The range of moderate-high effort (working) sets you should be looking to hit during a training session is 12-16. This does not include warm-up sets.
By working in the best rep range for muscle building, this would mean you are hitting around 100 reps per session.
Using this set range, you are assuring yourself of a few things.
First, with proper rest in between sets, you will be getting in and out of the gym in an hour or less. Long duration sessions do more harm than good, such as spiking cortisol levels, decreasing performance/technique, and increasing injury risk. Besides, if you are really working your ass off like you should, an hour is plenty to get everything in.
Secondly, you will be getting enough volume in to build muscle, but not too much to where your recovery times are jeopardized. This will allow you to train more frequently and spread your reps out over the week, as opposed to cramming everything into single sessions and going over the “hour long” rule.
Should you ever go above 16 sets?
There are only two situations where I could see you needing to go over 16 sets.
I talked here about how many days a week you should train, but what happens if you can’t do it? Maybe you can only train 3 days a week. Unless you are training with freakish intensity and have some crazy ass work capacity, 3 days a week may not be enough time to get in the volume you need to build huge amounts of muscle.
I’m not saying it can’t be done; quite the contrary, but some of you may need to cram in a few more than 16 sets during those 3 days if you aren’t getting the results you want. With only a 3 day a week schedule, those 4 days of rest should give you time to recover enough if you can schedule your rest days strategically.
The other time I could see a need for more than 16 sets is if you are an advanced lifter (been training seriously for more than a couple of years). Advanced lifters may need a bit more volume to build muscle, but this will also depend a lot on the exercises you are doing and the amount of reps per set. Not all workouts are created equal. A few more sets of bench press at 8 reps per set isn’t the same as a few more sets at 8 reps of bicep curls. Be conscious of this and try to keep your reps per body-part to between 50-100 per week.
Now there are times when you could go under 12 sets however.
During de-load weeks for example. And especially if you are going max effort.
Some days if you are training near your 1 rep max (RM) levels, you may not even hit double digits. If you are hitting low intensity warm up sets, and making big jumps to get up to a few heavy singles, doubles, or triples, maybe your working sets don’t even eclipse 10.
So when you are planning your next cycle, plan on hitting 12-16 working sets a session. Plenty of volume to build muscle and keep you fresh so you can protect your body and your gains!
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Underground Strength Coach