How Many Sets To Build Muscle [For Men Over 40]

Training volume is a crucial factor to consider regarding muscle gain. There is compelling evidence that training volume is a primary driver of hypertrophy. A close response relationship between volume and muscle gain, at least to a degree has been widely reported in the scientific literature that said pinpointing how much training volume you should do isn’t that simple. Even leading researchers argue about how much volume is necessary. This debate increased after one study published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal found that more volume as high as 45 sets per muscle per week might be best. Another study, however, found that results begin to diminish beyond 10 sets per muscle per week.

Building muscle takes time, dedication, and hard work.

What Is Training Volume?

So how much volume do you really need in order to maximize muscle growth keep reading and I’ll explain everything you need to know. Before going in-depth on how much training volume you need it makes sense to define what training volume is clearly. There are actually two popular definitions of training volume:

  • Volume Load
  • Hard Sets
How many sets are needed to build muscle as a man over 40?

Volume Load

The first is known as volume load and is a calculation of the total poundage you lift in a session. The calculation is as follows:

sets x reps x load 

So if you did three sets of five on the bench press with 225 pounds that would equate to 3,375 pounds of total volume.

Hard Sets

The less mathematical definition of training volume is the number of hard sets you perform for a given muscle group per week. So if you train your chest twice per week and did eight sets in session one and seven sets in session two your training volume for the chest would be 15 sets.

8 + 7 = 15

Both of these definitions are considered correct and both can be useful to track your volume. Training load can be a very effective method to track your training volume within a given block of training. It can also be an easy way to track progress from week to week. For example, if the volume load is increasing over time you can be confident that you are providing a sufficient stimulus to produce muscle growth.

Which Is A Better Training Volume Measurement: Volume Load Or Hard Sets?

With that said volume load isn’t always the best metric to use when you change exercises in your program your volume load data can be skewed quite dramatically. Imagine if you swapped barbell squats for the leg press. It’s pretty safe to assume that you could handle significantly more weight on the leg press than you could in the barbell squat. Thus, it would appear your training volume has jumped significantly when in reality you’re not providing an apples-to-apples comparison. So the increased volume load does not translate to an accurate illustration of a true increase in effective training volume. In this instance, the hard sets per week measure of volume would be more useful if you go from doing 8 hard sets per week for your quads to 12 hard sets. Then it is much easier to measure the changes in training volume as your program evolves and exercise selection changes. 

Squats are always a better choice for building overall muscle if you can handle them.

Hard sets are also a useful way to measure your training volume against other lifters. Volume load doesn’t work so well here because we all have different leverages, strengths, weaknesses, and training histories. Consequently, relying on volume load to compare training volume between lifters is inherently flawed. The difficulty in comparing volume load between individuals is one of the reasons most scientific articles use hard sets per week as the preferred definition of training volume as this metric is relative to the individual. Think about it this way saying you need to lift 10,000 tons per week to build your legs isn’t really useful. For some elite lifters that could equate to very few hard sets and do nothing to grow their legs. Meanwhile for a beginner that tonnage might nearly kill them. For this reason, using relative rather than absolute values are a better way to provide general volume recommendations. 

In summary, volume load is an exceptional tool to track your volume within the duration of a specific program. Hard sets on the other hand are a better way to evaluate your training volume against scientific guidelines, other trainees, and from one program to another. With that overview out of the way, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty and explain exactly how much volume you need to build muscle as quickly as possible.

What Does Science Say About Training Volume?

Scientific research into muscle hypertrophy is always ongoing.

When it comes to muscle hypertrophy in the training that best achieves it nobody has done more research than Brad Schoenfeld. He’s an ex-bodybuilder and trainer turned researcher who published over 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles. He is also a best-selling author having written multiple books on training and hypertrophy. In 2018 Schoenfeld conducted a review of the existing scientific literature on hypertrophy and distilled his findings into an article titled Evidence-Based Guidelines For Resistance Training Volume To Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy.

Strength & Conditioning Journal December 2017

Scientifically Recommended Training Volume

In this, he states that based on current literature 10 or more sets per muscle per week would seem to be a good starting point. As to programming volume, this 10-plus sets per week guideline falls in line with most evidence-based coaches who generally recommend between 10 to 15 sets per week. Schoenfield added more detail saying that substantial gains can nevertheless be achieved with volume as low as four or fewer sets per muscle per week. For those who are time pressed lower volume routines represent a viable option to balance efficiency with results. Based on his findings it seems reasonable to conclude that if muscle gain is your top priority 10 plus sets per week is a good starting threshold.

Training Volume For Busy People (i.e. Dads)

If however, you have a busy schedule, other priorities, or some other commitments all is not lost. You can build muscle with as little as 4 sets per week albeit those muscle gains will not be maximal. Despite the majority of the research pointing to more volume equating to more muscle gain some researchers contest this. They suggest a single set taken to failure is sufficient to elicit similar hypertrophy. The primary rationale of the lower volume proponents is that many studies on the topic have failed to show statistically significant differences in hypertrophy between low and high volume conditions. Failing to reach statistical significance does not necessarily mean the results are not useful. Often, failing to reach statistical significance is more a case of having a small sample size. In many such studies, the effect size difference favors the high volume condition. This fact muddies the water somewhat but indicates the results were potentially meaningful and superior from a practical standpoint.

Training Volume Guidelines

At the end of the day knowing what the science suggests is interesting but what you really want is to be able to take some actionable takeaways from it. My advice is to let the science nerds debate the intricacies of statistical significance and keep pushing ahead by pursuing gradually higher training volumes to build the most muscle possible. It is important to understand that regardless of your approach your training needs to progress over time. This applies just as much to your training volume as it does to any other training variable. You should think of your ideal training volume as a moving target instead of picking a fixed target for training volume and considering it perfect. Realize you will need to adjust it over time. For example, a beginner who’s been training for less than three months will probably need significantly less training volume than a seasoned veteran who’s been in the gym consistently for five years or more. 

Consistency is key. Especially for men over 40 looking to maintain and / or build muscle.

What About Periodization?

Another key element of effective training is periodization. Manipulating your training volume is one way to periodize your training. Doing the same thing indefinitely will lead to stagnation. Likewise doing too much for too long can lead to burnout. This view is identified by a study from WJ Kraemer which found that consistently training with high volumes can hasten the onset of overtraining. In light of this, it can be hypothesized that periodizing volume may enhance hypertrophy.

Resistance Exercise Overtraining and Overreaching by WJ Kraemer

More Isn’t Always Better

Schoenfeld identified the merit of this in his research paper where he stated that progressively increasing from lower for example 10 sets per muscle per week to higher for example 20 sets per muscle per week volumes over a period of several months may help to promote a state of functional overreaching. Which would in turn result in a super compensation of muscle proteins while reducing the potential for overtraining. Increased muscle protein synthesis with the reduced risk of overtraining is a recipe for muscle growth. This is precisely why more isn’t always better, specifically as it relates to training volume. You see at some point diminishing returns will kick in and if you push beyond this point you run the very real risk of overtraining.

What About High Volume Training?

There are a few studies examining extremely high training volumes. For example, 32 sets per week per muscle group. These show promise but they were short-term studies involving young trained men at University. That means they were probably living a very low stress life with plenty of time on their hands to eat truckloads of food. So the takeaway from these is probably that for short periods of time up to eight weeks extremely high volume of 32 sets or more might cause more growth but for someone in their 40’s, however, this training volume is probably not sustainable.

Tailor Your Training Volume To Yourself

Another consideration when assessing the science on training volume is that studies simply report the average of their sample. While the mean average of study subjects provides a good overview of results it doesn’t illustrate the full picture. As researchers are at pains to explain there was always a large inter-individual variability in response. So some will respond better to less. While others will respond better to more. In time you’ll be able to assess your tolerance to higher volumes and what you respond to best. When it comes to hypertrophy the amount of research and our understanding continues to grow. We can be more confident setting guidelines to get the best results now than we could only a few years ago. 

Despite the continued emergence of research it is still important to remember that everyone has different needs when it comes to training. What’s optimal for you depends on your individual recovery capacity at that given moment in time. If you don’t take into account your recovery capacity you might be wasting time and effort, increasing the risk of injury, and ultimately killing your gains. To put it simply some can handle more volume while others are better off training a bit less. Not only that but your volume Sweet Spot will change over time based on numerous factors. 

These factors can have a huge impact on how you look, feel, and perform in the gym.  For a rundown on these please click here:  The Three Secrets To Muscle Growth Nobody Talks About [For Men Over 40]


Thus the best I can do is give you guidelines. Research on training isn’t there to be prescriptive. It is there to show trends, give us loosely the best practices, and provide guidelines for us to use as a starting point. Making hard and fast prescriptions for everyone to follow would be foolish. On that basis, I suggest you start with 10 sets per muscle per week. Split those 10 sets into two or three sessions and increase the volume gradually over time. Carefully observe and assess your progress as you do this then you’ll be able to fine-tune things to find that sweet spot of training volume for you.

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