We’ve all heard coaches say that you need to keep changing the number of sets you do. But what they never seem to tell you is how exactly to do that.
Well, I’ll tell you how. One way, at least, that’s worked especially well for me in the past three months.
Research and empirical evidence has shown that strength and muscle gains are greatest for a muscle group when somewhere between 15 and 25 total sets are performed for it. That’s a fairly big range, so I like to cover it over the course of 12 weeks.
I start with 15 total sets and then increase gradually from there. Week 2 is usually 17 sets, Week 3, 19, and so on up to 25. Don’t increase the workload too fast. You can repeat some weeks or back the volume off a bit here and there to give your body time to adapt.
It takes about 8 weeks to reach 25 sets, and then I simply work back down to 15 again.
Now what constitutes a “muscle group” or “body part” is open to a little interpretation. Obviously, you can’t work up to 25 sets for chest, 25 for shoulders, 25 for glutes, and so on and still expect to recover, or get out of the gym in under 3 hours. So this is where you have to do a little critical thinking and prioritize.
Personally, I’ll count chest and shoulders—with the exception of the rear delts—as the same body part, since any pressing you do is going to work the pecs and front and side delts simultaneously and to a large degree. When I’m in my highest-volume weeks, this ends up translating to a good amount of bench press and pushup variations and a few sets of lateral raises. I don’t try to bomb chest and then do a whole separate day of shoulder work.
The upper back, lats, and rear delts all get worked together as well. For legs, I treat quads and hamstrings separately (that is, 25 sets that target thighs and 25 that focus on hams), but glute and hamstring work usually goes hand in hand—with some exceptions. An exercise like an RDL or glute-ham raise works both regions, so I count sets of those lifts in both categories. An isolated glute exercise like a hip thrust, however, would count only as glute work, and a leg curl, for instance, would count only as hamstring work.
Big compound lifts like squats and deadlifts (including all their variations) work all areas of the lower body thoroughly so any sets I do of these count toward my quad, ham, and glute totals.
This isn’t as complicated as it sounds, I promise.
Here’s how a week of 15 sets for chest might look. Even on the low end of the volume spectrum, it’s a fair amount of work, so I usually opt for two upper body days to get it all in.
Incline Db Bench Press, 3 x 12–15
Plyo Pushup, 3 x 5
Bench Press, 3 x 8
Then finish with some upper back, shoulder, or biceps or triceps work
This is 9 total sets of chest work. I would also count these 9 toward my shoulder tally too.
This would be mainly a back-focused day but include some more chest work to complete the 15 total sets.
Wide-Grip Bench Press, 2 x 10
Close-Grip Bench Press, 2 x 10
Pushup 2 x As many as possible
I use a lot of bench variations when trying to bring up that lift, but if strength gains aren’t that important to you, you could do flyes or dumbbell presses or more advanced pushup variations. Whatever it takes to hit the total number of sets you’re gunning for.
Now fast-forward a few weeks to when you’re doing 25 sets for a body part. Now our upper-body days might look like this:
Band-Resisted Pushup, 3 x 10
Medicine Ball Throw, 5 x 3
Bench Press, 2 x 5, 1 x 8, 1 x 10–12
Db Overhead Press, 3 x 10
Incline Bench Press, 4 x 10
Ring Fly, 3 x 8
Dip, 3 x As many as possible
Does every body part get the same number of sets?
No. Like I said above, this is really a judgment call. You don’t need to do upwards of 25 sets of core training because your core is used on so many other exercises. I just work some in here and there. Same goes for arms.
Only focus on two big areas of the body per day. Chest and back go well together, as do chest and shoulders. Legs can be trained altogether or you can fit some quad work on a “push” day, hamstring work on a “pull” day, or have an arm AND leg day together where you do assistance work for legs and throw some curls and extensions in at the end.
Some body parts do better with high volume than others, but laying out all the volume ranges for each muscle is beyond what I can delve into here. But suffice it to say that you can do lots of sets for some areas and fewer for others if you choose, especially if you’re trying to bring up a weak area. But I mainly want to ensure muscle balance, so I give every area roughly equal work.
Is 25 sets per body part really practical?
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t love those weeks of the program. The workouts tend to take well over an hour and they’re grueling, but they’re doable and the results are great. Again, this is something you have to build up to and you don’t stay there long. I do 2 weeks of 25 sets and then I go back down the ladder.
How do you decide how many sets each exercise gets?
This is the beauty of this kind of programming. You can really assign sets based on your preference and needs. If you want to perfect a certain lift, like the bench press, you should practice it a lot. That might mean doing four or five sets for it some weeks, so that will account for a big chunk of your chest work.
Naturally, you want to spend more time and focus on the exercises that serve your goals to a greater degree than others do. You want to devote more sets to assistance lifts that support the main ones and fewer on less important areas like biceps and calves. Pec flyes aren’t as important as presses and pushups, for instance, so I probably wouldn’t devote more than 4 sets to them. You also don’t want to become too much of an “artiste” and do a different exercise for every angle you can possibly work a muscle. One set of 25 different chest exercises that exploit every angle of incline you can possibly set a bench to won’t build a big chest. Use common sense and set and rep schemes that are familiar to you. They work.
How I Sumo’d 425 x 3
My bottom-line advice is simply to not get caught up in the minutiae. This is one of the key principles of effective periodization, which, at its heart, should not be complex. Start with low volume to build a base, then work up to high volume and push yourself. Peak, then bring the workload back down again.
Since my training is usually focused on strength and building certain lifts, I actually peak the volume and then the intensity. I’ll hit 25 sets about 8 weeks in and spend the last 4 decreasing the volume but going progressively heavier, so that I hit big PRs in the last week of workouts. This works very well because the high-volume phase builds the body’s adaptive energy. In other words, all the sets you make it do forces it to recover better to keep up. When you suddenly cut the sets down, it still has those adaptive reserves for a little while, but you’re not using them. That energy helps you recover from very heavy lifts. Your workouts will be shorter, so you’ll feel more refreshed when you test your lifts, and that paves the way for big PRs.
It was very helpful in leading to my sumo deadlifting 425 for 3 this past week—no belt, and with a hook grip. As you can see, I could have kept adding weight, but I’m trying to be more conservative these days for the sake of safety.
Try out this approach and let me know what you think. I hope it demystifies for you the age-old question of “how many sets do I do?”
The true answer is “all of them.”