Hey Chad, how many total work sets per muscle group do you recommend and how often should that muscle be trained again?
Hi John. Sets and training frequency are among the most subjective and fiercely debated topics in the world of bodybuilding. It makes sense when you think about it. Individuals will promote and endorse training the protocols that work best for them. And, likewise, they will criticize those training methods that didn’t.
In some instances, certain individuals will go so far as to tell someone else who obtained great results using other training methods that they are not effective, even though the proof is in the pudding.
This was the case when a well-known bodybuilder, who I won’t name, told me my method of training doesn’t work for me or anyone else. Anytime I’ve seen this particular bodybuilder in person, his muscularity never appeared to be on par with mine. Yet, he is bigger and taller than me.
I’m not boasting here. Rather, I just want to make the point that this guy is in no position to talk. However, when trainers are making money from their unique methodology of training, it isn’t uncommon for them to attack individuals who promote a contradictory training method.
Many Roads Lead To Success
My view on training tends to be less political and more common sense. Unless I’m dealing with some type of injury, I use low volume, high-intensity training. I perform just 1 working set to failure on each exercise, and my workouts rarely exceed 30 minutes.
However, if I meet a bodybuilder with an impressive physique who tells me he does 5 working sets on each exercise and spends 2-3 hours a day in the gym, I’m not going to insult his intelligence by telling him that doesn’t work. That would be ignorant.
I would acknowledge that what he’s doing is somehow working for him. But, in the back of my mind I know when I used to train that way, it was minimally productive and had me perpetually battling overuse injuries.
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Overtraining Is The Limiting Factor
It wasn’t until I recognized I was grossly overtraining that I made drastic adjustments and began making the most dramatic increases in muscle size and strength I’ve ever experienced! Not to mention that I experienced far fewer injuries.
I learned what method of training was most productive for me, and that’s what I continue to practice. It just so happens that what works best for me also works best for countless other individuals who I’ve trained. Although, that isn’t to say my way of training is unequivocally the very best strategy for every individual on the planet.
No two bodies or metabolisms are exactly the same. Therefore, what is most optimal for one individual, may not optimal for the next one.
How Many Sets?
Now, here is the answer to the question of how many working sets it takes to sufficiently stimulate muscle growth. It could be equated to the answer to this question: how many swings of an ax does it take to split a log in half?
The answer is relative to the amount of force an individual applies to the swing of the ax. If that individual exerts a very high amount of force, then one swing could split a log in two. However, if they can’t, one swing simply won’t be enough. It may actually take 2, 3, 4, or even 5 swings to split the log.
I believe stimulating muscle growth with weight training is very similar. If you’re able to really focus your efforts with maximum capacity, you can sufficiently stimulate muscle growth with 1 working set to 100% failure. Achieving this level of intensity depends on several factors: pain tolerance, muscle fiber type composition, and your ability to activate a high percentage of muscle fibers.
Let’s be very clear. When I talk about carrying a working set to 100% failure, it means you cannot perform even one more rep after the rep upon with which you fail. Additionally, you shouldn’t have the inclination or desire to perform 1 more working set, as your energy reserves will be significantly depleted.
The answer to the question of training frequency is also relative to the amount of intensity generated within a workout. The greater the level of intensity, the more time required between workouts for recovery and growth to transpire.
Intensity and rest days should be progressive. As your strength increases and you lift heavier weights, it will increase the intensity of your training. This increased training intensity simultaneously creates an energy deficit. It happens because a greater degree of the body’s biochemical resources are used up.
Take More Time Off
The remedy is to increase recovery time between workouts. The stronger you become, the more time you’ll need to properly recover and be able to realize muscle growth.
For example, let’s say you’re bench pressing 225 lbs. for 8 reps. You train chest once per week. By doing this you’re able to continue to increase your weight and reps until one day you’re doing 300 lbs. for 8 reps. The following week you go to train your chest again, hoping to bench 300 lbs. for 10 reps. However, for some reason, you fall short and only complete 6 reps.
This is the critical point where the amount of recovery time you’ve been allowing is not enough to compensate for the stress you’re placing on your body. This is where your muscle tissue is being broken down at a faster rate than it can recover. This makes muscle strength and size increases nearly impossible.
At this point, you may need up to two full weeks between chest workouts before you begin experiencing strength and size increases again.
Gauging Proper Recovery
The way to gauge whether or not you’re recovering sufficiently between workouts is to simply note whether or not your strength is increasing from workout to workout. If you’re doing it right, you should be realizing increases in weights, reps, or both.
Remember, for training to be productive, it must be progressive. If your weights and reps always remain the same, so will your body. If you’re getting stronger from workout to workout, then you’re allowing enough recovery time to realize meaningful progress. If not, chances are you’re overtraining and need to increase recovery time between ALL weight lifting sessions from that point forward.
Adding an extra 2 days of recovery between all weight workouts is a good place to start. On these rest days, it’s still okay to be active. Just don’t beat yourself up too much. For example, go for a bike ride. But, don’t go throwing around a bunch Atlas stones or practice other Olympic lifts.
There are many more details I could lay out here. However, I don’t want to throw too much at you at once. The body is a very sophisticated machine and the nuances behind how our bodies operate can be very convoluted. Hopefully, this information will offer some good general ideas that will help answer your questions regarding sets and frequency.
Best of luck to you with your training endeavors!
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