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If you’ve read this blog’s article 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 article 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 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 have 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.
He considered that more sets were unnecessary. 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 a 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 (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 are 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.
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.
Does this mean, you can do 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 are 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.
As always, thank you for reading.