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The Perfect Number of Sets for Weight Lifting

Research shows doing this many reps and sets is the best way to build muscle.

For six months, Brazilian Navy cadets took a break from regular boot camp workouts to conduct a weight-training experiment, doing either one, three, or five sets per exercise, and tracking strength gains. Result: The five-setters earned significantly more muscle mass than the other two groups, and upped their five-rep max more as well, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reports.

The findings back the “five sets/five reps” model that trainer Don Saladino, co-owner of NYC’s Drive495 gym, uses for big lifts like the bench press and squat. But for unilateral movements like side lunges and one-legged squats, do just two to three sets, to promote athleticism, he says: “You aren’t doing it to build muscle mass.”

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