Today I want to answer one of the most common questions I receive about training, period. And as much as I would like to just give you a straight answer, I just cannot (although I will give you some general guidelines). The problem with this question is simply that it is to general and can vary dramatically from trainee to trainee. However, despite its complexity, I do believe that you’ll have the answer you’re looking for once you are through with this post.
“How many sets per muscle group for maximum muscle mass?”
First and foremost, I want to eliminate the thought that there is a “magic number” of sets that we must perform in order to build muscle optimally. The amount of volume you perform (number of sets) should be determined by a few basic factors such as training age, training intensity, training frequency, and your ability to recover.
The Workload Myth
In the past you’ve probably heard that if you want to continue to stimulate the muscle in order for it to grow, you must continue to increase the workload to force new adaptation….and this is true. However, this leads to the question of “Can I continue to use the same weight and just add extra sets?” which is a valid question considering this will easily increase the total workload. The problem with this is, training intensity doesn’t change, and after a certain amount of sets we begin to experience diminished returns, if you will.
So yes, adding extra sets without sacrificing load or reps is a great way to overload the muscle, but there will come a time where it becomes overkill and ineffective.
The REAL Goal
With any training program that is geared toward building muscle, there should always be one goal…if your program does not in some way, shape, or form entail that you follow this principle it will not work, period. This principle is known as progressive overload and it is by far the biggest factor in whether you build new muscle, remain stagnant, or even regress.
So with any training program you should always aim to increase your performance by…
• Increasing the number of reps without sacrificing sets or load*
• Increasing the load without sacrificing reps or sets
• Increasing sets without sacrificing reps or load*
To put it simply, your goal is NOT to hit a specific number of sets…your goal is to continue to do better each training session than the previous one.
Also, similar to the discussion about frequently adding sets, frequently adding reps to a given weight will also, at some point, provide diminished returns.