How Many Weightlifting Sets Is Enough?

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How much weight do you need to lift to get stronger? A new study suggests it’s not as much as you think—but more is still better when it comes to muscle size.

In the study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, and summarized by its author here, 34 young men with weight training experience all did the same workout three times a week for eight weeks. The exercises were chest press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, seated row, squat, leg press, and leg extension, each done for 8 to 12 reps per set.

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The only difference among the lifters was that some did one set of each exercise, while others repeated each exercise for three or five sets. The surprising result: by the end, the guys that had done single sets were just as strong as those who had done five. That means their 13-minute workout was just as effective as the 68-minute version.

But if you want good looking muscles, it’s worth staying in the gym for the longer workout. The more the men lifted, the bigger their muscles got. (This agrees with previous research; the strength question is murkier.)

There are some caveats on the study: first, if you do shorter sets, like three to five reps, you’re probably not lifting enough to get the one-set benefits, so keep doing multiple sets. And second, five sets of each exercise is a lot of work. If you keep up that kind of schedule in the long term, you could find yourself overtrained—basically, tired all the time and struggling.

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The bottom line: If you’re just looking to build strength, do one set of 8-12 reps of each exercise in your workout, and enjoy your extra free time. But for the maximum muscle—hey, who doesn’t want to look good?—do some extra sets.

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