The Most Efficient Range of Workout Sets for Gaining Muscle – 1 set, 3 sets, or 5 sets


So what is the most efficient range of workout sets? The HIT-diehards say that 1 set per exercise is enough. The volume-preachers are saying that doing 5 sets or more is best.  In the meantime the HITers are arguing that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that one actually needs to do more than one set to failure per exercise therefore concluding that doing more than one set would create a hole that would be impossible to recover from.

workout sets 1 set or 5 sets

Note: Mentzer usually counted his workouts as having 1 set but he mostly does 2 or three sets first he just doesn’t take them to failure – that would be his warmup.

I say 3-4 sets would be the good spot but then again we don’t want to act “unscientifically”. Just when you thought that there is no basis for the 3 set range, science comes in with it’s cheeks spread wide – Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.

Previous meta-analyses have compared the effects of single to multiple sets on strength, but analyses on muscle hypertrophy are lacking. The purpose of this study was to use multilevel meta-regression to compare the effects of single and multiple sets per exercise on muscle hypertrophy. The analysis comprised 55 effect sizes (ESs), nested within 19 treatment groups and 8 studies. Multiple sets were associated with a larger ES than a single set (difference = 0.10 +/- 0.04; confidence interval [CI]: 0.02, 0.19; p = 0.016). In a dose-response model, there was a trend for 2-3 sets per exercise to be associated with a greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.09 +/- 0.05; CI: -0.02, 0.20; p = 0.09), and a trend for 4-6 sets per exercise to be associated with a greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.20 +/- 0.11; CI: -0.04, 0.43; p = 0.096). Both of these trends were significant when considering permutation test p values (p < 0.01). There was no significant difference between 2-3 sets per exercise and 4-6 sets per exercise (difference = 0.10 +/- 0.10; CI: -0.09, 0.30; p = 0.29). There was a tendency for increasing ESs for an increasing number of sets (0.24 for 1 set, 0.34 for 2-3 sets, and 0.44 for 4-6 sets). Sensitivity analysis revealed no highly influential studies that affected the magnitude of the observed differences, but one study did slightly influence the level of significance and CI width. No evidence of publication bias was observed. In conclusion, multiple sets are associated with 40% greater hypertrophy-related ESs than 1 set, in both trained and untrained subjects.  J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d4d436.

So we are not training 4 sets of ten just because we got used to 4 or three sets of ten. As it turns out 3-4 sets is actually the optimal range which would offer enough time under tension to your target muscles to elicit an adaptive hypertrophic response.

What about 5 or more sets? That might be too much and will indeed lead to what the HITers are pertaining to as overtraining (at worst). Like what the study above indicated there is really no difference between doing 3 sets and doing 6 sets:

There was no significant difference between 2-3 sets per exercise and 4-6 sets per exercise (difference = 0.10 +/- 0.10; CI: -0.09, 0.30; p = 0.29)

So doing more than 4 sets per exercise would be a waste of time and energy if your goal is gaining muscle mass. Actually you would be better off doing the most work that you can with as little as 3 sets.

If you can manage to do 20 or more sets per body part obviously you are not working very hard.

In fairness to the old-time HIT proprietors they really had no researches to support the benefit of more than 1 set in an exercise. This study was published in 2010 so until then you had an excuse to say that 1 set is the “optimal” set range for building mass.

Again we are not saying that you must do 2-3 sets FORVER off course you need to tweak your rep and set ranges from time to time – that is called “periodization”.

How many sets do you usually do per body part?  Eat your eggs, people!

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8 thoughts on “The Most Efficient Range of Workout Sets for Gaining Muscle – 1 set, 3 sets, or 5 sets

  1. Pingback: The Most Efficient Range of Workout Sets for Gaining Muscle – 1 set … | Top Muscle Gain
  2. Pingback: 3 Sets is the Sweet Spot for Muscle Growth - Political Bias
  3. Thanks for finally talking about >The Most Efficient Range of Workout Sets for Gaining Muscle – 1 set, 3 sets,
    or 5 sets | About Lifting <Loved it!

  4. What’s up, this weekend is good in favor of me, because this moment i am reading this fantastic educational article here at my house.

  5. It depends on the intensity you plot against the volume, not the rep range. Someone doing 10 sets of 3 reps will get better results than 3 sets of 10 reps. 4 sets of 6 are better than 3 sets of 8. Look at the total amount of reps being done and at what intensity.
    Nice article by the way.. 🙂

    1. I totally agree! Its about the “quality”. Earlier I did Bis and Tris for 10 minutes with pyramiding failure sets. I cannot even remember how many “sets” that took haha

      But case in point, even if you took regular exercises to failure, (like 3-4 moves per bodypart) 3 sets has always been a sweet spot for regular training periodizations

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