Weightlifting Volume: How Many Sets and Reps?

A weightlifting variable that has a huge impact on your results is your training volume – how many reps and sets you do per workout. Predictably, there is no absolute consensus on the “best” volume for muscle building, but one principle is well-established:

The more repetitions of an exercise you do, the fewer sets you should perform, and vice versa. This keeps the total number of reps you do of an exercise nearly equal, no matter how many repetitions comprise each set.

Knowing your best training volume

You will, of course, see people who are ignoring this principle and doing great. A beginner might get fantastic results by doing very low or high volume. More experienced lifters may require a very high volume. So what is the ideal range of sets and reps to get results for the average lifter wanting to put on muscle?

Weightlifting for Muscle Gain

The smart lifter does the least amount of work for his or her results – overkill can lead to overtraining. According to the Nick Tumminello, a leading bodybuilding and strength coach, building muscle requires 12-20 sets per week per body part, at an average of 8-15 reps per set. So, for example, if you want to build your shoulders, you need to do at least 12 sets of shoulder exercises in any given week. Very experienced lifters may require more than this and beginners less.

Can you break this up any way you please, such as 12 sets of one rep each? Or one set of 70 reps? You could, but that would be a pretty dumb thing to do. To put it simply, muscle fibers are recruited differently at different loads. You need to lift in the moderate intensity range – 6 to 12 reps – to recruit all the available motor units needed for muscle growth.

I personally use low, medium, and high rep ranges into my weightlifting workouts, because that’s the best way to avoid plateau, also build strength, and stay conditioned. If I do 8 to 12 reps into eternity, at some point I’m going to plateau. Varying the ranges is the hallmark of a good weightlifting program.

This means that your resistance should also be moderate to high – 70 to 85 percent of your one-rep maximum. Three to four exercises for big muscles and two to three exercises for smaller muscles are sufficient.

Larger muscles (chest, back, legs) can tolerate more volume; smaller muscles (biceps, triceps, calves) don’t need that much. The shoulders fall somewhere in between; the main concern is keeping them healthy.

Check out the following example for a weekly shoulder training routine:

Shoulder press 5 sets of 6 reps (5×6)
Lateral raise 4×10
Bent-over lateral raise 3×8

Total shoulder sets for workout#1: 12

If our lifter sees better results at a higher volume and her joints can tolerate it, she could train shoulders again 4-5 days later:

Push press 4×10
Face pull 3×12
Upright row 3×8

Total shoulder sets for workout#2: 10

Total shoulder sets for the week: 22 

Keep in mind that this is a muscle-building example. Weightlifting volume should look different for endurance, fat loss, and strength goals (see this for more).

Finding the right volume for you may entail a bit of trial and error. When I’m designing programs for my virtual coaching clients, I look closely at what they’ve already been doing. If they’ve had symptoms of overtraining or have plateaued, I go a different direction. If their results have been on and off, I push for consistency.

Instead of only thinking about the “how” when weightlifting, think about the “why.” Train with a purpose and the results will follow.

This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.

11 thoughts on “Weightlifting Volume: How Many Sets and Reps?

  1. Suzanne- the timing of this post is great for me personally. I took off the extra pounds that were bothering me and am now shifting into building more muscle mass with the help of my trainer. We were just talking about doing less reps with higher weight amounts, and I’ve never looked at this on a weekly basis like you present above. Thanks for sharing your insight!


  2. Awesome post! Can’t wait for you to set me up! We leave Thursday, and I’m already looking forward to getting back and getting started with you.


  3. Kettlebells have changed my life! Recently, I have been
    starting to challenge myself with more weight and I can already see
    a difference, even if I only do 1-2 rounds with them.


  4. Great information for those working on muscle definition.

    Just started back on my strength building routine where my reps are small but the weights are all in the 75%-95% of 1RM range. Three warm up sets, and 3 working sets of 5, 3 or 1.

    3 supplemental moves at 5 sets of 10…


  5. Nice post, very easy to understand! Everyone is always looking for the perfect routine but using what you’ve laid out here it’s easy for them to go off and make their own now.


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