Everyone agrees that if you want to build muscle, you have to do hypertrophy training (lifting weights with the intention of gaining more muscle mass). However, there’s less general consensus on just how often — or how much — you need to lift.
On one end of the spectrum, we have the high-intensity training crowd who believe in performing only a single set to failure of a few exercises per workout (and training rather infrequently). If they’re to be believed, the optimal training volume is only 10 or 20 sets per week.
At the other extreme, there’s German volume training, which has you perform 10 sets per exercise per workout, sometimes for over 200 total sets per week.
Most hypertrophy training programs land somewhere in between, but that’s a big middle ground, and it’s entirely common to see people doing anywhere from 40 to 150 sets per week.
There are a lot of factors that go into your capacity to recover — and recover productively — from exercise. But with that said, science provides us with at least an approximate answer regarding how many sets you should be doing per week in your hypertrophy training.
Hypertrophy Training: How Many Sets Should I Do a Week?
Think: Sets Per Week Per Muscle
While there is a grain of truth to the idea that training your legs causes your arms to grow due to hormonal effects and other systemic factors, the reality is that muscular hypertrophy is mostly a local process. That is, lifting weights almost entirely grows the actual muscles trained in that moment.
That means that the question of how many sets you should do per week should be thought of in terms of sets per muscle — or more practically, muscle group — per week. The total number of sets you’ll perform per week is secondary, and will follow off of your planned sets per muscle group.
As a corollary to this, your total number of sets will depend heavily on the degree to which you perform compound versus isolation movements. Since they work more muscles, compound movements “count for more,” so to speak.
As an example, a set of Romanian deadlifts is roughly equivalent to a set of leg curls and a set of back extensions. Add an upright row to each deadlift rep, and now your Romanian deadlift-rows are equivalent to three sets of less-compounded exercises.
This example will hopefully illustrate why you need to calculate sets per muscle group per week — and then figure out total sets per week from there — in your hypertrophy training, rather than the other way around. Compound movements are more efficient than isolation movements. And while that doesn’t mean you should never do isolation movements, it does mean that a focus on compound movements will mean fewer sets per week, and probably less overall time in the gym.
It Depends on Your “Training Age”
Studies that have tried to find an optimal hypertrophy training volume have gotten all kinds of results, from less than 10 to more than 30 sets per muscle per week. This is in part due to variations in the exercises used, how hard subjects pushed themselves, and training frequency. But the big X factor here is how advanced the trainees were.
It turns out, the answer to "How many sets should I do a week?" is different for an untrained person versus a recreationally-trained individual, and wildly different for advanced athletes and bodybuilders. In fact, the more advanced you are, the more volume your muscles can recover from (and the more they need in order to grow any further).
A meta-analysis found that doing more than 10 sets per week per muscle is more effective than doing five to nine, which in turn is more effective than doing one to four. This relationship was also found to be stronger the more advanced the subjects were, with novice trainees not benefiting at all from doing less than five sets per week.
What about the upper limit in productive training volume? One study found that trained subjects who performed German volume training — 10 sets per exercise, three times a week — did no better than subjects who performed five sets per exercise. In other words, 15 sets a week beat — or at least equalled — 30 sets.
While some studies have found benefits in going all of the way up to 30 or more — sometimes even 45 sets per week, at least for advanced trainees — these are outliers.
All in all, the sum total of the research suggests that novice trainees should perform 10-15 sets per week, intermediate trainees should perform 15-20, and the most advanced athletes and bodybuilders may even benefit from going up to 20-30.
However, there are still other factors to consider besides training age.
It Also Depends on Calorie Balance
You need to eat more to bulk and eat less to cut, of course. But as it happens, your body can recover from exercise and build muscle more effectively in a caloric surplus than in a deficit.
While it is widely believed that you can build more muscle in a surplus — and studies have generally supported it — the research so far has not really given us exact numbers to work with. We don’t yet know how much calorie balance affects muscle growth, nor exactly how big of a surplus you would need to optimize muscle growth.
Based on the above research review, it seems that a moderate energy deficit (eating 80% as many calories as you burn) reduces muscle protein synthesis (MPS) by 16%, while a larger deficit can reduce MPS by 30%. That said, it was still possible to build muscle even in a severe deficit.
Even fewer studies have looked at muscle growth in a surplus. However, several studies have noted that a caloric surplus, combined with a high protein intake, can build muscle in untrained individuals even without deliberate exercise. Thus, it seems a surplus does indeed let you build more muscle.
Stress, Cortisol, and Testosterone Levels Are Important
Testosterone is crucial to muscle growth, and people with more testosterone build more muscle. Unsurprisingly then, men with low testosterone build a lot of muscle when they take testosterone, and this works by enhancing muscle protein synthesis.
In fact, super high-volume programs like German volume training are generally made by and for steroid users. (This isn’t usually acknowledged, but it explains why those volumes aren’t really appropriate for natural trainees.)
On the other hand, cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, is produced in response to exercise. And the more cortisol you have, the less you’re able to recover from exercise, which is why the hormone — or the testosterone to cortisol ratio — is used as a marker of exercise recovery and muscle protein balance.
In fact, it turns out that your subjective stress levels are a decent gauge of your ability to recover from a workout. The difference between high and low stress equates to a twofold difference in a person’s ability to recover from a workout.
What the Research Says About How Many Sets You Should Do Per Week
There are other important factors still, such as your genetics or skeletal frame. But let’s assume you don’t want to make this too complicated, and don’t plan on getting a DNA test or regular blood tests. If that's the case, here are some research-based guidelines to follow.
- If you’ve been training properly for less than a year, perform 10-15 sets per muscle group per week.
- If you’ve been training properly for one to five years, perform 15-20 sets per week.
- If you’re very advanced and have been training properly for over five years, perform 20-25 sets per week.
- If you’re an elite bodybuilder or powerlifter, perform 25-30 sets per week.
- Athletes have the same recovery capacity as elite bodybuilders and powerlifters, but their sport-specific training eats into their recovery capacity, and training volume has to be reduced accordingly (even more so during the season than in the offseason).
Additionally, increase these numbers by 15% if you’re in a small caloric surplus, and 30% if you're dirty bulking. Reduce them by 15% for a moderate caloric deficit and 30% for a major caloric deficit.
Finally, increase these numbers by 30% if you feel very little stress in your life, and decrease them by 30% if you feel a lot of stress.
How these per-muscle numbers translate to total sets per week will, again, depend heavily on the specific exercises you pick. Generally, you can multiply them by four or five if you only do compound movements, and up to 10 if your program is heavy on isolation movements.
Yes, this gives you some very high numbers if you’re already very experienced. However, these are optimal training volumes, not the minimum you need to grow at all. And since there are diminishing returns to doing more volume (and because too much volume can actually reduce muscle growth, while taking up more time and effort and making you feel like garbage) it doesn’t hurt to err a little bit on the low side.
That said, these numbers should drive home the point that your body can recover from a lot more exercise than most people realize. And not only can it recover, but your body can actually build more muscle as a result of all that hard work.