The Myth: More Volume Always Equals More Muscle Growth (Ideal Sets for Muscle Growth) SUMMARY
- Researchers examined the ideal sets for muscle gain. They had subjects perform constant sets for mass group groups, which performed 22 sets per week, a 4 Sets Progression Group (4SG), in which subjects added 4 weekly sets every two weeks, or a 6 Sets Progression Group (6SG), in which subjects added 6 weekly sets every two weeks.
- The 6-set progression group gained the most strength compared to the constant and 4SG.
- There were no differences in muscle size between the three groups; however, the authors found a dose-response relationship, with results appearing to plateau in the higher volume conditions.
- Progressing with either 4 or 6 sets per week may result in a small benefit for increasing muscle hypertrophy.
Ideal Sets for Muscle Growth: Understanding the Science
Progressive overload is a cornerstone in resistance training to build muscle. It’s recommended to prevent lifting plateaus, especially for those who are already resistance-trained. This typically involves increasing either the weight or volume (i.e., sets x res) during a training cycle.
A prevailing myth in the fitness community is that resistance training volume (RTV) always leads to greater muscle hypertrophy. Most lifters increase the number of sets for muscle growth to boost weekly training volume.
Sets for Muscle Mass: How Much is Optimal?
The logic seems straightforward: more sets should equate to more growth. In 2010, a literature review compared the effects of single sets versus multiple sets of resistance exercise on muscle hypertrophy. The analysis showed that multiple sets resulted in greater muscle hypertrophy compared to single sets.
This suggests that performing more resistance training sets can increase muscle hypertrophy. (Krieger, 2010) However, it is important to note that muscle hypertrophy is not solely dependent on training volume, as other factors such as intensity, frequency, and exercise selection also play a role (Schoenfeld et al., 2019).
Sets for Muscle Hypertrophy: The Balance Between Volume and Intensity
Several studies have found a dose-dependent response between sets and muscle growth. (Aube et al., 2022; Schoenfeld et al., 2019) I have written about this previously on Evidence Based Muscle, where several studies have found that a greater increase in weekly sets for muscle hypertrophy is associated with more muscle growth. However, the reality is more complex than adding more weekly sets for muscle hypertrophy.
How Many Sets for Muscle Growth?: Debunking Common Myths
The most common approach to increasing volume is to increase the number of sets for muscle gain per muscle group. Regarding muscle growth, earlier studies utilizing different resistance training volumes ranging from 3 to 45 weekly sets per muscle group have produced conflicting results with increases, similar, and decreased muscle mass. Most studies have shown no clear benefit to using higher training volume for muscle growth. (Heaselgrave et al., 2019)(Aube et al., 2022)
How Many Sets to Build Muscle: A Deep Dive into Research Findings
Studies Suggesting Low to Moderate Volume is Better:
There’s a debate in the scientific community about the optimal RTV. While it’s true that volume plays a significant role in muscle hypertrophy, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Adding more sets and reps might not yield more muscle growth and could even be counterproductive after a certain point.
For example, A study in which weight-trained males progressed from 10 to 32 sets within a 6-week study period. To the author’s surprise, muscle thickness and fiber cross-sectional area (i.e., measurements of muscle growth) decreased midway through the study. This suggests that as weekly sets increased, muscle could not recuperate, and impaired muscle gains occurred. Other studies reported no differences in changes in muscle size between 3, 6, and 12 weekly sets.(Ostrowski et al., 1997)
Sets for Muscle Gain: Quality vs. Quantity
Interestingly, other studies have suggested that benefits from higher training volumes didn’t necessarily see clear advantages over moderate training volumes in terms of increasing muscle growth.(Carvalho et al., 2022; Moesgaard et al., 2022)
Studies Suggesting Higher Volume is Better:
Some studies have found that higher training sets can benefit muscle growth. One compared low (less than 12 weekly sets), moderate (12-20 weekly sets), and high-volume (more than 20 weekly sets) training. The findings suggest that higher training volumes (> 20 sets) can be beneficial for gaining muscle(Schoenfeld et al., 2019).
Scarpelli et al. took a unique approach by conducting a study to increase sets based on their current training program. Experienced weight-trained individuals, with an average resistance training experience of ~5.1 years, underwent an individualized resistance training volume increase. This increase was by 20% based on their previous training volumes. The results? The individualized weight training program led to significant increases in the leg muscle size area compared to a program that kept the same volume (i.e., fixed sets, reps, and weight). This indicates that increasing the number of sets over time can lead to greater muscle hypertrophy.
Another study investigated the effects of high resistance training volume on muscle thickness in resistance-trained men. They found that a higher training volume (32 weekly sets) resulted in a greater increase in muscle thickness than a lower training volume (16 weekly sets). This supports the idea that increasing the number of sets in resistance training can lead to greater muscle hypertrophy.(Brigatto et al., 2019)
How Many Reps and Sets for Muscle Growth?: 4 versus 6 sets progression per week.
In the study titled “Effects of Different Weekly Set Progressions on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Males: Is there a Dose-Response Effect?”, researchers aimed to understand the impact of progressively adding sets for the lower limb every two weeks versus performing a constant set volume in resistance-trained males and its effects on muscle mass and strength gains. (Enes et al., 2023)
The study investigated the effects of different resistance training volumes on strength gains in resistance-trained individuals. The study aims to determine if there is a dose-response effect regarding muscle hypertrophy and strength gains.
The subjects were well trained and were required to have a minimum barbell back squat relative strength of 1.5 times their body mass and were free from creatine supplementation for at least 6 months. The subjects were divided into three groups:
- A control group which performed 22 sets per week.
- The 4 Sets Progression Group (4SG): Subjects added 4 weekly sets every two weeks.
- The 6 Sets Progression Group (4SG): Subjects added 6 weekly sets every two weeks.
The resistance exercise protocol alternated between lower-repetition (6 to 8) and higher-repetition (10 to 12) schemes for each exercise in the first and second training sessions during the week, respectively. The intensity of effort was set at ~2 repetitions in reserve, with the last set of each exercise performed to volitional concentric failure.
By the end of the study, look at the weekly set volume:
- Control Group completed 22 weekly sets.
- 4SG completed 42 weekly sets.
- 6SG completed 52 weekly sets.
See the Graph Below
Strength Gains: The 6SG group showed the most significant muscle strength gains, outperforming the 4SG and CG groups.
Muscle Hypertrophy: All groups experienced muscle growth but had no statistically significant differences between the groups. However, the researchers did find a small advantage for adding sets and muscle growth. Interestingly, one volunteer in the 6SG group (6 sets weekly) decreased his leg muscle size. This isolated response suggests that achieving very high RT volumes, such as 52 weekly sets, may harm muscle hypertrophy in some well-trained individuals.
Interestingly, the 4SG vs. 6SG indicated no differences for both muscle cross-section area and muscle thickness, suggesting that if there is a potential small benefit of higher volume conditions, it may plateau after a certain weekly set number.
The author of the study wrote, “To our knowledge, the 52 sets per week performed by 6SG in the last two weeks of the intervention is the highest weekly set volume reported in the literature. Our novel findings suggest that progressing weekly volume to relatively high levels improves maximum strength. Although we did not observe differences between groups, our within 95%-CI analyses indicate that the weekly progression of sets may provide a slight benefit for hypertrophic adaptations when implemented over a 12-week training cycle in resistance-trained individuals.”
Potential Downsides of Excessive Volume:
One notable finding of the study was that achieving very high resistance training volumes, such as 52 weekly sets, may harm muscle hypertrophy in some well-trained individuals. This was suggested by the isolated response of one volunteer in the high-volume group who decreased his legs. Beyond the potential lack of additional hypertrophic benefits, excessive training volume can lead to:
- Increased risk of overtraining or overuse injuries.
- Longer recovery times, which might hinder overall progress.
- Potential negative impacts on other fitness parameters, such as strength or power.
While training volume is undoubtedly a crucial factor in muscle growth, it’s essential to approach it with a balanced perspective. More isn’t always better. Individual factors, such as recovery capacity, training experience, and specific goals, should dictate training volume rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Aube, D., Wadhi, T., Rauch, J., Anand, A., Barakat, C., Pearson, J., Bradshaw, J., Zazzo, S., Ugrinowitsch, C., & De Souza, E. O. (2022). Progressive Resistance Training Volume: Effects on Muscle Thickness, Mass, and Strength Adaptations in Resistance-Trained Individuals. J Strength Cond Res, 36(3), 600-607. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003524
Brigatto, F. A., Lima, L. E. d. M., Germano, M. D., Aoki, M. S., Braz, T. V., & Lopes, C. R. (2019). High Resistance-Training Volume Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003413
Carvalho, L., Junior, R. M., Barreira, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., & Barroso, R. (2022). Muscle hypertrophy and strength gains after resistance training with different volume-matched loads: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 47(4), 357-368. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2021-0515 %M 35015560
Enes, A., De Souza, E. O., & Souza-Junior, T. P. (2023). Effects of Different Weekly Set Progressions on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Males: Is there a Dose-Response Effect? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003317. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000003317
Heaselgrave, S. R., Blacker, J., Smeuninx, B., McKendry, J., & Breen, L. (2019). Dose-Response Relationship of Weekly Resistance-Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 14(3), 360-368. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2018-0427
Krieger, J. (2010). Single vs. Multiple Sets of Resistance Exercise for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181d4d436
Moesgaard, L., Beck, M. M., Christiansen, L., Aagaard, P., & Lundbye-Jensen, J. (2022). Effects of Periodization on Strength and Muscle Hypertrophy in Volume-Equated Resistance Training Programs: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 52(7), 1647-1666. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01636-1
Ostrowski, K., Wilson, G., Weatherby, R., Murphy, P., & Lyttle, A. (1997). The Effect of Weight Training Volume on Hormonal Output and Muscular Size and Function. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 11. https://doi.org/10.1519/1533-4287(1997)011<0148:TEOWTV>2.3.CO;2
Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 51(1), 94-103. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001764