It’s a common question—in weight training routines, how many sets of each exercise should you be doing in a given workout? That is, should you be doing three sets of squats? Five? Only one?
Most weight training routines recommend three to six sets per exercise per workout.
However, there’s not much scientific rhyme or reason to this—it’s mostly based on the author’s sense of how much volume most people can handle before getting tired, and how many sets most people can cram into a typical one-hour-ish workout. But there is a more scientific way of looking at this question. Here’s how to find the right answer for you.
Research on Total Training Volume
First off, it should be noted that training volume is best thought of in terms of sets per muscle group per week. Recovery from exercise takes place over a period of days and happens mainly on a per-muscle level.
Having said that, the research suggests that optimal training volume depends on whether your primary goal is strength or size. If you want to get strong, do around 12–18 sets per muscle group per week, split into two or three workouts. These numbers don’t seem to change very much as your training status changes over time.
If your goal is to gain the maximum possible amount of muscle mass, on the other hand, the optimal training volume is higher. Several studies have shown that trainees benefit from doing as many as 30 sets per muscle group per week. However, that’s on the high side—other studies have shown that you’re better off training with about 80–85 percent of the maximum total volume that you can tolerate without getting excessively fatigued.
In practice, this usually means that people should train for more volume as they get more advanced—starting at around 12 sets per week for novices and going up to 20–30 sets per week for advanced trainees. But that’s just total training volume. Now we have to address the question raised in the title of this article—how many sets per exercise, per workout?
The Role of Work Capacity
Again, most weight training routines prescribe about three to six sets per exercise, but some go as high as 12. German volume training famously uses 10 sets per exercise per workout—so how does it fare in the research? Not well, as it turns out. Doing five sets per exercise produces greater strength and mass gains than doing 10 sets per exercise. It seems you can have too much of a good thing.
The authors of that study conclude by suggesting four to six sets as an optimum in weight training routines. While that’s good as an average, your personal optimum will actually depend on your work capacity—that is, how quickly you get tired from doing repeated sets of the same exercise. Some people start to get severely fatigued after just two sets, while others will still be going strong on set number six.
Test Your Work Capacity and Determine the Right Volume
Suppose you were to do six sets of an exercise, with a target of 10 reps. If you do 10 reps on the first set, you’ll probably do fewer on the sixth set—but how many fewer will vary a lot from one person to the next. For one person, the rep numbers might look like this: 10, 10, 10, 9, 9, 8. For another person, they might be 10, 10, 8, 8, 7, 6. And for yet another person they might be 10, 8, 7, 6, 4, 3.
In these examples, the first person has high work capacity, the second has average work capacity, and the third has low work capacity. And while they all did the same number of sets, they didn’t do the same amount of volume, since they did different numbers of reps. The first person is going to see better results, since they performed a greater volume of work.
As a general rule, I like to have trainees do as many sets as they can before the number of reps performed falls by more than 20 percent—in this case, before it falls below eight. In these examples, person number one would want to do six sets (maybe even seven), person number two would do four sets of that exercise, and person number three would only do two.
As you may have realized, in practice your work capacity is going to depend on how long you rest between sets. With five-minute rests, you might look like person number one, but with one-minute rests, you look like person number three. You can raise your work capacity by resting longer, but how long do you want to spend in the gym? When you’re adding more sets and more rest after each set, your workouts get exponentially longer.
Work capacity is also specific to individual muscle groups, exercises, and even rep ranges. You might very well have a high work capacity for low-rep squats, and a low work capacity for high-rep dumbbell bench presses. That means you need to test and record your work capacity for each individual exercise and modify your program accordingly.
Once you know how many total weekly sets you want to do and your work capacity, you can fit the two together by either adjusting your number of workouts per week, or the number of exercises per muscle per workout that you’re performing. People with low work capacity may need to do two or three exercises for a given muscle, and train it three or four days a week to make up for only doing two or three sets at a time.
Yes, work capacity does vary this much.
In varying weight training routines, I’ve had clients doing as few as two sets per exercise, and as many as eight. Every body is unique, and that’s why you can’t achieve optimal results on cookie-cutter weight training routines. When you individualize your program based on your work capacity and ability to recover, you can create a program that produces the best possible results for your body.