A common question that many gym goers have is “how many exercises do I need to do to maximize muscle growth?” It’s understood that maximizing muscle growth requires hard work but doing too much can result in overtraining. Finding the sweet spot of total sets to do per week can help put you on the right track to reach your goals.
There are three factors thought to contribute to hypertrophy (muscle growth):
- Mechanical Tension
- Metabolic Stress, and
- Muscle Breakdown.
Mechanical tension results from the combination of force production and stretching of muscles. Metabolic stress occurs from the buildup of metabolites from exercise. And muscle breakdown refers to the localized damage that occurs in muscles from exercise. Different styles of resistance training may choose to focus on one of these factors more than the others.
Powerlifters focus on lifting heavy weights which places a large amount of mechanical tension on their muscles. While bodybuilders often lift moderate weights for relatively higher reps which causes a large amount of metabolic stress in their muscles.
Research shows that both high rep and low rep training can be effective for increasing muscle mass. When looking at studies examining a wide range of repetitions from 6-20+, with all other variables being equal, the number of sets taken to failure (or near failure) is a good indicator of training volume for individuals focused on hypertrophy.
Tip: To increase muscle mass, you can effectively use both high rep and low rep training, just be sure you’re taking most of your training sets to failure (or near failure).
In general, research shows a graded dose-dependent response of hypertrophy to training volume. Meaning that the more work you do, the more results you get.
In one meta-analysis, researchers recommended at least 10 weekly sets per muscle group to maximize muscle growth. A separate meta-analysis categorized programs by weekly sets as: low volume (5 sets or less per week per muscle), medium volume (5-9 sets per muscle per week) and high volume (10 or more sets per muscle per week). The researchers found that medium and high-volume programs were more advantageous than low volume programs for the purposes of maximizing muscle growth.
In one study, researchers compared the effects of different very high-volume training programs on muscle growth. They split the subjects into 3 groups based on the number of weekly sets they did per muscle: a 16-set group, a 24 sets group, and a 32 sets group. The researchers noted that the 32 sets group saw larger increases in muscle thickness than the 16 sets group. For many people a program with that high a training volume may be too challenging because of the time and recovery demands, but it does highlight the impact volume can have on hypertrophy.
Tip: To maximize muscle mass, use relatively higher volumes of exercise sets per muscle group each week (about 10 sets per muscle or more)
A recent meta-analysis examined the effects of training frequency on hypertrophy. The researchers found training frequency to not have a meaningful impact on hypertrophy when volume is equated. The researchers concluded that people could choose a weekly frequency for muscle groups that fits their personal preference.
Tip: Choose a training frequency that allows you to meet your weekly training volume goals while fitting your schedule.
Once you settle on a weekly workout frequency that fits your schedule, choose a training split that’ll help you reach a minimum of 10 sets per muscle group each week. There’s plenty of options of how you can split these sets up in a week, from doing all 10 sets for one muscle group in a single day to dividing them up amongst various days.
A full body workout splits target muscles of the upper and lower body in the same workout. These types of workouts often focus on compound movements (like deadlifts and overhead presses) that work multiple muscle groups at once. With full body training programs, it’s common to train a muscle multiple times per week despite working out less days per week than most other program splits.
Sample Full Body Training Program
- Workout 1: 3 sets x 8-12 reps - Box Squats, Weighted Pull-Ups, Dips, Romanian Deadlifts
- Workout 2: 5 sets x 5 reps – Deadlift, Overhead Press, Reverse Lunges, Lat Pulldowns
- Workout 3: 4 sets x 8 reps – Dumbbell Flys, Dumbbell Rows, Bulgarian Split Squats, Hip Bridges
Upper/Lower training splits divide workouts into upper body and lower body focused days. Upper body days focus on exercises that predominantly utilize upper body muscles like the bench press, while lower body days utilize exercises that mainly utilize the lower body muscles like a lunge. Typically, the muscles of the upper and lower body get trained twice a week in this training split.
Sample Upper/Lower Training Program
- Workout 1: Upper Body – 3 sets x 12 reps – Dumbbell Incline Press, Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows, Cable Flys, Cable Lateral Raises
- Workout 2: Lower Body – 3 sets x 12 reps – Box Squats, Lying Leg Curls, Lunges, Calf Raises
- Workout 3: Upper Body – 4 sets x 8 reps – Pull-Ups, Dips, Shoulder Press, T-Bar Rows
- Workout 4: Lower Body – 4 sets x 8 reps – Romanian Deadlifts, Goblet Squats, Bulgarian Split Squats
Push/Pull training splits divide workouts into push movement focused days and pull movement focused days. Typical push movements include pushups, dips, and squats. Typical pull movements include barbell rows, pull ups, and leg curls. Push/Pull training splits normally work a muscle at least twice a week.
Sample Push/Pull Training Program
- Workout 1: Push workout - 4 sets x 8 reps - Barbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Barbell Back Squat, Seated Leg Extensions
- Workout 2: Pull workout - 4 sets x 8 reps - Barbell Deadlifts, T-Bar Rows, Lat Pulldowns, Seated Leg Curls
- Workout 3: Push workout - 3 sets x 12 reps - Dips, Incline Bench Press, Box Squats, Hack Squats
- Workout 4: Pull workout - 3 sets x 12 reps - Romanian Deadlift, Lying Leg Curls, Pull-Ups, Barbell Rows
Body part training splits divide workouts into individual body part focused days. An example of this is “leg days”, where every exercise in the workout will target leg muscles. Typically, body part split programs will train a muscle group once per week. Because we have so many muscle groups, these types of programs usually require people to go to the gym more days per week than most other programs.
Sample Body Part Split Program
- Day 1: Chest – 3 sets x 12 reps – Dumbbell Bench Press, Cable Chest Flys, Dips
- Day 2: Back – 3 sets x 12 reps - Barbell Rows, Lat Pulldowns, Meadows Rows
- Day 3: Legs – 3 sets x 12 reps – Lunges, Lying Leg Curls, Hack Squats
- Day 4: Shoulders – 3 sets x 12 reps - Barbell Overhead Press, Dumbbell Lateral Raises, Cable Face Pulls
- Day 5: Arms – 3 sets x 12 reps - Dumbbell Bicep Curls, Cable Triceps Pushdowns, Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Researchers analyzed bodybuilder’s training programs, including some who were champions in National Physique Committee competitions. The researchers observed a pattern that many bodybuilders followed split training programs focusing on 2 muscles per day for 5-6 workouts per week. The workouts consisted of 2-6 sets for 6-15 reps per exercise, with some bodybuilders reporting that they did a total of 12-20 sets per body part.
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