How Many Sets Are Enough for Weightlifting?

How much weight do you need to lift to get stronger? This is not as much as you think, new research shows, but when it comes to muscle size , so much the better.

In a study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise and summarized by its author here , 34 youths with strength training experience did the same workout three times a week for eight weeks. Exercises included chest press, shoulder press, downdraft, seated deadlift, squat, leg press, and leg extension, each for 8–12 reps per set.

The only difference between the lifters was that some did one set of each exercise, while others repeated each exercise for three or five sets. An amazing result: by the finals, the guys who did the singles were as strong as those who did five. This means that their 13-minute workout was just as effective as the 68-minute version.

But if you want your muscles to be beautiful , it’s worth staying in the gym for a longer workout. The more the men climbed, the larger their muscles became. (This is consistent with previous research; the question of strength is darker.)

There are some caveats in this study: First, if you’re doing shorter sets, such as three to five reps, you’re probably not lifting enough weight to benefit from one set, so keep doing multiple sets. Second, five sets of each exercise is a lot of work. If you stick to such a schedule in the long run, you may find yourself overtrained – mostly tired and struggling all the time.

Bottom line: If you just want to build strength, do one set of 8-12 reps of each exercise per workout and enjoy the extra time off. But for maximum muscle – hey, who doesn’t want to look good? – do a few additional approaches.


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