How many sets for each muscle group is optimal?

Now, here is a question that never gets old! How much should I lift per muscle group per week for bodybuilding purposes? Unlike all the other articles you might find that cover this topic, I will tell you right off the bat that you are not going to get the answer you were hoping to get. And it’s not because I am in a foul mood or anything.

The thing is – there is no answer, or at least not one that would work for everyone. But before you close the tab in your browser, I will say this: When you finish reading, you will know how to determine that number for yourself, and even for your gym buddies in order to gain mass (getting stronger is a whole different story). So listen up, as I go over the most important things you should pay attention to when programing your workouts.

Arms – 6-8 sets per week

When it comes to programing, arms are in no danger of going undertrained. Total sets per workout are usually two or three times bigger than what you actually need to maximize protein synthesis. We never seem to be happy with the size of our arms (guess what, there will always be a dude with bigger guns), or the pace at which they are growing.

I’ve been there, so please listen to me! Curling on top of curling, be it with a barbell or as one of your heavy dumbbell exercises (I’ve seen people that go for 7 series of barbell curls, hammer curls and spider curls, all in one session) is not going to get you the T-shirt tearing arms. It will probably give you a forearm muscle strain, as you force a small muscle group (yes, I did just call your biceps small) to take the load it wasn’t meant to take.

So, if you want to get Hulk-like arms, listen to me, rest them, and make your peace with just doing 6 – 8 sets per week for both your triceps and your biceps. It can be 2 exercises with 3 or 4 sets per exercise, or any other combo works for you, but going higher volume than that will just have no effect. Your arms are already getting enough work from rowing, pressing and doing pull-ups. In the meanwhile, focus on eating right, getting enough sleep, and controlling your stress levels.

Legs – 6-8 sets, but don’t be too happy about it yet

Now, legs are a whole different ball game. I have to say, I don’t think that the problem with legs is that people don’t train them. It’s rather they do all the wrong exercises (at least in the gyms I go to). And if anything, they do too much of all the wrong things. Let me explain.

What you really need for overall developed legs can fit into just two exercises that will properly stimulate both your posterior and anterior chain. So do 4 sets of heavy squats and 4 sets of Romanian deadlifts. Or 4 sets of deadlifts and a couple of sets of heavy Bulgarian split squats. If that sounds too easy for you, you are either using too small of a weight, or giving yourself way too much time to recover in between sets.

But most people are avoiding these exercises altogether either because they don’t look cool, or they look too scary (the barbell is very close to your neck, I know). I know that something such as leg press or leg extension machine can seem safer, but that is the wrong way to look at things.

If properly executed, deadlifts and squats will give you not only a great stimulus for leg growth, but also an amazing testosterone response that all the other muscles can benefit from. So, learn the right technique, make your leg day simple and dreadful, and you will know you are on the right way to a breathtaking physique.

Chest, back and shoulders – 12

When it comes to training your chest, back and shoulders, you are going to need a bit more volume, but for different reasons.

Shoulders comprise of three heads of the deltoid muscle, so every one of them is going to have to be hit properly to induce growth. You are still going to have to alter your workouts a bit because the front delt and the back delt work as synergists in all of your pushing and pulling movements respectively, so I advise counting the shoulder sets on a weekly basis, rather than counting only the ones done on a shoulder day.

The lateral head is going to have to be hit separately, and it’s going to have to be a lateral raise-like movement, so the thinking there is minimal. To tell you the truth, I don’t even have a special day for shoulders as I usually hit them when doing chest or back, and I sneak in lateral flys the day I feel the best recovered.

Back and chest demand more volume, not only due to anatomical reasons and the size and number of those muscles, but also due to the functions those muscles have. If you want to hit your chest, you are going to have to press, and you are going to have to horizontally adduct your arms (to drive your arms across the body). If you want to target the upper pectoral muscles as a bonus, it becomes pretty clear why this part of your body demands a bit more love.

The same rule works for your back. When you look at your back and its functions, you have to pull vertically, pull horizontally, and at the same time take care of all the small postural muscles that just have to be strong unless vulture is the look you are going for. Twelve sets are more than enough to give proper attention to your spinal erectors, lats, traps, and all the muscles that surround your shoulder girdle.

Over to you

Remember, the time you spend in the gym doesn’t have to be crazy long. If you are a beginner lifter, it’s actually crucial that it isn’t. If you train smart, program your workouts right, and do all of the other things you should, 45minutes per workout session will more than suffice. Don’t avoid the unpopular lifts, go strong, and prepare to be amazed with the results.

About the Author Dumbbellsgeek

Hey! My name is Paul Sheldon. I live in Nashville, TN and I love all things related to sports. Naturally I love workking out and I do it every day. If you want to talk feel freee to hit me a message or if you happen to be in Nashville we can get a coffee, I know a great place. Peace!