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Generally when lifting weights if you do a low number of reps it will increase your strength, and a higher number of reps will increase your endurance.

However when it comes to the number of sets to do, I'm a little more confused.

I am currently working with 5 sets. As I get into higher weights and have to rest longer between sets, it is pushing on my lunch hour and the boss is starting to frown. So if there isn't much difference between 5 and 3, I'll drop down to 3 sets to keep the job..

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3 Answers

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The number of sets has to do with the amount of training volume. Training volume is one of the variables you have to manipulate to induce adaptation, while avoiding over-training. There are different approaches to sets/reps which provide the training stress you need. The more you progress as a lifter the more you have to increase the total volume of training to adapt, but still allow for varied loads throughout a training cycle.

  • Sets across: all work sets at the same weight. This is the approach that Stronglifts 5x5, Starting Strength, and Madcow Advanced volume phase use. 5 sets of 5 is a lot of volume, and while it is excessive to cause adaptation for beginners, it does allow for more practice. NOTE: SL 5x5 becomes 3x5 and then 1x5 as the weight gets heavier, which reduced the training volume to keep it in a range that helps you get stronger.
  • Ramped sets: work sets increase in weight. Madcow 5x5 intermediate uses this approach. You really only have one heavy set of 5, but it is more volume than if you simply warmed up for a single set of 5. Madcow Advanced uses this approach in the intensity phase. Wendler 5/3/1 also uses this approach, with only 3 work sets.

Beginners can adapt with only three sets of work. The true purpose of the extra 2 sets on Strong Lifts is more practice while the weight is very light. SL promotes starting much lighter than you can lift. If you've never lifted before, you start at just the bar. If you have lifted before, you cut your current work weights in half.

Intermediate Lifters can adapt weekly. However, the work volume needs to be varied throughout the week to enable new personal records (PRs). For example, Madcow Intermediate uses the first session as a volume phase doing 5x5 ramped sets. The second session has 4x5 ramped sets (on squats it's sets across for the top two sets) which allow for more recovery. On the last session of the week, you have 4x5 ramped sets, a top set of 3, and a backoff set of 8 for each of the main lifts.

Advanced Lifters can adapt monthly. The work is usually varied throughout the weeks so that you have a volume phase, a transition phase, and an intensity phase. The volume phase primes the pump and really forces the adaptation. The transition phase is a bit of reduced volume to allow mid-cycle recovery. Finally, the intensity phase is where you set new PRs.

The closer you get to your genetic potential (i.e. the more advanced you become), the finer the line is between training volume to induce change and the volume that induces over-training. That's why you have to pay attention to the overall training volume, other life stressors, and your mood.

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Encyclopaedic knowledge as ever. Thanks. –  Mongus Pong Jan 11 '12 at 9:52
    
Very interesting - so its more about adapting the body to high training volumes than actual results. (I guess that's what athletes generally do ) –  Olav Jan 16 '12 at 13:18
    
As well as keeping the overall training volume within the limits of what you can do. Last Saturday my overall training volume was just over 9 tons (just multiply weight times reps and add up for each set). That's getting really close to my current limits. I'm going to have to change my program soon to adapt. –  Berin Loritsch Jan 16 '12 at 13:42
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I don't have any exact numbers (as these differ wildly depending on who you listen to) but over time I've gotten the impression that it depends a lot on how easy or hard it is for you to gain muscle mass.

The recommendation I keep hearing is that for those who have a hard time gaining muscle mass the focus should be on many reps and many sets while those who easily gain muscle mass should limit the amount of reps and sets they do to avoid overexerting their muscles. And most people would of course not be in either extreme.

That said, most bodybuilders/weightlifters seem to go for 3-4 sets. I've also met a couple of guys who like to first do 3-4 sets at a weight where they can't do any more sets at that weight and then lower the weight, do another set, lower the weight and so on until they're down to 60-70% of the original weight. Haven't really tried that myself though so I have no idea if it's a good approach.

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Looking at the research, it appears that performing extra sets give quickly declining returns on investment. A very thorough research guide can be found at ExRx.net - Low Volume Training.

Some interesting quotes from that guide:

  • By performing an additional set (50% to 100% more sets) only 0 to 5% more progress will be observed. Each additional set yields even less progress to a point of diminishing return.
  • Hass et. al. (2000) compared the effects of one set verses three sets in experienced recreational weightlifters. Both groups significantly improved muscular fitness and body composition during the 13 week study. Interestingly, no significant differences were found between groups for any of the test variables, including muscular strength, muscular endurance, and body composition.

Since time seems to be a factor for your workouts, I'd suggest you switch to doing 2 sets. Do a warm-up set (50% of workout weight) followed by your workout set.

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This is exactly the sort of answer I was looking for. Appreciate the empirical backup instead of the typical "Mark Rippletoe says this and that." –  Matt Zukowski Apr 5 '12 at 20:57
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