Study Reveals: What’s the Ideal Number of Sets to build Muscle Mass

Using sets is a great way to build muscle, but how many will you need to do to gain muscle mass the quickest?

What’s the ideal number of sets to build the most muscle mass?

Some will suggest completing as few as you can in order to keep seeing progress.
Even taking one set with failure is considered ok and beyond that would be over training.

If you want long term progress, some will suggest that it’s about adding more weight and has nothing to do with the amount of sets. “Working smarter and not harder” is their motto.

Then you’ll have others that will suggest building up to as many sets you feel possible without the fear of injury. That’s the “No pain, no gain” group.

Which is right?

Research is always the way to find out the truth. Let’s take a look at what the research from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil has to say. This information was concluded from a study that was executed in 2015.

 

How Was the Research Gathered?

The research included a group of 48 men that didn’t have any prior experience in weightlifting training. This group followed a strength training program for a total of six months.

The 48 men were split into 4 groups randomly:

One group performed 1 set for each exercise.
One group performed 3 sets for each exercise.
One group performed 5 sets for each exercise.
One of the groups consisted of only body weight exercising.

 

The group that was body weight only was used as the control group so the other groups could be compared. This group would represent what others could achieve with moderate resistance training.

Training took place 3 times weekly. This would include 2-3 days for a rest period between any workouts. The exercises completed were the same for all of the groups. The training took place in a range of 8-12 reps. A rest period of 1.5-2 minutes was used between the sets.

From group to group, the only thing that changed was the amount sets were used for the exercises.


The program included exercises like the leg press, military press, bicep curl, tricep extension, crunches, bench press, leg curl, and leg extensions.

On every set, it was took to failure. The weight limits were increased with every exercise until the top range was achieved. This is used in the training programs such as the Thinner Leaner Stronger and Bigger Leaner Stronger.

Many different types of tests were used in order to gather research on all the progress.

The following information was measured:

  • How much could be lifted at 5 reps (strength)

  • How much could be lifted at 20 reps (endurance)

  • The height people were able to jump (power)

  • How much fat and muscle were on their bodies (body composition)

  • The thickness of muscles in different areas of the body (muscle growth)

Care precautions were taken in order for the research to be accurate and everyone was measured two times in order to achieve complete accuracy.

The downfall to the research is that their intake of food wasn’t recorded. Macronutrient and calorie intake or lack of, can have a rather large affect on body composition which can have a negative impact on gains.

What Did the Research Show?

The group that performed 5 sets came out on top by gaining more endurance, muscle, and strength than any of the other groups.

The biggest finding was that with more sets that were performed, the results were impacted in a positive way.

Let’s look at some of the main differences and then we’ll dig deeper:

  • The group that performed 5 sets were able to gain more muscle than the other groups.

  • The group that performed 5 sets were able to gain more strength than most of the others.

  • The group that performed 3 sets were able to gain more muscle than those that performed 1 set and the group that was body weight training.

  • Those who performed 3 sets were able to gain more strength that those who performed 1 set and those that did body weight training.

  • The group that performed body weight training only lost strength when it came to the leg and bench press.

The same amount of fat loss was seen across the board. This makes sense as they weren’t following a certain diet.
The same amount of power gain was seen across the board. This also makes sense as they weren’t training to specifically gain power.

Now, lets look into the details.

Your Workout Volume Will Affect Your Muscle Growth.

There really wasn’t a significant difference when it came to the muscle gain in between the groups.

With that being said, a trend was seen for muscle gain for the groups that performed more sets.

The results look like this:

5 performed sets – up 7.3 lbs of muscle (3.5 kg)
3 performed sets – up 6.5 lbs of muscle (3 kg)
1 performed set – up 1 lb of muscle (0.4 kg)
Body weight exercise – up 6.4 lbs of muscle (3 kg)

The group performing 5 sets also had the benefit of increased size of their triceps and biceps more than any other of the set groups.

Something to consider is that the groups didn’t gain as much muscle as they really could have. When you first begin to train, and your following all the rules, you can expertly to gain around 10 lbs of muscle within the first six months of the training process. Every single person in this study fell short.

What is the reason for these results?

It’s likely that the groups weren’t following a diet that’s conducive to building muscle.

All the groups lost approximately 10 lbs (5 kg) of body fat. This is excluding the body weight group. This means that most of them were likely calorie deficient the majority of the time. This also means their diet likely hindered them from gaining muscle.

When training in higher volumes, you’ll need to intake more calories. This means that the group that performed 5 sets would’ve benefited from a higher calorie diet.

In short, the difference in the outcome doesn’t look very significant but the results would’ve likely been better if the people in the study had been eating like they should have.

Your Workout Affects Your Strength Gains.

A common theory is that you need to add weight at ever workout in order to get strong.

And, if you’re only doing the minimum sets at your workouts, you’re not going to benefit with additional sets.

The study actually concludes otherwise.

When focusing to gain strengths, the people that performed the most sets were the ones that increased their strength the most.

Here is the outcome of the groups throughout the study:

Bench Press
Body weight only: down 6%
1 set performed: up 12%
3 sets performed: up 17%

Leg Press
Body weight only – down 2%
1 set performed: up 16%
3 sets performed: up 15%

Overhead Press
Body weight only: up 13%
1 set performed: up 22%
3 sets performed: up 24%

Lat Pulldown
Body weight only: up 3%
1 set performed: up 19%
3 sets performed: up 12%

Average
Body weight only: up 4%
1 Set performed: up 17%
3 Sets performed: up 17%

There’s not a big difference from group to group. This is because everyone that started out in the group that performed 5 sets were stronger that the groups with 1 or 3 sets. This means they were already closer starting out to their genetic limits in the strength area.

Usually once your rate at which your strength gaining begins to slow, you’ll become stronger. But, this study shows that even the stronger people made quicker progress when upping their sets.

Getting bigger comes with getting stronger.

Adding sets with lighter weights won’t add much progress. But, if you add weight, more sets and be consistent, you’ll have great outcomes.

Your Workout Volume Affects Your Muscles Endurance.

Even when it comes down to the amount of weight that people could complete on 20 reps, the group that performed 5 sets was on top again.

Research was measured for the leg press and bench press endurance. This is likely because performing 20 reps on all the exercises would’ve been very exhausting.

Here are the results from the 20 rep study:

Bench Press
Body weight only: up 5%
1 set performed: up 5%
5 sets performed: up 24%

Leg Press
Body weight only: up 5%
1 set performed: up 12%
5 sets performed: up 36%

Average
Body weight only: up 5%
1 Set performed: up 9%
5 Sets performed: up 30%

In the outcome of the analysis, the group that performed 5 sets had better gains in all areas across the board.

The research concluded that there was a response between the amount of sets done and the outcome. This is called a “dose response”.

What the Results will Mean For You.

The results that were revealed is likely what you would expect:

For the best results, increase your sets.

Should you always complete 5 sets for every single exercise every time you do them?

Will more sets always have better outputs than less?

It isn’t always true.

Here are some things to consider:

1) When doing more sets, there is a point of diminishing that returns.

Adding more sets will usually result in gain but even with an increase in strength, growth, and endurance doesn’t mean that it will be proportional to the additional amount of sets that you do past a certain amount.

You’ll start to see less and less return for the amount of energy put forth.

If you’ve achieved the biggest part of the muscle gain and strength your body can naturally handle, then you’ll be working towards the remaining of 5-10% improvement. This is the point where you’ll need to up the amount of your volume in your workout substantially in order to see changes.

What if you’ve just started out or are trying to get through a plateau?

It’s not likely going to be worth it.

This is when its better to focus on your weight while doing an appropriate amount of sets. The best range of heavy sets for most is 9-12 per week.

2) Sometimes additional sets can be deemed counterproductive.

Adding more and more sets may not even be worth it and it can even be detrimental in some cases.

Another study shows that lifters who were beginners who performed 5 sets gained more muscle and strength than those who performed 10 sets.

The group that performed 10 sets also spent a lot more time at the gym.

The people in the study were beginners and jumped into the program. This caused their bodies to go into a state of overtraining.

3) Slowly increasing the volume is better than sudden spikes.

Volume should be increased but only by little and as much as is needed to in order to see progress.

This will what we have learned from the study.

It’s very clear that the more sets that are performed, the more muscle gain and strength you are going to gain but this does rely on certain conditions:

  • You’re able to keep adding more weight into your exercises over a period of time.

  • You’ll need to completely and effectively be able to recover from your workouts.

  • You only add volume at points when you have plateaued.

Although 5 sets is a good number, it’s not always necessary in order to see benefits.

When you plateau, try adding 1-2 sets to that particular exercise that you want to improve.

The bottom line of the study is that performing more sets is better when your goal is to gain muscle, strength, and endurance. This is also your sure way to achieve long term gains. Continue to build your volume at a steady pace over time.

Gasper Novak

I train hard (lift weights + cardio) and try to eat right!

I enjoy reading about improving my physique and write about muscle building, shredding fat and supplements that give you that little edge over your competitors.

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