Q: What is the optimum number of sets for each bodypart? I’ve been doing 16 sets for chest and back and want to increase it to 20. For arms I’ve been doing 10 sets and want to increase it to 12. For legs I’ve been doing 20 sets, and that’s good I think. For shoulders I want to increase from 12 sets to 16. Is that too much? I don’t feel as sore as I probably should at the end of each workout. Will increasing the sets help me, or could the problem be with my form?
A: I’ve never been a big believer in adding sets after a certain point. I think it’s better to train harder by using more resistance or taking each set to failure instead of adding more sets. Each set you do will deplete your energy reserves. If you do too many sets per workout, you will be burning more calories instead of building muscle tissue.
When I construct a training program for clients and I recommend that they cut back on the number of sets they do, they are always skeptical that they can build muscle by doing less work. After they try the new workout for a few weeks, however, they realize how much more energy they have thanks to doing fewer total sets. They soon discover that they can train harder and with more resistance because they don’t have to pace themselves for a longer workout.
The number of sets you should do for each muscle group depends on the size of the muscles. For bigger bodyparts, like the legs, chest and back, you will obviously need more sets. For smaller muscles, like the abs, biceps and calves, you won’t need as many sets.
For chest I like doing two basic, compound movements. They will be pushing exercises done with barbells or dumbbells—flat-bench or incline barbell presses, flat-bench or incline dumbbell presses. I do warmups and three working sets of each exercise. For my third exercise I do three working sets of flat-bench or incline dumbbell flyes. That’s it for chest—a total of nine working sets.
The back has more elements and areas to train (upper lats, lower lats, width, thickness, lower back), so I need to do more exercises. I like to do two mass-building exercises that stress thickness in the lats. These are also basic, compound movements done mostly with barbells or dumbbells. My favorites are bent-over barbell rows, one-arm dumbbell rows, T-bar rows and seated cable rows.
I also add one exercise for the upper lats, which contribute to back width—either wide-grip chins or wide-grip pulldowns. For the lower lats, I do either close-grip pulldowns or close-grip chins. Finally, for the lower-back muscles I do hyperextensions or deadlifts.
If you add it all up, I’m doing six sets for thickness (two rowing movements for three working sets each), three sets for width, two sets for the lower lats and maybe three sets for the lower back. That’s a total of 14 sets for my back.
For legs I do two mass-building pushing exercises for the quads. They could be barbell squats, front squats, leg presses or hack squats. The compound exercises use the muscles in the legs, glutes and hips to move the resistance, so I can use heavier weights. I do three working sets for each exercise after my warmups.
In addition to the mass-building movements, I do one shaping exercise for the quads—like leg extensions or lunges. I normally do three sets of leg extensions in order to warm up my knees as well as isolate the quadriceps muscles before I begin my heavy compound movements.
For hamstrings I do a total of two exercises. I like to use a compound exercise along with an isolation move. The compound exercise will be either stiff-legged deadlifts, done with a barbell or dumbbells, or leg presses with the feet placed high to emphasize the hams. The isolation exercise will be some sort of leg curl using a machine or dumbbells. I do three sets of each movement for a total of six sets for the hamstrings.
For the deltoids I always do one pressing exercise, a compound movement. I like doing seated dumbbell or barbell presses. Other alternatives include Arnold presses, standing barbell presses and behind-the-neck presses. I do three working sets for the pressing exercise.
I also do a lateral raise for the side-delt heads and one for the rear heads. Three sets of each exercise is enough to get the deltoids to grow. I add three sets of barbell or dumbbell shrugs for the traps. That adds up to 12 working sets for the shoulders.
For triceps I also do three exercises for three sets each. I like to train each area of the triceps. I always try to perform one compound exercise like close-grip bench presses or dips, followed by an extension exercise like lying triceps extensions, seated extensions or bent-over cable extensions. Pushdowns are another favorite exercise of mine for this muscle. Try to choose exercises that will work all three triceps heads.
Smaller muscles like the biceps, calves and abs only need about two exercises to be trained adequately. For biceps I do one dumbbell and one barbell curl. For calves I also do two exercises, choosing standing calf raises, seated calf raises, donkey calf raises or leg press calf raises. For abs I do one exercise for the upper portion and one for the lower portion.
Analyze the workout you’re using now, and see how you can make some changes by eliminating exercises that are similar to other movements you’re already using. Do what is necessary to get the muscles to grow, but don’t keep adding more sets, as that will make inroads into your recuperation system and eventually prevent you from gaining muscle. Doing too many sets is not the answer to getting bigger.
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