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, 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—you might gain less muscle per set. In that case, you may benefit from higher training volumes.
So, we’ll start by reviewing the best type of training volume for building muscle. Then we can discuss how much volume we should do to maximize our rate of muscle growth.
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 = pounds lifted per movement pattern per week: number of sets × number of reps × weight lifted. For example, if you bench press 225 pounds for 10 sets of 5 reps, your weekly bench press volume is 11,250 pounds.
- Training volume = number of hard sets per muscle group per week. For instance, if you do 5 challenging sets of bench presses on Monday and Friday, the volume for your chest is 10 sets per week.
Both of these definitions are correct. Both can be useful, too. The first definition is better if you’re trying to improve how much overall work you’re doing per week (work capacity). It can also be useful when your routine includes a lot of low-rep sets. It’s less useful when you’re following a hypertrophy training routine.
When you’re training to build muscle, you don’t need to know how much work you’re doing, just how much muscle growth you’re stimulating. In a good hypertrophy training program, every set is designed to stimulate muscle growth, so all you need to do is count how many hard sets you do. (I believe Nathan Jones popularised this idea.)
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 bench presses on Monday, 5 sets of push-ups on Wednesday, and 5 sets of dips on Friday, the volume for your chest is 15 sets per week.
The Ideal KIND of Training Volume
If we’re defining training volume as the number of challenging sets we do, we need to ensure the sets we’re doing are similarly efficient at stimulating muscle growth.
For example, imagine you’re trying to build bigger triceps, so you decide to do 10 sets for your triceps every week. That’s reasonable. But let’s say you choose an exercise that isn’t great at working your triceps (such as the bench press) and only do 4 reps per set. That isn’t a very efficient way to stimulate triceps, so those 10 sets won’t get you very far.
Now let’s imagine you’re doing 10 sets of skull crushers, you’re doing 12 reps per set, and you’re bringing those sets within 0–2 reps of failure. Now you’re training efficiently. Those 10 sets will stimulate far more muscle growth.
Different styles of training stimulate different amounts of muscle growth, so can’t weigh the volume equally. That’s why we need to talk about the ideal kind of volume before talking 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, dips for your chest, front squats for your quads, and Romanian deadlifts for your glutes and hamstrings.
- Train hard enough. Stopping 1–2 reps away from failure often works best.
- Lift in 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.
- Get enough rest between sets. If you’re trying to build more muscle per set, you’ll need to rest for 2–5 minutes between sets. Short rest times can be great for building muscle, too, but you’ll need to do more sets.
- Train often enough. A challenging workout stimulates a few days of muscle growth. To keep your muscles growing all week long, you need to train them every few days.
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.
Set recommendations depend on how you count volume. Every set of barbell rows count as a set for your upper back, but does it count as a set for your biceps? What about your forearms? What about your spinal erectors? Most studies count all of those muscles as being trained, even though your upper back muscles are the only ones we know for sure are being brought close to failure.
I think it’s more useful to only count volume for muscles being worked hard enough to grow. That can vary between people. You’ll have to figure out how hard your barbell rows are working your forearms and spinal erectors.
That means that when we recommend 6–12 sets for your biceps, that’s 6–12 sets of biceps curls in addition to your rows and chin-ups. That’s why the bottom end of the range is so low. More on that in a moment.
How Many Sets Per Muscle?
There’s this old idea that different muscles benefit from different training volumes. There’s some truth to that idea, but it seems to have more to do with exercise selection than muscle groups.
For example, hamstrings are notorious for only needing a few hard sets per week. This may be because hamstrings are faster twitch muscles, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the most popular hamstring exercise, Romanian deadlifts, challenge our hamstrings in a fully stretched position.
If I’m right, this means that muscles that are easier to challenge under a deep stretch, such as our chests, quads, and hamstrings, can benefit from lower training volumes. By contrast, muscles that are harder to work at long muscle lengths, such as our backs and side delts, can benefit from higher training volumes.
- Chest and front delts: 9–18 sets per week. It won’t take much to punish your pecs and front delts. Most pressing exercises work your chest hard under a deep stretch. Think of barbell bench presses and push-ups. You can take this even further with dips, dumbbell bench presses, deficit push-ups, and dumbbell flyes.
- Upper Back: 12–30 sets per week. Your back can take a beating. Most back exercises are challenging when your back muscles are contracted. Think of chin-ups, pull-ups, and rows, which are hardest at the top of the range of motion. These are still the best back exercises, but you may need to do more sets. (You may be able to get more bang for your buck by including pullovers and lat prayers.)
- Quads: 9–18 sets per week. Quads are easy to train at longer muscle lengths, especially if you favour exercises like goblet squats, front squats, and leg presses.
- Hamstrings: 6–12 sets per week. Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, and seated hamstring curls all work your hamstrings under a tremendous stretch. It doesn’t take much.
- Side delts: 9–18 sets per week. Most people train their side delts with exercises that are hardest at shorter muscle lengths. Think of overhead presses, upright rows, face pulls, and standing lateral raises. These are all great exercises, but you might be able to get more stimulation per set from lying lateral raises and cable lateral raises.
- Biceps: 6–12 sets per week. If you count your back exercises as biceps work, they can handle quite a lot of volume. However, if you’re training them directly with exercises like biceps curls, preacher curls, incline curls, and lying biceps curls, you can do well with as few as 8 sets per week.
- Triceps: 6–12 sets per week. Pressing exercises aren’t an efficient way to bulk up your triceps, but triceps extensions are, and both skull crushers and overhead extensions challenge your triceps through a deep range of motion.
- Forearms: 0–18 sets per week. Your forearms can handle a tremendous amount of volume, thankfully, since you use them in nearly every exercise. They may grow just fine without any isolation work whatsoever. If they don’t grow, try wrist curls and reverse curls.
- Traps: 0–18 sets per week. Your traps support your shoulder girdle during compound lifts, including deadlifts, chin-ups, overhead presses, and rows. You probably don’t need to isolate them.
- Abs: 0–18 sets per week. Compound lifts often do a decent job of stimulating your abs, but for guys with small or stubborn abs, direct ab training can certainly help. Think of exercises like knee raises, leg raises, crunches, and reverse crunches.
- Glutes: 0–12 sets per week. Deadlifts and squats both work your glutes quite hard. You probably don’t need any exercises specifically for your glutes.
- Calves: 12–18 sets per week. Your calves probably need calf raises to grow.
- Neck: 9–18 sets per week. Your neck probably needs neck curls and extensions to grow.
Spreading Out Your Training Volume
Training volume is usually calculated per week. Usually, it’s better to split that volume up over at least 2 workouts. Instead of doing all 12 sets in the same workout, try spreading it out like this:
- 6 sets of biceps curls 2x per week.
- 4 sets of biceps curls 3x per week.
- 3 sets of biceps curls 4x per week.
Most hypertrophy training workout routines train each muscle at least twice per week. That’s true of all full-body workout routines, most 4-day and 5-day splits, and almost all 6-day splits. That’s why almost all of those splits, when programmed correctly, can stimulate a similar amount of muscle growth.
The elephant in the room is the Bro Split. However, even if you’re following a Bro Split workout routine, you don’t need to stack all your arm training into Arm Day. You can shift some your biceps curls to Back Day. And even if you don’t, those back exercises will stimulate your biceps a little bit anyway.
Does Doing More Sets Build More Muscle?
Ever since High-Intensity Training (HIT) became popular in the 1970s, there’s been controversy around the idea that doing more sets stimulates more muscle growth. Fortunately, there’s been quite a lot of research since then, too.
That’s where James Krieger, MS, comes in. He’s famous for publishing a systematic review and meta-analysis on how training volume affects muscle growth (study). He concluded that the more sets we do, the more muscle we build—to a point.
Krieger noticed that with shorter rest times (under 2 minutes between sets), some studies found benefits from doing as many as 45 sets per muscle. However, if you rest for longer (3–5 minutes between sets), the benefit of high-volume training disappears.
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, one study found that 12 sets per week was enough to maximize muscle growth in the quads. The groups doing 18 and 24 sets per workout gained slightly less muscle, though the results weren’t significant.
That’s just one of many studies, of course, but the results align with the meta-regression Krieger performed on all the relevant research at the time. A recent systematic review lends support to these findings, showing that 12–20 sets per muscle per week is enough to maximize muscle growth (study).
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.
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 notes that we can do “specialization phases,” reducing our training volume for some muscle groups to free up recovery for others. For example, you could lower your leg volume to 8 sets per week and raise your biceps/triceps/shoulder volume to 30 sets per week. (Anecdotally, this works. Training my biceps and triceps with high volume for 3 months added 2 inches to my arms.)
Overall, Krieger’s research suggests we can maximize muscle growth by training our muscles 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?
Scarpelli and colleagues 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 (study). Eight weeks later, the subjects gained more muscle in the leg with increased volume than in the leg with optimized volume, even though the average volume was similar between both legs.
This study shows that it might be wiser to gradually increase our volume rather than immediately trying to hit the optimal number of challenging sets per week. These findings have been replicated by more recent research (study).
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 feeling overly worn down or fatigued. By gradually working our way up, we see which training volumes we respond best to.
For an example of how to put this into practice, let’s say you’re squatting 3 times per week, doing 3 challenging sets each workout. That’s a total of 9 challenging sets per week. That’s perfect. For now.
After a couple of weeks, 3 sets might not give your quads the same pump, won’t leave them feeling as sore, and you may have trouble achieving progressive overload. At that point, consider adding a 4th set, bumping your training volume up to 12 sets per week. When that stops working, consider a 5th set.
When the ever-increasing volume becomes unmanageable, take a deload week, dropping the volume to just 2 sets per exercise and leaving at least 3 reps in reserve on each set. Then you can climb back up again, maybe using a slightly different exercise or rep scheme.
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.
The Minimum Volume Needed to Build Muscle
Now that we’ve covered the ideal amount of training volume. Now let’s talk about the minimum training volume required to build muscle and gradually get bigger. 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:
- One systematic review found that untrained lifters could 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 ideal for building muscle? No. For optimal muscle growth, we’d do more. But these lower training volumes are still enough to gain muscle and strength.
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 back burner, freeing up time and energy to focus on other aspects of our lives. For example, we might be happy building muscle more slowly when life gets busier or more stressful.
- Lower training volumes can make our muscles more sensitive to higher volumes. If we get used to bulking with lower training volumes, we might be able to stimulate more muscle growth when we increase our training volume in the future. For example, if we ease back on arm training for a few months, we might get better results from an arm specialization phase.
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.
The ideal training volume for building muscle is around 9–18 sets per muscle per week. 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.
Remember to increase your training volume gradually. More isn’t necessarily better. Starting with 2–3 sets per exercise is often plenty for beginners. You can get dramatic newbie gains with relatively low training volumes, especially at first.
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 gain extra muscle size and strength.
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