the gate.
- Assistance lifts: with lighter compound lifts, such as Romanian deadlifts, barbell rows, and pull-ups, we can inch a bit closer to failure, but it’s still usually best to stop before hitting failure.
- Accessory lifts: with simple accessory lifts, such as barbell curls, lateral raises, and skullcrushers, we can often get away with taking the lifts all the way to failure without risking injury or radically increasing recovery demands, allowing us to get a tidbit of extra muscle growth out of them. These tend to be at the end of our workouts, too, so there’s little harm in fully tiring out our muscles.
The bigger and heavier a lift is, the further away from failure we should train. Then, with smaller isolation lifts, we can take our lifts all the way to failure, especially on our final sets.
How Often Should You Work Out?
We can build muscle quite well while only training our muscles once per week. For example, bodybuilders have traditionally bulked up using push/pull/legs splits that look something like this:
- Monday: chest, shoulders, and triceps (push)
- Wednesday: back and biceps (pull)
- Friday: legs and abs (legs)
Now, is that optimal? No. Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, published a famous study where he compared these body-part split routines against full-body routines, finding that splitting the volume up over three days produced slightly more muscle growth.
A better approach:
- Monday: push, pull, legs
- Wednesday: push, pull, legs
- Friday: push, pull, legs
This wasn’t entirely surprising, given that it seems like muscle growth is maximally stimulated with around 4–12 sets per workout, but we can benefit from as many as thirty sets per week.
In fact, if we look at a study on German Volume Training (as seen in Athlean-X programs), we see that doing ten sets of ten (10×10) per workout didn’t produce any more growth than doing just five sets of ten (5×10). This might be because those five sets had already stimulated a maximal amount of hypertrophy, and so adding more volume on top of that produced no further muscle growth.
Furthermore, most of us will be fully recovered from those 5–10 sets within 24–72 hours, allowing us to stimulate a new wave of muscle growth. This is why doing (roughly) five sets per muscle group per workout and training each muscle 3–5 times per week is likely a better way to stimulate muscle growth.
Point being, it’s not just weekly training volume we need to consider, but also our volume per muscle group per workout.
So if we wanted to hit, say, eighteen sets per week for our biceps, we might want to lift three times per week, doing six sets for our biceps each workout. That way we’d stimulate maximal muscle growth in each workout while also getting a great weekly training volume. For advanced lifters, we could expand this further, too. If we wanted to get all thirty sets for our biceps, we might want to spread that out over five workouts per week. That might be overkill for some of us, but if we really wanted bigger biceps in a hurry, that’d be a great way to do it.
How many sets we should do to build muscle could vary from around 12–30 sets just based on how often we’re training each muscle group. If we’re training a muscle just once per week, we’ll need to stick with a lower training volume (say twelve sets per week). But if we’re training a muscle 3–5 times per week, we can benefit from much higher volumes (say 30 sets per week).
How Fatiguing are the Lifts?
Finally, not all lifts are equally fatiguing per set. The first thing to consider is how heavy the lift is and how much muscle mass it works. If we compare a chin-up against a barbell curl, for example, then no wonder that the chin-up is so much more fatiguing—it’s a bigger, heavier lift that engages far more total muscle mass. That sorts itself out, though, if we count the chin-ups towards our back and biceps and ab volume (as most of us do, anyway).
But where things get tricky is that some lifts work a similar amount of muscle mass and yet produce totally different amounts of fatigue. For example, if we compare the squat and the deadlift, both are huge lifts that produce a similar amount of overall muscle growth throughout our bodies. However, the deadlift seems to be almost twice as fatiguing per set. Perhaps that’s because it puts more stress on our bones and connective tissues, perhaps it’s because the deadlift is harder on our hands, perhaps it’s because the deadlift is slightly heavier, or perhaps it’s simply that training our posterior chain is more fatiguing than training our quads. Whatever the reason, though, depending on the lifts we choose, we’ll benefit from different training volumes.
We might benefit from higher squatting volumes than deadlifting volumes. Or perhaps when training the deadlift movement pattern, we want a bit less heavy deadlifting (such as heavy sets of conventional deadlifts), and a bit more assistance and accessory work (such as plenty of Romanian deadlifts).
The Optimal Volume for Hypertrophy
Okay, now that we’ve gone through the various factors that affect our ideal training volume, we can talk about the ideal number of sets per muscle group per week.
I’ll go over the research and opinions of the two leading volume experts, but this is a constantly evolving field, so these aren’t meant to be the final word, just the best recommendations we can garner at the moment. I’ll do my best to update this article as more research comes out.
How Many Sets Per Muscle Group?
There are a few good resources for figuring out our ideal training volume. One of my favourites is Mike Israetel’s volume landmarks for hypertrophy. What he does is go over the different muscle groups and give recommendations for the volume required to maintain size or gain size. I’d highly recommend giving it a read, but here’s a quick summary:
- Upper Back 10–25 sets per week with a mix of vertical pulling (such as chin-ups) and horizontal pulling (such as rows).
- Chest: 10–22 sets per week with a mix of lifts that hit both the lower and upper chest, such as the bench press and push-ups.
- Shoulders: 8–26 sets per week, including a mix of lifts such as overhead presses, face pulls, upright rows, and lateral raises.
- Biceps: 8–26 sets per week in addition to general pulling work (such as rows and pull-ups). I’d count chin-ups as direct biceps work, mind you, along with all of the biceps curl variations.
- Quads: 8–20 sets per week with lifts like squats, step-ups, and leg extensions. If we use lifts like front squats and Zercher squats, we can train our quads, glutes, and spinal erectors at the same time, removing the need to train them directly.
- Hamstrings: 6–20 sets per week with lifts like deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and good mornings. If we use lifts like conventional deadlifts, we can train our glutes, traps, and spinal erectors at the same time, removing the need for directly training those muscles.
- Triceps: 6–30 sets per week in addition to our chest and shoulder-focused pressing work.
- Forearms: 2–25 sets per week with a mix of lifts like wrist curls (for the wrist flexors) and overhand barbell rows (for the brachioradialis).
- Traps: 0–40 sets per week. Traps are trained in most compound lifts, including chin-ups, overhead presses, barbell rows, and deadlifts. As a result, even without any direct trap work (such as shrugs) they can wind up shouldering incredible amounts of volume.
- Ab muscles: 0–25 sets per week. Compound lifts will often do a decent job of stimulating the abs, but for guys with small or stubborn abs, direct ab training can certainly help.
- Glutes: 0–16 sets per week. If we’re already doing deadlifts and squats to bulk up our quads and hamstrings, then no direct glute work is needed. But if we want maximal glute development, we could add up to 16 sets of direct glute work per week with lifts like glute bridges and hip thrusts.
- Calves: 8–16 sets per week. However, bulking up our calves won’t improve our strength, health, or aesthetics, so I’d consider calf training totally optional.
Some muscles, such as our traps, are worked hard enough by compound lifts that they’ll often grow just fine without ever needing to be isolated. Other muscles, such as the muscles in our necks, aren’t stimulated whatsoever by any of the big compound lifts, and so if we want to see growth, we need to train them directly. However, most muscles benefit from being trained with a mix of compound lifts and isolation lifts. For instance, our biceps grow best when we train them with a mix of chin-ups and biceps curls.
Dr Israetel also points out that weekly volume needs to be split up intelligently over multiple training sessions, with around 4–12 sets coming from each workout. The best way to hit a weekly training volume of eighteen sets, then, would be to train a muscle three times per week with six sets per workout.
Also, keep in mind that more isn’t necessarily better. In fact, most people get the best results while training someone in the middle of that range—somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12–18 sets per muscle group per week. We might be able to make good progress with less volume, though, and if a muscle is lagging, or if we’ve hit a size/strength plateau, then more volume might be the ticket. We’ve got a large range to experiment with.
Finally, Dr Israetel tends to start off bulking phases with the lower end of the volume range and then gradually work his way up to the higher end, eventually getting to a point where we can’t even fully recover from our training (overreaching). It’s possible—perhaps even likely that this increases muscle growth, but even if it doesn’t, it does seem to improve our lifting fitness and work capacity over time.
Dr Israetel’s research shows that most muscles grow best with a weekly training volume of around 8–25 sets per muscle per week, ideally spread out over 2–5 workouts. However, this can vary between people and also between muscle groups.
Does Doing More Sets Build More Muscle?
Another of my favourite researchers looking into the ideal training volume for muscle growth is James Krieger, MS. He’s famous for publishing a study known as the Volume Bible.
What makes Krieger’s research so cool is that over these past few years, there have been quite a few studies published showing benefits to very high training volumes—as much as 45 sets per muscle per week! However, all of that research uses short rest times between sets, presenting a potential confounding variable.
Krieger made his own meta-analysis of the studies while accounting for rest times, finding that shorter rest times (under two minutes) do indeed benefit from training volumes as high as fifteen sets per muscle per workout, or 45 sets per muscle per week. However, he also discovered that if we use longer rest times (3–5 minutes), that effect disappears, and we build just as much muscle with moderate training volumes. In fact, he found that muscle growth is fully maximized with six challenging sets per muscle per workout. For our biceps, say, that might mean four sets of chin-ups with two sets of biceps curls.
To illustrate this, a recent study was found that guys training their quads twice per week saw maximal growth with six sets per workout (12 sets per week). In fact, the groups doing nine and twelve sets per workout (18 and 24 sets per week) actually saw slightly less growth, although those results weren’t significant. This is just one of many studies, of course, but the results line up with the meta-regression Krieger performed on all of the relevant research.
If you’re taking long rests between sets, roughly 6 sets per muscle group per training session is a good target for most individuals looking to maximize hypertrophy.James Krieger, MS
Krieger points out that training a muscle 2–3 times per week seems to be fairly ideal, putting the ideal training volume at around 12–18 sets per muscle group per week, but keeping in mind that volume is directly tied to both training frequency and rest times.
Furthermore, Krieger notes that we can do specialization phases where we reduce our training volume for some muscle groups so that we can free up recovery for others. For example, we could lower our leg volume to eight sets per week and raise our biceps/triceps/shoulder volume to thirty sets per week. (And, anecdotally, training my stubborn biceps and triceps with obscenely high volume for a couple of months allowed me to add around two inches to my arms, so I’m certainly a fan of that approach.)
It may be best to focus on a couple individual muscle groups, training them with very high volume, and using a maintenance volume on the other muscle groups.James Krieger, MS
Finally, Krieger adds that there can be a benefit to volume cycling, where we start off a program with a period of lower training volume and then gradually progress to higher training volumes, eventually getting to a point where we’re doing more than the ideal amount (overreaching). This, too, lines up perfectly with Dr Israetel’s recommendations, although it’s worth pointing out that it’s still speculative.
Krieger’s research into training volume shows maximal muscle growth while training each muscle 2–3 times per week with six sets per workout, yielding an ideal training volume of 12–18 sets per muscle per week.
Increasing Versus Optimizing Volume
A 2020 study had subjects train one of their legs with 20% more volume than they were used to, and the other leg with an “optimal” volume of 22 sets per week. Eight weeks later, the subjects gained more muscle in the leg with increased volume than they did in the leg with optimized volume, even though the average volume wound up being similar between both legs.
This study shows that it might be wiser to focus more on gradually increasing our volume rather than immediately trying to hit the optimal number of challenging sets per week.
Gradually increasing our volume also makes sense when we consider that different people (at different points in their lives) respond best to different training volumes. Ideally, we want to find a training volume that helps us steadily gain strength on our lifts without making us feel overly worn down or fatigued. By gradually working our way up, we get to see which training volumes we respond best to.
For an example of how to put this into practice, let’s say that right now you’re squatting three times per week, doing three challenging sets each workout. That’s a total of nine challenging sets per week. The “optimal” number of sets per week is probably more like 12-18 sets, but that doesn’t mean that you want to immediately jump all the way to eighteen. Better to add a set each workout, bumping your volume up to 12 sets per week. If that goes well and you want to try more, move up to 16, and then 20.
When the ever-increasing volume starts to become unmanageable or hard to recover from, we can take a deload week to recover, dropping the volume back down to, say, two sets per muscle group per workout. And then we can climb back up again. This is called volume cycling, and it’s how a lot of good hypertrophy programs are structured.
We build muscle faster by gradually increasing our training volume than we do by jumping straight to the “ideal” amount. This helps us pace ourselves as our ability to recover gradually adapts to higher volumes.
The Minimum Volume Needed to Build Muscle
So we’ve talked about the ideal amount of training volume. Now let’s talk about the minimum amount of training volume required to build muscle and gradually get bigger. The good news is that the minimum effective volume isn’t as much as you might think! Most research shows that higher volumes produce at least slightly more growth, as we’ve shown above, but we have plenty of research showing that we can grow just fine with lower volumes, too:
- One systematic review found that untrained lifters were able to gain muscle in their upper bodies with as few as three sets per week.
- We have research showing that experienced lifters are still able to gain quite a bit of muscle and strength with as few as five sets per week.
- And a new study came out showing steady strength gains on the squat and bench press with as few as 2–3 sets per lift per week. Note that the average strength of the study participants was something along the lines of a 220-pound bench press 1RM and a 330-pound squat 1RM.
If we look at the research overall, most of it shows that we can reliably build muscle with just a few challenging sets per week. Mind you, most of these studies have the participants lifting to failure, so one takeaway is that if we’re lowing our training volume, we might want to take at least our final sets to failure.
Now, are these lower training volumes totally ideal for building muscle? No. For optimal muscle growth, we’d want to be doing 2–5 workouts per week, each containing somewhere between 3–8 sets per muscle group. But are these lower training volumes enough to gain muscle and strength? Yes, they can be.
And there are a few reasons why we might intentionally want to train with lower volumes:
- Minimal training volumes can still be quite effective. The law of diminishing returns kicks in fairly early with training volume. Sometimes there’s a sweet spot where we can do half the work while still making 80% of the progress. For some of us, that’s worth it, especially for muscles that aren’t high priorities.
- We can train with a lower volume on some muscle groups to free up energy for muscles we’re more eager to grow. For example, maybe we train with the minimum effective volume for our quads to give ourselves the time and energy to train with ideal volume for our shoulders (or vice versa).
- We can put building muscle on the backburner, freeing up time and energy to focus on other aspects of our lives. For example, we might be happy building muscle more slowly if it means that we have more time for exams, work, family, or managing stress.
- Lower training volumes can make our muscles more sensitive to higher volumes. If we get used to bulking with lower training volumes, when we increase our training volumes in the future, we might expect to see more growth. For example, if we go through a few months of doing minimal volume for our biceps, they might respond better to a specialization phase that ratchets the biceps volume way higher.
Doing 2–5 sets to failure per muscle group per week is often enough to stimulate at least some muscle growth. It’s not ideal for hypertrophy or strength, but it’s an efficient way of training that can yield steady growth.
So, How Many Sets to Build Muscle?
The best training volume for hypertrophy depends on what style of training we’re doing. A few factors seem especially important:
- How often are we training each muscle group? Our muscles will grow fastest with 2–5 workouts per week, each containing somewhere between 3–8 sets per muscle group.
- How close to failure are we lifting? If we’re lifting closer to failure, we might stimulate slightly more muscle growth per set, but it will be much harder to recover between workouts, and so we’ll be forced to train less often. It’s usually best to stop at least a couple of reps shy of failure on most sets, allowing us to train each muscle group 2–5 times per week.
- How long are our rest times? The shorter our rest times are, the higher our training volume can be. If we’re using long rest times of 3–5 minutes, then six sets per muscle per workout might be optimal. But with restricted rest times, it might take a dozen sets to get the same effect. That isn’t necessarily bad, though, or even inefficient. If we rest one minute between sets instead of five, we’d do around three times the volume in the same amount of time, which would be a net positive.
- Are we using compound or isolation lifts? Compound lifts can efficiently work several muscles at once, but on the other hand, they only stimulate maximal muscle growth in the muscles that are the limiting factors. For example, in the overhead press, both our shoulders and triceps are stimulated, but it’s our shoulders that limit our performance, and so it’s our shoulders that get the larger growth signal. To ensure maximal growth in our triceps, then, we can include lifts where our triceps are the limiting factor (such as overhead triceps extensions).
There’s no single ideal amount of volume for maximizing hypertrophy, but a good rule of thumb is to aim for 6–15 reps per set, 3–8 sets per muscle per workout, and to train our muscles 2–3 times per week. That yields a training volume of 9–18 sets per muscle group per week, which is right about perfect for building muscle. You can do that with 2–3 full-body workouts per week or with body-part splits.
Keep in mind that we want to work our volume up gradually and as needed, rather than immediately jumping all the way to the highest training volumes. Starting with 3 sets per workout and 9 sets per week is often plenty for a beginner.
If you’re trying to take a more minimalist approach to training, you can cut down your volume to just 2–5 sets per muscle group per week and still expect to maintain your progress. You may even gain some extra muscle size and strength.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program.