There’s a dose-dependent relationship between training volume (defined as the number of sets multiplied by the number of reps) and muscle growth. That means the more sets and/or reps you do, the more gains you can expect.
There will come a time when increasing your training volume will lead to diminishing returns or hurt your progress, right?
And if there is, where exactly is the line drawn? Find out in this article.
First, here’s what a set means
If you’re familiar with the basics of algebra, you’d know that the fewer variables there are, the easier the problem-solving process.
To illustrate, imagine having to solve “X+Y=15” vs. “X+B+C+D+E+H=15”.
While—ironically—it's technically impossible for anyone to solve either equation without further information, most people would agree that the first seems much more manageable.
So, when discussing how many sets and reps you should do to build muscle, it'll make sense for us first to “fix” one variable. Note: since both affect training volume, you can't have both of them changing at the same time.
And the variable we'll fix is the number of reps you do.
How, though? Answer: by training close to failure (i.e., 1 to 4 reps shy of failure).
Learn more about training to failure here:
That means we only count sets you take close to failure as “true sets”.
What’s the point of diminishing returns?
Now that we’ve got 1 variable out of the way, it’s time to address this question: “How many sets should I do for hypertrophy?”
The answer lies in a recent 2022 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Human Kinetics.
After comparing and analyzing hypertrophy responses to moderate and high training volumes, the researchers concluded that 12 to 20 weekly sets per muscle group per week might be an optimum standard recommendation for increasing muscle mass in young, trained men.
So, how many sets and reps should you do per workout to build muscle?
This truly depends on how frequently you’re training. In general, it’s best to train a muscle group at least 3 times weekly, so if you train it:
- 3 times weekly: ~4 to 6 sets per workout
- 4 times weekly: ~3 to 5 sets per workout
- 5 times weekly: ~2 to 4 sets per workout
That said, it’s worth remembering that volume is highly individual.
Studies only tell us about group averages, and some people may need higher volume ("diminishing" doesn't mean "zero" returns, after all!), while others may need lower volumes.
You may find the following guiding principles useful:
✌️ Females may do better with higher volumes: Women have better endurance than men when lifting weights. Generally, women can do more sets with a fixed number of reps at a given percentage of 1RM than men. That means if you're biologically a female, you could aim for the higher end of the range.
But wait. Why are women more fatigue-resistant than men? And do other sex-related training differences exist? (Spoiler alert: yes). Find more details below:
A few more things to note
Your training volume is only part of the picture when you're trying to build muscle. You must also account for the following:
🛌 Recovery: If your body can’t recover well, it can’t build muscle. It’s as simple as that. So, do optimize everything that can impact your recovery rates. Use the right recovery techniques. Get enough good-quality sleep nightly. Eat a healthy, balanced diet with sufficient protein.
⚠️ Form: It can be tempting to push for more volume for the sake of more volume. However, doing so at the expense of proper, safe form could hurt your progress—and potentially take you out of the gym for months. So, do make space and time for paused and tempo reps on your training plan. They’ll help keep your form in tip-top shape.
The higher your training volume, the more muscle growth you can expect.
However, there does come a time where more volume can cause diminishing returns—and research shows that this occurs when you exceed 20 sets per muscle group per week.
That said, it’s worth remembering that training volume can be highly individual.
To gauge what training volume works best for you, tracking your volume alongside your performance is likely a good idea. But how do you do that?
Well, why not log your workouts on GymStreak? It’s not just a workout tracker, as well—this smart, AI-powered personal trainer app can even help you program your training in such a way that optimizes your results.
See it in action:
Always know YOUR point of diminishing returns—so you optimize your training plan.
Baz-Valle, E., Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Alix-Fages, C., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2022). A Systematic Review of The Effects of Different Resistance Training Volumes on Muscle Hypertrophy. Journal of Human Kinetics, 81, 199–210. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2022-0017
Hunter, S. K. (2014). Sex Differences in Human Fatigability: Mechanisms and Insight to Physiological Responses. Acta Physiologica (Oxford, England), 210(4), 768–789. https://doi.org/10.1111/apha.12234
Kassiano, W., Nunes, J. P., Costa, B., Ribeiro, A. S., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Cyrino, E. S. (2022). Does Varying Resistance Exercises Promote Superior Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains? A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 36(6), 1753–1762. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000004258