Set Volume for
James Krieger, MS
Journal of Pure Power, Redmond, Washington
DETERMINING THE APPROPRIATE
NUMBER OF SETS PER EXERCISE
IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF DE-
SIGNING A RESISTANCE TRAINING
PROGRAM. EVIDENCE FROM A
RECENTLY PUBLISHED META-
ANALYSIS INDICATES THAT 2–3
SETS PER EXERCISE PRODUCE
46% GREATER STRENGTH GAINS
THAN A SINGLE SET. LITTLE BEN-
EFIT IS OBSERVED FOR MORE
THAN 3 SETS. FOR CLIENTS
INTERESTED IN GENERAL FITNESS
OR WHO LACK TIME, A SINGLE SET
IS APPROPRIATE. THREE SETS PER
EXERCISE IS AN APPROPRIATE
STARTING POINT FOR CLIENTS
LOOKING FOR MAXIMAL
STRENGTH GAINS. ADJUSTMENTS
CAN BE MADE FROM THESE
STARTING POINTS BASED ON
The design of a resistance train-
ing program requires the ap-
propriate manipulation of a
variety of variables, all of which can
affect the adaptations to a resistance
training program. These variables in-
clude but are not limited to frequency,
intensity, and volume. A primary way
that training volume can be manipu-
lated is through the number of sets
performed per exercise and per muscle
group. Thus, the number of sets can
have a strong impact on the morpho-
logical and performance-based outcomes
of a resistance training program. The
response of the body to changes in set
volume can be viewed as a dose-
response relationship. For example, as
the dose of a drug is increased, the
body’s response to that drug increases,
until a plateau is reached. If the drug
dose continues to increase, there is
no further increase in the body’s re-
sponse to the drug, but an increase in
side effects can occur. Similarly, as the
number of sets of a resistance exercise
increases, the body’s response (the
increase in strength and muscle mass)
may increase. However, at some point,
this response will plateau, and too many
sets may increase the risk of injury.
The personal trainer should take an
evidence-based approach when it comes
to program design for a client. How-
ever, the evidence regarding the
appropriate number of sets has not
been straightforward. Review articles
on this topic have come to different
conclusions as to whether multiple sets
can produce superior strength gains
(1,3,4,23). Most studies published over
the past decade have shown multiple
sets to result in signiﬁcantly greater
strength gains than single sets (2,5–9,
12–14,17,20,21). Some published meta-
analyses indicate multiple sets to be
superior (18,19,24); however, these
articles have a number of methodo-
logical limitations, which has resulted
in criticism of their conclusions (10,16).
Also, the results of these articles have
not been consistent. For example, Rhea
et al. (19) reported multiple sets to be
superior in both trained and untrained
subjects, but Wolfe et al. (24) reported
multiple sets to be superior in trained
Another problem is that the majority
of resistance training studies compare
1 set with 3 sets per exercise (1,4).
However, there are many other varia-
tions in set volume that can be pre-
scribed. There has been very little
research done regarding the dose-
response effects of the number of sets
on strength gains. Ostrowski et al. (15)
compared 1, 2, and 4 sets per exercise
and reported no signiﬁcant differences
between groups. However, the vari-
ability of the responses and the small
number of subjects per group limit the
statistical power to detect differences
between groups. Rhea et al. (19) looked
at dose-response effects with a meta-
analysis, reporting 4 sets per muscle
group to be the optimal number for
both trained and untrained subjects.
However, as mentioned earlier, the
limitations of the study design indicate
that the results should be interpreted
with caution. Also, since Rhea et al.
reported the data as sets per muscle
group, the sets-per-exercise problem is
not adequately addressed. Given the
lack of convincing scientiﬁc data re-
garding the dose-response effects of
the number of sets, it can be difﬁcult for
the personal trainer to decide what
number is appropriate for a client.
A recent meta-analysis was published in
the Journal of Strength and Conditioning
volume; sets; strength; meta-analysis
VOLUME 32 | NUMBER 3 | JUNE 2010 Copyright ÓNational Strength and Conditioning Association
Research to try to shed more light on
the dose-response effects of the num-
ber of sets per exercise (10). This meta-
analysis had 2 purposes: to address the
criticisms of previous meta-analyses in
this area and to establish a dose-re-
sponse relationship of set volume on
strength. The main ﬁnding was that
a single set per exercise resulted in
strength gains, but multiple sets were
superior. Speciﬁcally, 2–3 sets per
exercise was associated with 46%
greater strength gains than 1 set, and
no further beneﬁt was observed for
more than 3 sets. These ﬁndings
applied to both trained and untrained
subjects, upper- and lower-body exer-
cises, and a variety of training frequen-
cies. These ﬁndings were also true
whether or not multiple exercises were
performed per muscle group.
The main limitation of this recent
analysis is that there were only 2 stud-
ies included that incorporated 4 or
more sets per exercise. This limits the
statistical power to detect signiﬁcant
differences. It is still possible that 4 or
more sets could result in greater
strength gains than 2–3 sets, but more
research in this area will be needed to
answer this question. What is apparent
is that there is a plateau in strength gains
once you get to 4–6 sets per exercise;
2–3 sets resulted in 46% greater gains
than 1 set, whereas 4–6 sets only
resulted in 13% greater gains than
2–3 sets. The reason for this plateau
is not currently known. It is known that
mechanical loading stimulates protein
synthesis in skeletal muscle (22), and
increasing loads result in greater re-
sponses until a plateau is reached (11).
It is likely that protein synthesis responds
in a similar manner to the number of
sets (i.e., an increasing response as the
number of sets are increased, until a
plateau is reached), although there is
no research examining this.
The ﬁndings of this analysis allow for
a number of practical applications
that personal trainers can use in their
1. If a client is only interested in
general ﬁtness and does not need
maximal gains in strength, then 1 set
per exercise is a sufﬁcient stimulus to
improve strength. Also, clients who
are lacking time can still experience
strength gains by doing only 1 set to
failure or near-failure per exercise.
2. If a client is interested in maximal
strength gains, then multiple sets per
exercise are necessary. Because the
majority of studies in this meta-
analysis compared 1 set with 3 sets
per exercise, than 3 sets per exercise
is an appropriate starting point for
a client. Because these numbers are
based on averages, individual client
responses may vary. Thus, set vol-
ume can be adjusted up or down
from this starting point based on
client response and tolerance.
3. The point of diminishing returns
appears to be above 3 sets per exer-
cise. In this meta-analysis, 4–6 sets
per exercise was not signiﬁcantly
different from 2–3 sets. Thus, there is
little additional beneﬁt to doing more
than 3 sets per exercise, although
individual responses may vary.
4. There is no need to differentiate
between trained and untrained sub-
jects in regards to set volume; both
are equally likely to beneﬁt from
multiple sets. However, for clients
with little resistance training expe-
rience, it is probably prudent to keep
initial volume to 1–2 sets per exer-
cise to help prevent the delayed-
onset muscle soreness that usually
accompanies unaccustomed exercise.
Set volume can then be progressed.
5. These set volumes are considered
work sets and do not include warm-
There are still questions that science
needs to answer regarding program
design. For example, is it beneﬁcial to
incorporate multiple exercises target-
ing the same muscle group? The recent
meta-analysis found no beneﬁt to
doing multiple exercises, although it
was not speciﬁcally designed to answer
this question. Also, more research is
needed looking at dose-response rela-
tionships in regards to the number of
sets; there are very few studies that use
volumes of more than 3 sets per
exercise (13,15). Another question that
needs to be answered is the
relationship between the number of
sets and intensity. The studies in the
recent meta-analysis involved an aver-
age of 7–10 repetition maximum (RM)
per set. The optimal set volume for
higher training intensities (1–5 RM)
has not been adequately investigated.
Although scientists have more to in-
vestigate regarding other topics, the
evidence in the single versus multiple
set debate overwhelmingly favors mul-
tiple sets. It is also clear that there is a
dose-response relationship in regards
to set volume and strength, with an
apparent plateau in the response be-
yond 3 sets per exercise. Clients who
want maximal strength gains are best
off doing 2–3 sets per exercise, whereas
clients who just want to stay ﬁt or lack
time can achieve moderate strength
improvements with a single set. It
should also be noted that these con-
clusions are limited to general ﬁtness
and maximal strength and that the
appropriate set volume may be differ-
ent for other goals such as hypertro-
phy, power, and endurance. As always,
a personal trainer should tailor a client’s
program to his/her individual needs,
goals, and limitations.
is the editor for
Journal of Pure
Power, an online
tion in a manner
easy to under-
stand by athletes
˚genhammar S and Hansson EE.
Repeated sets or single set of resistance
training: A systematic review. Adv
Physiother 9: 154–160, 2007.
2. Borst SE, De Hoyos DV, Garzarella L,
Vincent K, Pollock BH, Lowenthal DT, and
Pollock ML. Effects of resistance training
on insulin-like growth factor-I and IGF
binding proteins. Med Sci Sports Exerc
33: 648–653, 2001.
Strength and Conditioning Journal | www.nsca-lift.org 31
3. Carpinelli RN and Otto RM. Strength
training: Single versus multiple sets. Sports
Med 26: 73–84, 1998.
4. Durall CJ, Hermsen D, and Demuth C.
Systematic review of single-set versus
multiple-set resistance-training randomized
controlled trials: Implications for
rehabilitation. Crit Rev Phys Rehab Med
18: 107–116, 2006.
˜o DA and Taaffe DR. Resistance
exercise dosage in older adults: Single-
versus multiset effects on physical
performance and body composition. JAm
Geriatr Soc 53: 2090–2097, 2005.
6. Humburg H, Baars H, Schro
¨der J, Reer R,
and Braumann K-M. 1-set vs. 3-set
resistance training: A crossover study.
J Strength Cond Res 21: 578–582, 2007.
7. Kelly SB, Brown LE, Coburn JW, Zinder SM,
Gardner LM, and Nguyen D. The effect of
single versus multiple sets on strength.
J Strength Cond Res 21: 1003–1006,
8. Kemmler WK, Lauber D, Engelke K, and
Weineck J. Effects of single- vs. multiple-
set resistance training on maximum
strength and body composition in trained
postmenopausal women. J Strength Cond
Res 18: 689–694, 2004.
9. Kraemer WJ. The physiological basis for
strength training in American football: Fact
over philosophy. J Strength Cond Res
11: 131–142, 1997.
10. Krieger JW. Single versus multiple sets of
resistance exercise: A meta-regression.
J Strength Cond Res 23: 1890–1901,
11. Kumar V, Selby A, Rankin D, Patel R,
Atherton P, Hildebrandt W, Williams J,
Smith K, Seynnes O, Hiscock N, and
Rennie MJ. Age-related differences in the
dose-response relationship of muscle
protein synthesis to resistance exercise
in young and old men. J Physiol 587:
12. Marzolini S, Oh PI, Thomas SG, and
Goodman JM. Aerobic and resistance
training in coronary disease: Single versus
multiple sets. Med Sci Sports Exerc
40: 1557–1564, 2008.
13. McBride JM, Blaak JB, and Triplett-
McBride T. Effect of resistance exercise
volume and complexity on EMG, strength,
and regional body composition. Eur J Appl
Physiol 90: 626–632, 2003.
14. Munn J, Herbert RD, Hancock MJ, and
Gandevia SC. Resistance training for
strength: Effect of number of sets and
contraction speed. Med Sci Sports Exerc
37: 1622–1626, 2005.
15. Ostrowski KJ, Wilson GJ, Weatherby R,
Murphy PW, and Lyttle AD. The effect of
weight training volume on hormonal output
and muscular size and function. J Strength
Cond Res 11: 148–154, 1997.
16. Otto RM and Carpinelli RN. A critical
analysis of the single versus multiple set
debate. JEPonline 9: 32–57, 2006.
17. Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Ball SD, and
Burkett LN. Three sets of weight training
superior to 1 set with equal intensity for
eliciting strength. J Strength Cond Res
16: 525–529, 2002.
18. Rhea MR, Alvar BA, and Burkett LN. Single
versus multiple sets for strength: A meta-
analysis to address the controversy. Res Q
Exerc Sport 73: 485–488, 2002.
19. Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Burkett LN, and
Ball SD. A meta-analysis to determine the
dose response for strength development.
Med Sci Sports Exerc 35: 456–464, 2003.
20. Rønnestad BR, Egeland W, Kvamme NH,
Refsnes PE, Kadi F, and Raastad T.
Dissimilar effects of one- and three-set
strength training on strength and muscle
mass gains in upper and lower body in
untrained subjects. J Strength Cond Res
21: 157–163, 2007.
21. Schlumberger A, Stec J, and
Schmidtbleicher D. Single- vs. multiple-set
strength training in women. J Strength
Cond Res 15: 284–289, 2001.
22. Spangenburg EE. Changes in muscle
mass with mechanical load: possible
cellular mechanisms. Appl Physiol Nutr
Metab 34: 328–335, 2009.
23. Stone MH, Plisk SS, Stone ME, Schilling BK,
O’bryant HS, and Pierce KC. Athletic
performance development: Volume
load—1-set vs. multiple sets, training
velocity and training variation. Strength
Cond J 20: 22–31, 1998.
24. Wolfe BL, Lemura LM, and Cole PJ.
Quantitative analysis of single- vs. multiple
set programs in resistance training.
J Strength Cond Res 18: 35–47, 2004.
VOLUME 32 | NUMBER 3 | JUNE 2010
Determining Appropriate Set Volume for Resistance Exercise