We wrote earlier about the number of sets you should do per exercise. A more important question is how many sets you should do per muscle group per session. For example, if you do 3 sets of incline bench press and 3 sets of bench press, that’s actually 6 sets per muscle group. So how many should you do?
One meta analysis found that both untrained (lifting for less than 1 year) and trained (lifting for more than 1 year) participants should lift an average of 4 sets per muscle group. There was only a minor drop-off in trained participants between 4 and 5 sets, while there was a much bigger drop-off for untrained participants (see below). Another meta analysis found that college and professional athletes should lift an average of 8 sets per muscle group.
These are the number of sets you should do to maximize strength gains. As a review of these studies pointed out though, you could perform less sets to save time and still see significant strength gains. For example, untrained and trained participants can achieve roughly 50% of maximal strength gains in a session by doing 1 set per muscle group. Athletes, on the other hand can only achieve 26% of their potential with one set per muscle group.
A good starting point is to do 4 sets per muscle group per session. If you’re an athlete or highly trained, you should move up toward the 8 sets per muscle group per session range.
Peterson, Mark D., Matthew R. Rhea, and Brent A. Alvar. “Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: a review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.4 (2005): 950-958.
Peterson, Mark D., Matthew R. Rhea, and Brent A. Alvar. “Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 18.2 (2004): 377-382.
Rhea, Matthew R., et al. “A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 35.3 (2003): 456-464.