How many sets should you be doing per muscle group per week to build muscle? If you train efficiently, optimizing every factor for muscle growth, then you may be able to maximize your rate of muscle growth away with as few as 9 sets per week.
On the other hand, if you’re training for other goals—strength, power, fitness, or endurance—then you might be gaining less muscle per set, and so you’ll benefit from a higher training volume.
So in this article, we’ll start by going over the ideal type of volume for building muscle. Then, once we’re training efficiently, we can talk about how much volume we should do to build muscle as quickly as possible.
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 two popular definitions:
- Training Volume = total pounds lifted per exercise: number of sets × number of reps × weight lifted. For example, if we did 10 sets of front squats for 5 reps each, with a load of 225 pounds, our weekly squat volume would be 11,250 pounds.
- Training volume = number of challenging sets per muscle per week. For instance, if we did 5 challenging sets of front squats on Monday, 5 more on Friday, the training volume for our quads would be 10 sets per week.
Both of these definitions are correct, and both 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 training for muscle mass, 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.)
Training volume is best defined as the number of challenging sets you do per muscle per week. For example, if you do 5 sets of the bench press on Monday, 5 sets of push-ups on Wednesday, and 5 sets of dips on Friday, then the weekly training volume for your chest is 15 sets.
The Ideal KIND of Training Volume
If we’re defining training volume as the number of challenging sets we do, we need to make sure that the sets we’re doing are similarly efficient at stimulating muscle growth.
For example, let’s imagine that you’re trying to build bigger triceps, so you decide to do 10 sets for your triceps every week. That’s totally reasonable. But let’s say that you choose an exercise that isn’t great at working your triceps (such as the bench press). And you only do 5 reps per set. That training style isn’t an efficient way to build bigger triceps.
Now let’s imagine that you’re doing 10 sets of skull crushers, that you’re doing 12 reps per set, and that you’re bringing those sets within 1–2 reps of failure. Now you’re training efficiently.
Because these two ways of training stimulate a different amount of muscle growth per set, we can’t weigh them equally. That’s why we need to talk about the ideal kind of volume before we can talk about the ideal amount of volume.
There are a few things you can do to get more muscle growth out of every set that you do:
- Choose good lifts. Lifts that challenge your muscles through a deep range of motion tend to stimulate more muscle growth. For example, deep bench presses for your chest, front squats for our quads, and deadlifts for your glutes and hamstrings.
- Take your sets close enough to failure. Stopping 1–2 reps away from failure often works best.
- Lift within the hypertrophy rep range. Anywhere from 4–40 reps will stimulate muscle growth, but sets of 6–20 reps are more efficient, allowing you to build more muscle with every set.
- Rest long enough between sets. If you’re trying to build more muscle with every set, resting 2–5 minutes is often best. With that said, short rest times can be great for building muscle, just keep in mind that they stimulate less muscle growth per set. You may need to do 2–3 drop sets or rest-pause sets to get the same stimulus as a regular set. The same is true when you cut your rest times short, starting your next set before you’ve regained your strength.
- Challenge each muscle at least twice per week. A challenging workout stimulates a few days of muscle growth. That means that to keep our muscles growing all week long, we need to train them every few days—at least twice per week.
For more, we have a full article on how to train for muscle growth.
The Ideal AMOUNT of Training Volume
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 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?
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 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?
Ever since High-Intensity Training (HIT) became popular in the 1970s, it’s been somewhat controversial that doing more sets builds more muscle. Fortunately, there’s been quite a lot of research since then. Another of my favourite researchers looking into the ideal training volume for muscle growth is James Krieger, MS. He’s famous for publishing a systematic review and meta-analysis of all of the relevant studies on how training volume affects muscle growth. The conclusion? The more sets we do, the more muscle we build—at least to a point.
What’s interesting is that when doing this research, Krieger noticed that with shorter rest times (under two minutes of rest between sets) we can benefit from extremely high training volume—as much as 45 sets per muscle per week. However, he also discovered that if we use longer rest times (3–5 minutes of rest between sets), that effect disappears, and we build just as much muscle with moderate training volumes. Overall, assuming we rest long enough between sets, Krieger found that muscle growth is maximized with six challenging sets per muscle per workout.
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.
When Should You Add More Sets?
You’ll know you need to add more sets when your workouts stop giving you a pump, making you sore, or causing strength gains from week to week. Until then, it’s often wise to stick with what’s working.
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 3 times per week, doing 3 challenging sets each workout. That’s a total of 9 challenging sets per week, and that’s perfect… for now. Eventually, 3 sets might not give your quads the same pump, won’t leave them feeling sore afterwards, and you may have trouble adding more weight to the bar each week. At that point, consider adding a fourth set, bumping your training volume up to 12 sets per week. When you adapt to that, try adding another set.
When the ever-increasing volume starts to become unmanageable or hard to recover from, take a deload week to recover, dropping the volume back down to just 2 sets per muscle per workout, and leaving at least 3 reps in reserve on each set. And then you can climb back up again, maybe using a slightly different exercise or rep scheme.
The Minimum Volume Needed to Build Muscle
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, but it’s an efficient way of training that can still yield steady muscle growth.
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 there’s also research showing that we can reliably build muscle with lower training 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.
- 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.
So, How Many Sets to Build Muscle?
The ideal training volume for building muscle is around 9–18 sets per muscle per week. And if you’re choosing good lifts, doing 6–20 reps per set, and bringing those sets within 1–2 reps of failure, the bottom end of that range is often enough to maximize muscle growth.
Also, 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. More isn’t necessarily better, and starting with 3 sets per workout is often plenty for a beginner.
If you’re trying to take a more minimalist approach, you can do as few as 2–5 sets per muscle per week and still expect to maintain your progress. And if you’re a beginner, 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.