How Many Sets Should You Perform Each Week To Increase Strength?
In last week's blog post, I wrote about the importance of protein intake for weight and fat loss. Protein is an essential macronutrient for muscle maintenance and growth. However, protein by itself won't do much for muscle growth unless you combine it with some form of resistance training. Unfortunately for most people, our current way of life doesn’t elicit enough physical stress to strengthen our muscles. We sit behind a desk and work on a computer for most of the day. A sedentary lifestyle combined with a lack of resistance training will cause our muscles to wither away and atrophy. A decrease in muscle mass will increase one’s risk for gaining body fat. To prevent this from happening, we must increase our strength through resistance training. An increase in strength tends to be associated with an increase in muscle mass (1). So our goal will be to increase the strength of our body through resistance training.
How many sets should you perform each week to increase strength?
To answer this question, Ralston and colleagues reviewed nine studies that compared weekly set volume on strength gain in multi-joint and single joint exercises. Weekly volume is the sum of sets, reps, and load that one performs in a week. The multi-joint exercises in the nine studies were a squat, bench press, leg press, shoulder press, and a lateral pull down. While the single joint exercises were leg extension, bicep curl, and tricep extension. On average, the subjects performed between 6 to 12 repetitions per exercise at an intensity of 73-85% of their one rep max. The review compared low (LWS), medium (MWS), and high weekly sets (HWS) for the exercises mentioned above. Below you can find the weekly amount of sets each group performed:
LWS ≤5 sets
MWS 5-9 sets
HWS ≥10 sets
The authors found the HWS group to be the most effective followed by the MWS group for strength gain in both single and multi joint exercises for novice to intermediate lifters (2). The LWS group was the least effective for all training ages.
Numerous studies, including the review above, have found workout volume to be one of the main predictors of strength (2,3,4). So there is no need to panic if you can’t lift five times a week. Your workout schedule should fit your schedule and be based on your goals. In fact, even one day a week has been proven to be just as effective as three days a week for increasing strength levels when workout volume is the same (3). But for most people, it isn’t realistic to perform a week’s workout volume in one day. Plus, a review done by Schoenfeld and colleagues found an increase in muscle growth when muscle groups were trained two times per week versus one time; even when volume was equated for (5). By spreading out your training, you will have more energy to push the intensity for each exercise in the workout. Therefore, I recommend performing two to four total body workouts per week to hit your total workout volume.
In summary, the studies above suggest that a moderate to high weekly volume of sets is essential for increasing strength. Remember, there is a dose–response relationship between weekly sets performed and strength gain. More experienced lifters will need a higher weekly volume, whereas beginners will need less volume. Based on these findings, I believe you should perform the following each week (2):
Beginners to Novice (1-4 years training age) 5-9 sets per exercise by 6-12 repetitions
Intermediate to Experienced (4-10 years training age) 10+ sets per exercise by 6-12 repetitions
Beginners & Novice 2 Day A Week Workout Example
Squat 2-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Bench press 2-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Leg Press 2-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Lateral Pull down 2-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Shoulder Press 2-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Intermediate to Experienced 3 Day A Week Workout Example
Squat 3-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Bench press 3-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Leg Press 3-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Lateral Pull down 3-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Shoulder Press 3-5 sets x 6-12 reps
Hayashida, I., Tanimoto, Y., Takahashi, Y., Kusabiraki, T., & Tamaki, J. (2014). Correlation between muscle strength and muscle mass, and their association with walking speed, in community-dwelling elderly Japanese individuals. PloS one, 9(11), e111810. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111810
Ralston, G. W., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F. B., & Baker, J. S. (2017). The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 47(12), 2585-2601.
Ralston, G. W., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F. B., Buchan, D., & Baker, J. S. (2018). Weekly Training Frequency Effects on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine - open, 4(1), 36. doi:10.1186/s40798-018-0149-9
Grgic J, Schoenfeld BJ, Davies TB, Lazinica B, Krieger JW, Pedisic Z. Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Gains in Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2018 May;48(5):1207-1220. doi: 10.1007/s40279-018-0872-x. Review. PubMed PMID: 29470825.
Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports Medicine, vol. 46, no. 11, 2016, pp. 1689–1697., doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8.