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How to Determine the Right Number of Sets for You
Author: Sandra Prior

One of the most common questions asked by beginner bodybuilders has to do with how many sets are recommended for an exercise. An exact number is impossible to give because it depends on a number of variables like your experience level, whether the exercise is a multi-joint or isolation movement, whether you do it first, second or even last in your routine, and your bodybuilding goals.

Let’s take a look at how you can fine tune your workout to determine the best combinations for you.

Essential Workout Elements


Recreational weight trainers and health enthusiasts take a different approach to lifting weights than do bodybuilders. These individuals may do just 1 – 2 sets, sometimes arranged as a circuit, to stimulate the muscles without trying to achieve maximum muscle size or strength. Nothing wrong with that, though few people will be able to achieve exceptional muscular development following this type of program.

Sequence of Exercises

Smart bodybuilders do additional sets on their first, and sometimes second, exercises for a given body part as part of a warm up. Why? Using a very light weight gets the targeted muscles as well as connective tissue (cartilage, ligaments, tendons) ready for the heavier weights to follow. Pyramiding the weight up on successive sets (poundages go up, reps fall) is not only the safest way to train but will also allow you to lift more weight on your heavy sets. Just don’t take your light weight sets to muscle failure. You may even want to do a single warm up on your second exercise, but generally that’ll be enough warm up sets.

Isolation vs. Multi Joint Movements

With a greater number of muscle groups and connective tissue involved in multi-joint movements, you’ll want to make sure everything is warm. Do multi-joint or compound sets first in your workout because they generally require greater effort and skill than do isolation movements. Think of a bench press vs. a pec-deck flye. Also, since you’re doing the compound movements first, you’ll need an extended warm up.

Experience Level

Advanced bodybuilders may need to do a number of warm ups to get up to their working weight; on the other hand, advanced bodybuilders generally do a greater number of isolation movements than beginners. These issues also factor in to your total number of sets.

Working Sets

For the bodybuilder, warm up sets get you ready for your working sets. Some people think only one very intense set is enough; others claim 3 -4 are required to build maximum muscle. In this case, you might do five sets of your first exercise, a compound movement, and perhaps three of your others.

Naturally, you’ll sometimes see individuals who figure, if five working sets are good, why not do seven or nine? Here, diminishing returns begins to take place, in which all that extra effort isn’t rewarded with additional growth or, worse, gains halt or even decline because of overtraining. Instead of adding sets, you should look at ways to add intensity to your workouts.

If you’re coming up short on the intensity stick, adding extra sets isn’t an equal trade off. Instead, you need to work harder and smarter.


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