More sets for more strength

Wouldn’t you agree that lifting heavy weight is a “desired” ability for those of you who want to build a great physique… the benefit of both strength and muscle size combined?

You become stronger with an exercise because your nervous system learns to do the exercise. The nervous system then senses the need to recruit more muscle fibers, hence resulting in greater muscle activation and contraction over time, in order to assist you in lifting heavier weight. This is very simplistically put though.

We all know that low reps (3-5) give the best strength gains, but how many sets are supreme?

Studies show:

  • 5 > 3 > 1 (1)
  • 7 > 3 (2)
  • 9 > 6 > 3 (3)
  • 8 > 4 > 1 (4)

So is 9 sets the best?

Let me compare these two following studies for you.

  1. Weekly volume of 24 sets of chest exercises with 3 min rest resulted in 14.8% (108.8kg to 123.8kg) increase in 1RM bench press after 8 weeks (5). (Results from group 1)
  2. Weekly volume of 6 sets of chest exercises with 3 min rest resulted in 3.1% (107-110.3kg) increase in 1RM bench press after 8 weeks (6).

The reason these two studies are so appropriate for comparison is because the duration of both of these studies was 8 weeks. Both basically started at the same 1RM (107-108.8kg) and both rested 3 minutes between sets.

Just to make sure that the significance of the difference in strength gains sink in a bit better, I set up a graph to illustrate it.

More sets more strength

That is a huge difference in strength gains just by doing more sets.

If you look closely at the two studies, the only difference you’ll find in the second study from the first study’s group 1, is that they did 6-8 reps, whereas the group 1 from the first study did 3-5 reps.

  • First study (group 1): 3-5 reps
  • Second study: 6-8 reps

But the difference wouldn’t be a good enough excuse for the greater increase in strength, because another group from the first study (group 2) (5) did 8-12 reps per set with 1 min rest. That is more a bodybuilding routine, than a routine to gain strength. Nevertheless, they increased their 1RM bench press by 6.9% after 8 weeks. That’s still more than double that of the second study’s gains of 3.1%. The first group of the first study also trained each muscle group twice weekly, which resulted in 12 sets per workout, per muscle group.

 

So, what’s the take away message?

Higher volume is clearly more superior for strength gains, which I also find to be true from my own experience. To increase your strength optimally, I would advise to stick to low to moderate reps (3-6), try a split program and make every 4th – 6th week a deload week if you’re already intermediate to advanced. If you’re a beginner, don’t start right away with 12+ sets per workout, but gradually work up to it. I personally don’t think it’s needed to do more than 24 sets per muscle group, per week, and even 24 sets might be a tad excessive.

Remember, there is a big difference between building quality muscle naturally, and just gaining strength.

 

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