If you’ve seen this channel’s video on “how
many reps you should do,” there’s a good chance that you’re probably thinking, “what about
sets?” And for good reason because it’s good to know both if you want to maximize your
workout gains. Now before getting into any suggestions, I
do want to preface that since the nature of this topic is widely debatable with many experts
advocating different approaches, there’s a good chance that this video might speak differently
or against what you might currently have heard to be optimal. That being said, please note
that these suggestions are merely suggestions and if you find what you’re currently doing
effective for you, by all means continue to do so.
Now let’s start off with beginners. If you’re new to weightlifting or exercise in general,
the amount of sets and reps you do is much less important than you just consistently
working out. As a beginner, there are many adaptations that will take place once you
start exercising that pretty much any mixture of reps and sets will create results. Simply
going to the gym in the first place and making sure you go frequently, such as 2- 4 times
a week for many weeks, months, and even years, is by far the most important step.
For non-beginners, reps and sets do start to matter quite a bit. Now there are many
experts within the industry that has advocated and shown great results with all types of
reps and sets. Former heavyweight bodybuilder Mike Mentzer suggested that you only need
to perform one set of an exercise all the way to concentric and eccentric failure, meaning
that your muscles are so fatigued that you cannot possibly move the weight again under
your own power. More sets were considered unneccessary. Mentzer, along with other notable
figureheads in fitness such as Arthur Jones and Dorian Yates, went on to popularize a
workout program known as high intensity training, aka HIT, focusing solely on one set training.
Of course, this philosophy goes against typical bodybuilding schemes which employ 3-5 sets.
Fortunately for us, there is research comparing the two. Two meta analyses done in 2009 and
2010 took 22 studies in total comparing single set training with multiple set training, particularly
2 to 3 sets. One meta analysis measured difference in strength gains while the other measured
difference in muscle gains, aka hypertrophy. In both researches, multiple set training
came out on top. The studies showed a significant 40% greater increase in hypertrophy for multiple
sets versus single sets and an even more significant 46% greater increase in strength gains.
So no doubt multiple set training is the way to go. But now the question is, how many sets?
Perhaps what can shed some light is not exactly looking at reps and sets, but looking a little
bit more broad in the terms of total volume. Total volume is a number generated by multiplying
the amount of reps, sets, and weight you’re moving. For example, performing 3 sets of
10 reps with 100 pounds equals to a total volume of 3,000. Conversely, if you do 10
sets of 3 reps with the same weight, you’ll also come to a total volume of 3,000. What
the research says that, even though the number of sets and reps are different, the gains
in muscle hypertrophy are very close to the same using the same total volume. In essence,
this throws the claim out the window of performing 8-12 reps in order to “build muscle,” since
the rep range isn’t nearly as important as the total volume. But this only applies to
hypertrophy. When it comes to strength, the studies show that the most important factor
is the intensity. The heavier you lift, the stronger you become, therefore, it still stands
that a lower rep range between 3-5 reps is perhaps best for getting stronger since going
heavier means you shouldn’t be able to do a lot of reps.
But does this mean that if you’re trying to build muscle, you can do pretty much any amount
of reps and sets? Well, not exactly. If you were to do 10 sets of 3 reps per exercise,
you’re looking at well over an hour and a half just to complete four different exercises.
That’s not exactly convenient for most people. Performing 3 sets of 10 reps, however, takes
about 25 minutes to complete the same four exercises. It’s also important to know that
the 3 reps for the 10 sets are going to be pretty heavy, which can also increase chances
of you hurting yourself. The risk might not be worth not only the reward, but also your
time. Boiling all this information down, you’re
probably best off doing about 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps for strength gains, 3-4 sets of 8-12
reps for hypertrophy, and 1-2 sets of 15 or more reps for muscle endurance. The reason
for muscle endurance is because at such high reps, fatigue is much more of a factor restricting
you to perform additional sets. But with all this being said, still nothing beats you just
going to the gym in the first place.