Magic Number of Sets

Q: "I ordered your book recently, Strength and Physique: The Articles. I am a bit confused. On one hand you say, if one chooses to do the 3x a week routine, do 3 sets of each body part. But upon reading further I see things all over the place of 5-8 sets of 4 reps, etc. and no mention of what you stated in the beginning of the book. Can I please have some clarification, because at this point I'm more confused than before I got your book."

Sean H.

My Answer: Sean, I don't think it says anywhere in my book that if you do a 3 times per week program that your sets are fixed at 3 sets per body part. There are certainly training phases that have 3-4 sets per body part, and I know I've recommended 3 sets per body part in answer to certain questions posed by people. Perhaps you can point out the chapter and page where I say dogmatically training 3 times requires 3 sets per body part, no more, no less.

If you are familiar with my articles, then you would know that some of my best programs involve changing the set totals from workout to workout. An effective bodybuilding program is dynamic, and its parameters change every so often. A program with static parameters (i.e. 3 sets, 3 times per week) will give you growth for a few weeks but then you will hit homeostasis. Static, Stasis = Death.

Now when I suggest 3 sets per body part 3 times per week, it would be when you are doing three full body workouts per week and no more. If there are 8 body parts (chest, back, quads, hamstring, delts, biceps, triceps, calves), then 3 sets per body part would total up to 24 sets. In fact, I use this EXAMPLE in the book. Anything more than 24-26 sets tends to be overtraining and goes beyond an hour. The set total for the whole workout is not the guideline so much as the time you have spent in the gym. Anything over 45-60 minutes is overtraining.

Training 4 days per week hitting each body part directly OR INDIRECTLY (such as indirectly working the arms when you do back and chest) will allow you more room to alter and vary set totals beyond 3 per body part. This was also addressed in the book, and 2 split routine examples were given in there.

So the bottom line is this: the set total is determined by what phase you are in and how you want to distribute the work among the body parts. In a density phase, your set total for a muscle group can be anywhere from 3-10 sets. In a decompression phase, it will be 3-4 sets.
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