When planning out your workouts, how many sets you do in each workout will need to be factored into the bigger picture.
For example, other factors include:
- Are you new to lifting weights?
- How often are you hitting the gym—3x a week? 5x a week?
- How close to failure are you taking each set? Or are you leaving a few reps in the tank?
- Are you doing a split or a full-body session?
- What is your age, your stress level, and recovery like?
- Are you looking to do the minimum amount of work for gains, or are you seeking optimal gains? Or are you seeking maximum gains, even if it means diminishing returns?
- How long is your rest period? If you are doing heavier lifting, it might be closer to 5 minutes, and if you’re doing short rest, it might be closer to 30-second rest intervals, and that will change how many sets you do.
So as you can see, it’s hard to recommend a specific amount of total sets per workout. But we can look at some research to get some general ideas.
Studies On How Many Sets Per Workout
In a 2017 study on German Volume Training, they found that those doing five sets per muscle group got better results in strength and size than those doing ten sets per muscle group. They were training three times a week and only doing around 20 sets a workout. They brought the final set to failure. (Not only were they getting better results, but those doing the 5 set workouts were finishing their workouts 15 minutes quicker too!)
On the flip side, a 2019 study found that those doing the high-volume 30 weekly sets for the upper body and 45 weekly sets for the lower body, split up over three sessions, got the best gains, compared to lifting with less sets per muscle group. Typically, they were doing seven exercises with five sets—35 sets per workout. They were only resting 90 seconds between each set and doing 8-12 reps per set.
So we’re seeing some differences across the studies as far as how many sets you should do per workout in total.
Experiment On Yourself
What does this mean for you?
You will need to experiment with what works best for you in terms of how many sets you can do per workout. Now keep in mind, it’s not just total sets, but also there will be some differences based on your exercises.
For example, it’s easier to do ten sets of bicep curls (isolation exercise and low fatigue rating) versus ten sets of deadlifts (compound exercise and high fatigue rating.) Doing more curls would likely result in more arm gains, and doing more deadlifts would likely result in overtraining and the strong desire to go for a nap after lifting.
I’ve also noticed that rep-range and rest play a big role. For example, when doing a Vince-Gironda-style workout with 30 seconds of rest, it’s easy to do eight sets because you need to lighten the weight.
But when you’re lifting heavier and doing a longer rest of 4-5 minutes to regain your optimum strength, you can’t do as many sets because it’s much harder on your body to lift closer to its one-rep-max.
So play around with it. Try full-body, try some splits, try high-volume, try low-volume, try lighter weights with more sets, try heavier weights with fewer sets, try resting a long time, try resting a short time, and see how your body responds.