How Many Sets of Exercise Should You Do? It's Never One-Size-Fits-All

Zachary Walston

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How do you decide how long you should work out? How many sets of exercises should you perform?

For some, it’s a matter of feel, electing to exercise until a fatigue point in which they are satisfied with the amount of exercise performed. For others, time is the restricting factor, completing as many sets as possible within a 30 or 60-minute window, provided rest breaks are sufficient.

One of the most common methods of determining volume is to use a workout plan with a predetermined number of sets. I say sets as repetitions and volume are often left to be determined on the day of exercise, depending on the method of intensity used.

If you are using % of 1 rep max, then your reps are already determined. For example, you may come into the gym knowing you are performing an 8x3 squat workout at 90% of your 1 rep max. Conversely, you may use repetitions in reserve, electing to perform 20 sets of exercises always finishing with 1–2 repetitions in reserve, allowing for some variability in completed reps based on your training status that day (i.e. sleep, stress, and diet influences).

At this point, you can likely identify with one of the aforementioned strategies. This brings me back to my original question, well, the second question.

How many sets of exercises should you perform?

A 2020 research study sought to answer this question.

A tale of two quadriceps

In this study, 16 young males — an average of 5.1 years of lifting exercise — put their legs through two different exercise programs. For eight weeks, they performed single leg press and knee extension exercises twice a week but with different volumes on each leg. The standardized leg completed 22 sets per week — the determined average amount found in research studies. This comes out to 5–6 sets of extensions and presses per training session. The experimental leg used an individualized approach.

Individualized volume was determined by averaging the participants' previous two-week volume of quadriceps training. The average was then increased by 20%, providing an individualized volume for each participant (some will likely have similar volumes). For both groups, they performed their sets to technical failure, accounting for day-to-day variations in training status (again, sleep, nutrition, and stress impact). The loads were adjusted so each set was for 8–12 reps, and 2 minutes of rest was completed between each set.

This study did not test strength, only muscle size via ultrasound scans. Now, let’s see what they found. Which legs do you think won?

In 10 of the 16 participants, the individualized quadriceps increased significantly more than the standard quadriceps (9.9% vs. 6.2%). The difference in size was greater than the typical measurement error with ultrasound, indicating the growth differences were real. Only 2 of the 16 participants had greater growth with the standard training program.

The problem with a standard approach

Here is the main issue with using a standard approach: you discount the work you already put in.

For the participants in the study, the standard approach ranged from a 50% reduction to a 120% increase in their previous training volume. That is a range of undertraining to overtraining. Our bodies are highly adaptive, but they take time to respond to new training stimuli.

If the goal is muscle growth, not strength, then A recent study. If you cut your volume by 50%, it doesn’t matter how many great results an instaguru or celebrity trainer has achieved with their program, the program won’t be appropriate for you. Conversely, if you increase your volume by 150% overnight, you are at risk of overtraining and injuring yourself.

This does not mean you won’t see results with a standard approach. In this study, positive outcomes were still achieved. Coaches and trainers across the world succeed with standard approaches. But standard approaches won’t provide optimal results. Personalization is always king, the same is true for my profession of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Takeaways

If you want to build muscle and achieve fitness goals, the most important steps are showing up and putting the work in. When it comes to building muscle, volume is king. If you want to maximize your benefits, you have to take your training history into consideration.

You want gradual improvements over time, taking into account your sleep, nutrition, and stress status. You want to push yourself, and a training partner or rigid program can be the catalyst that facilitates a higher level of motivation and training intensity but make sure the parameters of the training are personalized to you. Manipulate the volume of the program so they are close to your training history.

There are many ways to obtain positive results in the gym. If time is an issue, you can improve efficiency. You can use a variety of types of exercises safely and effectively too. Don’t restrict yourself to one-size-fits-all programs.

One size never fits all.

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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