Hypertrophy, Strength Training

July 25, 2016


How Many Sets Do You Need to Perform to Maximize Muscle Gains?

The question as to how much strength training volume is needed to maximize muscular gains has been an ongoing source of debate, both in scientific circles as well as the realm of social media. Some claim that a very low volume approach is all that’s required while others subscribe to the belief that marathon training sessions are an absolute necessity.

Who’s right? Well…

Back in 2010, my colleague James Krieger carried out a meta-analysis to provide evidence-based clarity on the topic. In case you’re not aware, a meta-analysis pools data from all relevant studies on a given subject to provide greater statistical power and thus enhance the ability to draw practical inferences from the literature. In short, the analysis showed that performance of multiple sets was associated with a 40% greater hypertrophy-related effect size (a statistical measure of the meaningfulness of results) compared to single-set training.

While this paper provided good evidence in support of higher training volumes, there were some issues with the analysis. For one, James only looked at sets per muscle per workout; a potentially more important marker in determining the hypertrophic response is the weekly volume per muscle group. Moreover, only 8 studies qualified for inclusion in James’ analysis at the time, and only 3 of these studies used direct site-specific measures of muscle growth (i.e. MRI, ultrasound, etc).

Since publication of James’ meta-analysis, a number of additional studies have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Given this info and in an attempt to resolve previous issues, James and I decided it was appropriate to carry out a follow-up meta-analysis that encompassed all the evidence to date. We recruited our colleague Dan Ogborn to collaborate on the project, and centered our focus on the effects of weekly sets per muscle group on changes in muscle mass. I’m happy to report the paper was recently published in the Journal of Sport Sciences.

Here’s the lowdown:

What We Did
A literature search was conducted to locate all studies that directly compared measures of hypertrophy between higher versus lower resistance training volumes with all other variables equated between conditions. Only human studies with healthy subjects that had a minimum duration of six weeks were considered for inclusion.

What We Found
Forest Plot
A total of 15 studies were identified that met inclusion criteria. We ran multiple comparisons to assess the topic from different perspectives. First we evaluated the effects of volume within each study and found that higher volumes were associated with a 3.9% greater average increase compared to lower volumes; the findings were statistically significant (i.e. high probability that they weren’t due to chance alone). As shown in the accompanying forest plot, only 1 of the 15 studies showed a favorable effect for lower volume training, emphasizing the high probability that greater volumes produce greater increases in muscle growth.

We next looked at the effects of volume on a two-level categorical basis, splitting the data into performing less than 9 sets versus 9 sets or more. In this model, the lower volume condition was associated with a gain of 5.8% while the higher volume condition produced a gain of 8.2%. Although the results did not reach statistical significance in this model, the probability of an effect was nevertheless very high (p = 0.076).

Finally, we employed a three-level categorical analysis whereby volume was stratified into less than 5 weekly sets per muscle, 5 to 9 weekly sets per muscle, and 10+ sets per muscle. Here we found a graded dose response whereby gains in muscle progressively increased across each category from 5.4% to 6.6% to 9.8%, respectively. As with the two-level model, results did not quite reach significance, but a high level of confidence can be inferred that results were not due to chance alone (p = 0.074).

What are the Practical Implications
There are several important take-aways from our meta-analysis. First off, a low volume approach can build appreciable muscle. Performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle produced an average hypertrophic gain of 5.4%. Not too shabby. So if you are time-pressed and not concerned about achieving the upper limits of your muscular potential, it should be heartening to know that you can build an impressive physique without spending a lot of time in the gym.

That said, there is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy. In the three way categorical model, performing 10+ sets produced almost twice the gains as performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle (9.8% vs 5.4%). Performing 10+ weekly sets per muscle was also associated with a markedly greater increase in muscle mass compared to 5-9 sets (9.8% vs 6.6%). Thus, a higher volume approach is clearly necessary if you want to maximize muscular gains.

So how many sets should you perform to maximize hypertrophy? That remains to be determined. While 10+ weekly sets per muscle was established as a minimum threshold, we were not able to determine an upper threshold where optimal muscle growth is achieved. The effects of volume on hypertrophy undoubtedly follows an inverted-U curve, whereby results progressively increase up to a certain point, then level off, and then ultimately decrease at exceedingly high volumes due to the negative consequences of overtraining. Moreover, the adaptive response to volume will be specific to the individual, with some lifters able to benefit from higher volumes more so than others. Thus, experimentation is needed to tweak the number of sets you perform based on how you respond.

It may well be that periodized approach is best here. Given that repeatedly training with high volumes can lead to an overtrained state, cycling from lower to higher volume blocks that culminate in a brief period of functional overreaching would hypothetically allow for sustained muscular gains over time while staving off the potential for overtraining. It’s a strategy that I’ve employed with good success when working with clients.

Interestingly, a previous study indicated that higher volumes were beneficial for the lower but not upper body musculature. A follow-up study by the same research group similarly found that satellite cell activation was dependent on volume only in the lower body musculature. However, our pooled analysis did not support these findings. Rather, volume was equally important irrespective of body region, with higher volumes translating into greater increases in size.

A limitation of the analysis is that the findings are largely specific to the muscles of the upper arms and frontal thighs; there simply isn’t enough evidence to generalize results to other body regions (i.e. muscles of the back, shoulders, chest, calves, etc). What’s more, the vast majority of studies were carried out in untrained subjects; only two studies used resistance-trained individuals. It has been speculated that increasingly higher volumes are necessary as one gains lifting experience, but more research is needed to support such a conclusion. My lab currently has a large scale study in development to investigate the topic in well-trained men that should help to fill in the gaps in the current literature. Stay tuned…


35 Comments

  1. Great job. Only got two questions. Does this weekly volume concern all muscle groups and what type of exercises were used in the study, isolation or compound mostly?

    Comment by Alexander — July 25, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

  2. Hi Alexander:

    I mention in the limitations at the end that it is primarily relevant to the arms and frontal thigh. Some studies used isolation exercises only, others had a combo of both multi- and single-joint movements.

    Comment by Brad — July 25, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

  3. Great! Does it matter how spread out the volumes are in terms of frequency? For example, 15 sets spread out over 2 sessions in a week vs 15 sets spread out over 4 sessions? Thanks!

    Comment by Wisdom Valleser — July 25, 2016 @ 9:48 pm

  4. What intensity, expressed as relative load to 1 rep max, did the test subjects perform the sets at? What rep/set scheme did they use? (I.e. All sets at straight weight, or were pyramiding sets used?)

    Comment by Dustin — July 26, 2016 @ 12:39 am

  5. So 10+ sets seems to be the way to go – just curious what constitutes a ‘set’ here? Does this include a lowish rep set of say 3-4RM and higher rep sets of say 15-20RM?

    Would a good practical implementation be to have a mix of rep ranges for your 10-12 sets, as long as each set was ‘hard’?

    Comment by Paul Farr — July 26, 2016 @ 3:54 am

  6. Dustin:

    The majority of studies employed a rep range of 6-15RM.

    Comment by Brad — July 26, 2016 @ 6:09 am

  7. Wisdom:

    As a general rule, spreading the work out over at least two times a week seems to optimize results; it’s not clear whether further increases in frequency will have additional benefits. Check out my post on the topic for more insight:

    http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/how-many-times-should-you-train-a-muscle-each-week/

    Comment by Brad — July 26, 2016 @ 6:12 am

  8. Paul:

    The definition of a set in our study was any rep scheme performed at or near failure. I would recommend a mix of rep ranges. I covered that topic in a previous post below:

    http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/does-light-load-training-build-muscle-in-experienced-lifters/

    Comment by Brad — July 26, 2016 @ 6:15 am

  9. I don’t regard this as proving anything. One set protocols depend on maximum intensity, this is impossible to measure. Most people never reach maximum intensity when executing a one set program. This illustrates the problem of all statistical studies, critical factors are often ignored (in this case intensity).

    Academic studies usually have no predictive power, the federal reserve’s projections of economic data are a nice example.

    Comment by Jay Critical — July 26, 2016 @ 9:05 am

  10. Jay Critical:

    Even if this was true, where is there any evidence that “maximal intensity” is necessary to maximize muscle gains?

    Comment by Brad — July 26, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

  11. Hey Brad! Where was this research when I wasted 2 years with HIT! 😛

    Do you think it’s possible that someone may respond better to a typical bro split rather then distributing the volume over the week? I know some of your research has shown better results with the latter which I have adopted for a couple of years now. But when I reflect to when I made my best gains it was undeniably when I would do say 10-15 sets per body part in a single sitting. And although I go up in strength when I adopt a higher frequency approach, I’m barely putting on any appreciable muscle.I question whether or not maybe high volume in a single bout ensures MPS, especially for someone who may be considered nonresponder/hardgainer for a loss of a better term.

    Comment by Julian Lucas — July 26, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

  12. Julian:

    The research indicates that spreading it out over 2 times per week is better than condensing into a single session. Now could there be interindividual difference? Certainly a possibility. Ultimately research provides guidance but you need to experiment and see what works best for you.

    Comment by Brad — July 26, 2016 @ 10:00 pm

  13. Thank you for your work.
    Can you speak to the rest intervals regarding this?
    Thank you.

    Comment by Jay — July 27, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

  14. – Julian
    You must take into account when you say you made your best gains on that bro split that you where probably a novice lifter and it did not matter as much. Where as now you may be intermediate/advanced and the gains are going to be a lot slower regardless even if you are training optimally in every way.

    Comment by Nicholas — July 28, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  15. ok, so we know that high volume builds a little bit more muscle than low volume, but exactly how much? Yes, I know that you mentioned the percentages (9.8% for 10+ sets vs 5.4% for 5 sets), but I don’t know what that translates to visually. Does anyone has an example or pics of the physique that could be achieve with 5 sets vs 10 sets per week?

    Comment by chris wayne — July 28, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

  16. Do higher volumes lead to greater strength/hypertrophy gains regardless of age? I have heard it suggested that higher volumes are not helpful in this regard for older trainees. Thanks.

    Comment by David — July 29, 2016 @ 11:53 am

  17. […] How Many Sets Do You Need to Perform to Maximize Muscle Gains? — Brad Schoenfeld […]

    Pingback by Best Fitness Articles -- July 31, 2016 — July 30, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

  18. My story is the same as Julian. I tried high frequency but got nowhere regarding mass. I also made best gains doing classical BRO split, training 3 times a week with 2 muscle groups at a time and a lot of exercises / sets. Then I started reading on the internet and tried HIT, abbreviated routines, 3 times a week full body training, high frequency training,.. Nothing worked. I said ok wtf, I will just go back to the way I trained 15 years ago.. And sure enough splitting my workout to 4 days and training 1 or 2 muscles with a lot of exercises and higher volume worked. I am again gaining mass.. I must admit that the one thing I did not try is high frequency AND high volume, but I just do not have the energy. I am 36 and there is no way I can do the whole upper body at the same time with big volume. I tried it, but as soon as I finish chest and back, my arms and shoulder were tired as shit, so no way I could hit them hard with a few more exercises.. I also tried not training arms, cause you know, real man only do squatz and grow… Again bullsh… My arms got nowhere.. I added direct arm training and lateral raises and sure enough my delts are 1000 % better, my arms are growing.. So all in all I think BRO split are great.. I think higher frequency might be better if you have enough energy to hit it with high volume at the same time. So upper / lower split 3-4 x a week but with 12-15 exercises for upper, 3-4 sets each, which means 40-60 sets per workout… Then there is bastionhead on youtube who trains each muscle once every 13 to 17 days and go check his body.. Natural looking like a bodybuilder.. His strength goes up from training to training and as soon as he tries to train sooner than that he gets nowhere. So please stop with this high frequency dogma. People trained muscle once per week for ages and developed superb bodies..

    Sorry for long post.. :)

    Comment by Tomaz — July 31, 2016 @ 2:20 am

  19. […] http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/how-many-sets-do-you-need-to-perform-to-maximize-muscle-gains/ […]

    Pingback by How Many Sets Do You Need to Perform to Maximize Muscle Gains? | Höf-day — July 31, 2016 @ 4:04 am

  20. Hello Brad. You often suggest varying between periods of low and high volume culminating in a period of functional overreaching. What would the low and high volume be in terms of sets per week per muscle group? 10 would be the minimum volume or the minimum would be less than that? And the high volume should be closer to 20, 30 or even 40?
    Thank you for your contributions, Brad!

    Comment by Filipe — August 1, 2016 @ 12:13 am

  21. Why did you delete my comment Brad? Because I said that Bro split still works the best for me and gave evidence?!?!?

    Comment by Tomaz Korosec — August 2, 2016 @ 2:53 am

  22. This is roughly in line with my personal anecdotal experience. I trained my back with roughly 10-15 hard sets a week, and it grew in width and thickness at a significantly faster rate than my chest, which I trained at closer to 6 sets (3 sets twice a week) The differences weren’t too drastic, but noticeable nonetheless. I think going 65-80 percent twice a weeek for every major muscle group is probably the sweet spot, with deloads often.
    Do you think this applies to smaller muscle groups such as
    the calves or lateral delts?

    Comment by Matthew — August 2, 2016 @ 7:12 pm

  23. […] out Bradley’s synopsis of the latest meta-analysis he conducted with James Krieger at THIS […]

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  24. Thanks Brad for conducting research into the volume and sets required. I have been trying to find the sweet spot for my personal strength training as well as for clients.

    From a female perspective and started off with bodybuilding, then competition, then 2 years of dance and functional training — from my personal experience, I find my muscle gains vary depending on which phase my fitness levels are.

    Hypertrophy gains for me works best with high repetition work 3-4 times a week, with 1-2x a week of lower rep/max RM work.

    Would love to see how your research goes from here. :)

    Comment by Yan — August 16, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

  25. Most individuals who are muscular will benefit from performing 6 to 8 repetitions. Most individuals who are skinny will benefit by only by doing 6 repetitions. Most individuals who are plump will benefit by performing 12 to 20 repetitions. It is important to understand that your body type is a genetic code and that specific factors influence how many repetitions you should be doing for the improvement of your general physique.

    Comment by Tracy Galdamez — August 25, 2016 @ 10:42 pm

  26. So does anyone know like a maximum number of sets per muscle group per week without risking injury or overtraining.
    Thank you for the article and any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Comment by David isbell — September 7, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

  27. Tomaz:

    I never deleted your comment. It just took me a while to approve comments.

    Comment by Brad — September 9, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

  28. You said that high frequencies are better (with equated volume). So If I am going to do 4 sets three times a week, can I repeat the workout for the same muscle group even with presence of muscle soreness? Is there a possibility where I can have muscle soreness from training but I already recovered? How can I know the correct time to train again? In other words how can I know the better training for me? (high frequency with equated volume or high volume and low frequency? Thanks for your studies and thanks for your attention Brad. Your studies are very important for this research area.

    Comment by Izaias Diniz — September 23, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

  29. […] How Many Sets Do You Need to Perform to Maximize Muscle Gains? – Brad Schoenfeld […]

    Pingback by The 14 Best Resources for Strength – July 2016 Edition – Smitley Performance Systems — September 23, 2016 @ 10:06 pm

  30. Sorry Brad, I saw the comment apeared later. All in all I still think that working out 4 days a week with BRO split training 1 big or 2 small muscless at a time can give great results. There are a lot of people lifting like that with great results. It probably depends on the age and energy etc.. I guess I could see even better results with 2 times a week but I just do not tolerate it. I have to either decrease the volume and number of exercises too much or burn out.. So for me it is better to train muscle every 6-7 days and do it right with a few exercises and higher volume. Worked for many people 10,20,30 years back and still works. Even Tom Venuto (Burn the fat feed the muscle guy), Mike Matthews and a few others train this way with great results.. But it could also be that after soo many years of training our bodies just need a ton of volume to grow…

    Comment by Tomaz — October 6, 2016 @ 7:59 am

  31. Thanks Brad, appreciate the work you out into sharing this great info.

    Comment by Matt — October 22, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

  32. Great job Brad, thanks for the continued research!

    Comment by Rod — October 23, 2016 @ 10:07 am

  33. Curious about the next study with well-trained subjects :)

    Comment by Maciek — November 5, 2016 @ 8:24 am

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  35. Thanks Brad, I really appreciate all of your hard work & thank you for sharing this article! I have been try to workout more, but at my own pace.I will definitely try your suggestions here.

    Comment by Pascal — December 15, 2016 @ 11:03 pm

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