Last updated on February 7th, 2023 at 05:25 pm
Have you ever noticed that we are all typically introduced to 3 sets of 10 reps when we first start weight training?
Performing an exercise for 10 reps definitely falls into the hypertrophy category of training, but is 3 sets actually enough to build muscle?
Performing one exercise for 3 sets is NOT enough to build muscle for most intermediate to advanced trainees. However, regardless of your training experience, you should always concentrate on training a specific muscle group for a total number of sets. As an example, a larger muscle group like the quads should be trained for 15-20 sets in total, using 3-4 exercises. Whereas, with a smaller muscle group like biceps, 2-3 exercises for a total of 12-15 sets will suffice.
The Main Muscle-Building Principles
When it comes to building muscle we typically always focus on the number of reps rather than the actual number of sets.
So, if you’re training for overall strength you’ll want to train in the 1-5 reps range.
If you’re looking to build muscle you will usually aim for 6-12 reps per set.
Whereas, if muscular endurance is your goal then this will generally involve above 12 reps, often in the 15-20 rep category.
With that being said, as I’ve mentioned, we are all usually introduced to weight training by using the 3 sets of 10 reps protocol.
So, in effect, this falls into the muscle-building training protocol.
However, if I’m being honest, I don’t believe anyone new to lifting should actually start by training for hypertrophy anyway.
For me, your initial training should be more focused on achieving your full strength potential.
Plus, being new, technique is far more important than the number of reps in total.
So, I would generally advise that someone in their first 3 months of training should be performing 3-5 reps of an exercise for 3-5 sets.
Furthermore, I would also suggest that you stick to the big compound exercises.
These are squats, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, bent-over row, pull ups, barbell bicep curls and dips.
Once you’ve learned the exercises and made some progress you can then focus more on building muscle.
Why 3 Sets May Not Be Enough to Build Muscle
Now, when it does come to building muscle I still don’t think that you should be specifically training 3 sets of 10 reps for each movement.
For me, it’s all about hitting the target muscle and aiming to fatigue that muscle before you can decide an exercise is “finished”.
What I mean by this is that often you won’t actually feel the target muscle working until the second or third set.
Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself.
You complete a couple of warm up sets, and then move onto your first working set.
You don’t really feel the muscle working that hard during the first set.
After you’ve had your 60-90 seconds rest (which is typical for hypertrophy training) you then move onto your next set.
Once more, you don’t feel the muscle working that hard, but it is still activated to a degree.
You rest again and then perform your third and final set, but yet again you probably feel as though you could’ve worked the target muscle harder.
However, as you’ve finished your obligatory three sets you move onto the next exercise.
A Tricep Example
Let’s look at an example if you were training your triceps.
So, you start off with 3 sets of 10 reps of dips and you then move onto tricep kickbacks.
However, you didn’t really feel the triceps working particularly hard during the dips, but your arms are literally on fire during the kickbacks.
But realistically, dips are a far better exercise and they hit all three heads of the triceps.
Now, even though tricep kickbacks activate all three tricep heads, they specifically focus more on the lateral head.
So, in effect, you have stopped using the better muscle-building compound exercise after three sets to focus on an exercise that only really hits one tricep head.
Therefore, you are unlikely to build as much muscle using the technique.
Basically, if you want to build muscle you have to focus on the exercises that will give you your biggest bang for your buck.
So, in this example I would be happy to continue doing dips for 5, or maybe even 6, sets.
The idea is to fatigue the triceps with the best exercise.
Plus, if you’re doing this for a weighted exercise don’t be scared to actually decrease the weight on subsequent sets.
We are all so focused on lifting heavier and heavier that sometimes we forget that in order to get bigger you have to fatigue the working muscle.
And if you have to decrease the weight in order to stay in the 6-12 rep range then so be it.
Decreasing the weight is simply your muscle’s way of telling you it’s starting to fatigue.
How to Train the Larger Muscle Groups
Personally, I prefer to train a specific muscle group by looking at the total number of sets.
However, the number of total sets that will produce the best results depends on the muscle group you’re training.
When it comes to the larger muscle groups I prefer to use 3-4 exercises for a total of 15-20 sets.
The larger muscle groups are:
So, as an example, let’s look at training chest.
I would want to actually hit each training protocol, i.e. strength, hypertrophy, and endurance.
However, if you specifically want to focus on just building muscle then that’s fine too.
My workout would look as follows:
- Barbell Bench Press – 5 Sets of 5 Reps (Strength)
- Incline Dumbbell Chest Press – 4 Sets of 8 Reps (Hypertrophy)
- Dumbbell Flyes – 3 Sets of 15 reps (Endurance)
- Dips – 3 sets of 10 reps (Hypertrophy)
Therefore, I have used 4 exercises for a total of 15 working sets, perfect.
Now, let’s say that I felt that the incline dumbbell presses were really hitting my pecs well.
In fact, I could really feel my chest working very hard and starting to fatigue.
In this case I may choose to perform 5 or 6 sets and really hammer home the exercise.
This may mean that I need to drop one of the other exercises or simply perform it for 2 sets.
The aim is to ensure that I’m working the target muscle to its full potential.
Something else to consider is to split the workout into two separate sessions.
In fact, this is how I prefer to train, i.e. hit each muscle group twice a week.
So, in effect, I may choose to do barbell bench press and flyes on Monday and incline dumbbell chest press and dips on Thursday.
However, I ensure that I stick to the total of 15-20 sets during the week.
You can train all the other larger muscle groups in exactly the same way.
How to Train the Smaller Muscle Groups
The smaller muscle groups, as you may have guessed, don’t need as much volume.
In fact, I would aim for 2-3 exercises for a total of 12-15 sets.
The smaller muscle groups include:
So, in effect, I could really hammer my biceps with 6 sets of barbell bicep curls followed by 6 sets of seated incline dumbbell bicep curls.
And if I don’t feel as though my biceps have nothing more to give, I simply didn’t train the two exercises with enough intensity.
Something else you can do is to pair the smaller muscle groups with the larger muscle groups in one training session.
This way the smaller muscle group may already be pre-fatigued before you work it.
This also means that you probably won’t require as many sets.
As an example, I could first train back with a variety of rows and pull ups.
I ensure I hit a total of 10 sets before moving onto 6 sets of bicep exercises, e.g. barbell bicep curls and hammer curls.
This way I can train my back and biceps again later in the week.
Plus, let’s say that I’m really feeling the barbell bicep curls doing their job, there’s no problem with completing 6 total sets.
I can then perform hammer curls on my next back and bicep day.
Key Learning Points
- 3 sets is likely enough to build muscle for beginners, but not for intermediate and advanced trainees.
- It is better to aim for a specific number of sets per muscle group over the course of a week.
- Train the larger muscles groups for 15-20 sets per week.
- Train the smaller muscle groups for 12-15 sets per week.
- If you feel that a muscle hasn’t been hit hard enough after 3 sets then add more sets until you feel the muscle is properly fatigued.
- Perform more sets of exercises which are likely to produce greater muscle gains, e.g. more sets of dips than tricep kickbacks.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.