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Critical Variables: Sets Per Muscle Group

This article discusses how many sets per muscle group per session is ideal and how many sets per week must be performed to see improvement.

What is a set?

A set is a specific number of repetitions done at one time. For example, performing 12 bicep curls in a row without stopping is one set.

How many sets?

Studies show that the initial training period (the first 6-12 weeks) exercisers benefit by performing one set/muscle group for the upper body and two sets/muscle group for the lower body followed by a progressive increase up to 3-4 sets/muscle group. This is for individuals with the goal of optimizing hypertrophy (increasing muscle size), strength, and/or power.

Upper body exercises vs lower body exercises

Upper body exercises involve the movements of the arms. For example, chest press, row, shoulder press and pulldowns are good examples. Lower body exercises include squats, lunges, and deadlifts and all their variations.

Novice exercise routine

Acute variables include 60-70% of 1-rep max (the most you can move once), repetitions per set are 12-20 with a rest period of 1-3 minutes.

  1. Legs - Squat

  2. Back - Row

  3. Chest - Knee push-ups

  4. Legs - Frontal plane step ups

  5. Shoulders - Scaptions

  6. Middle back - Floor cobra

Experienced exerciser routine for upper body

Acute variables include 75-90% of 1-rep max, repetitions per set are 6-12 with a rest period of up to 3 minutes.

  1. Chest - Incline bench press

  2. Chest - Dumbbell press on ball

  3. Back - Pull-ups

  4. Back - Chaos row

  5. Arms - Curl to press

  6. Middle back - Standing cobra using elastic band


More sets doesn't translate to better results especially for the novice exerciser. One set for each upper body muscle group and two sets for each lower body muscle group is all that is needed for improvement for the first 6-12 weeks of training. This will minimize injury and maximize muscle strength and size.

Experienced exercisers will see diminishing returns when performing more than 5 sets per muscle group.

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