Can 2 Sets Be Enough To Build Muscle? Here’s What You Need To Know

Are 2 sets enough

Are you tired of conventional wisdom telling you to do 3 or 4 sets to build muscle? Maybe you want to dabble in the unknown realms of doing 2 sets? If so, then this is the post for you. Because today, I’ll be explaining how and why 2 sets are enough to build muscle.

2 sets are enough to build muscle. However, both sets should be performed at a high intensity to ensure that the target muscle is sufficiently fatigued for muscle growth. The best way to do this is to perform both sets to muscular failure.

As popular as 3 or 4 sets are, sometimes you just want to try something different. Or maybe you’re just short on time and need a faster workout.

I’ve found myself in this situation too, and that’s why I want to share my research and experience with you.

This post includes 2 set workout recommendations from a bodybuilder and a powerlifter. I’ve tried both myself and can say they really do give you a good pump.

So let’s jump right in!

Build Muscle Using 2 Sets Per Exercise
Steve Shaw’s double down workout helped me gain 5 pounds of muscle!

What Is A 2 Set Workout?

Let’s begin by defining what a 2 set workout is:

A 2 set workout is a training program that revolves around completing 2 sets for a given exercise. The number of reps, rest period, and weight will vary depending on the exercise. However, each exercise is always completed with 2 sets before moving onto the next exercise.

2 set workouts are an effective way to build muscle. Indeed, 2 set workouts are a popular way for beginner and experienced weight lifters alike to add variety into a training program.

The Difference Between A Rep And A Set.

To understand why 2 sets can be enough to build muscle, you need to know what’s a rep, a set, and how they are different.

A rep (or “repetition”) refers to one complete movement for a specified exercise, consisting of an upward and downward phase. Performing multiple reps forms a set. And a rest period is taken after completing a set. The rep and set form the basis of a training program.

infographic to show difference between rep and set

In the example of a dumbbell curl, curling the dumbbell upwards and then lowering it back down again would constitute 1 rep. And the total number of reps you perform is called the “rep range“.

In contrast, a set is a group of continuous reps without a break. After you’ve completed all your reps, you would take a break and the set is complete.

In a bicep curl example, you could perform 10 continuous reps before taking a break. Here, you would’ve completed 1 of 10 reps (or 1 x 10). And completing another set would mean you’ve done 2 sets of 10 reps, and so on.

The number of reps and sets you perform will vary depending on your training goal.

The most common hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep range is 8-12 reps per set, for 3 to 5 sets per muscle group per workout.

However, 2 sets can also be enough. Find out how and why in the next section.


Struggling to build bigger biceps? You can learn about the ideal set and rep range for bigger arms here!

How To Do 2 Sets Per Exercise.

2 sets per exercise mean you would complete 2 sets for any given exercise in your workout. Here are 4 examples of 2 set exercises:

ExerciseSetsRepsRest Between SetsWeight
Bench Press282 mins80% of max
Squat293 mins75% of max
Bicep Curl2142 mins55% of max
Chest Fly2154 mins50% of max
Examples of 2 sets per exercise.

As you can see, the number of reps, rest, and weight varies between each exercise

But they all have one thing in common- 2 sets are completed for each exercise.

This is the basic principle for 2 set workouts.

Are 2 Sets Enough For Hypertrophy?

Now that you know what a 2 set workout is, let’s examine how and why it can be effective

Here, you will see that the general public, a bodybuilder, and a powerlifter all agree that performing 2 sets per exercise can be sufficient to build muscle (hypertrophy).

General Public Think 2 Sets Are Enough To Build Muscle.

I tracked down two Reddit and Quora polls to find out the public opinion on the effectiveness of 2 set workouts:

And here are the results:

pie chart to show poll results for "are 2 sets enough to build muscle?"

As you can see, the majority of people agree that doing 2 sets per exercise is sufficient to build muscle.

However, there’s a caveat.

If you choose to perform 2 sets per exercise (which is considered a low number of sets), you’ll need to make up for it by increasing exercise intensity.

Think of it this way- you could choose to move snow (build muscle) with either a big shovel (4 set workout) or a small spade (2 set workout).

Doing 2 set workouts CAN be as effective as 4 set workouts, but you’ll need to work harder!

Next, you’ll find out how.

A Bodybuilder’s Recommendation: The High Reps To Hugeness Workout.

The first 2 set workout method is by Marc Lobliner (bodybuilder).

It’s called the high reps to hugeness workout and involves performing exercises with 2 sets of 15 reps. But can this really be enough to build muscle?

2 sets of 15 reps are sufficient to build muscle if the intensity is great enough. This can be achieved by using a weight that fatigues the target muscle after 2 sets of 15 reps. It is essential to choose a weight that will challenge the muscle for growth.

Here’s how to do Marc’s 2 sets of 15 reps workout:

  1. Do a generic warm-up and light warm-up sets to prepare your muscles.
  2. Rest for 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Choose a heavy weight that allows you to perform 12 to 15 reps for the specified exercise.
  4. Complete set 1 by performing 15 reps.
  5. Take another 1 to 2 minute rest.
  6. Complete set 2 by performing another 15 reps.
  7. Repeat for all exercises in your workout.

This is the basic structure for Marc’s 2 set workout.

But you should remember to increase the weight when 15 reps become easy. This is called progressive overload, and it will ensure your muscles continue to grow rather than plateau.

A telltale sign that you should increase the weight is when you feel the energy to squeeze out a couple more reps by the end of each set.

In contrast, you should also use rest-pauses if you find a weight becomes too heavy.

A rest-pause involves prematurely ending your set, taking a 5 second break to recover with deep breaths, before resuming your 15 reps. You’re essentially splitting your 2 sets into mini sets.

The important point is to hit those 15 reps at all costs!

Example High Reps To Hugeness Workout:

Here’s an example of what Marc’s high reps to hugeness workout could look like with dumbbells.

Follow a 5-day training split:

  • Monday- rest
  • Tuesday- rest
  • Wednesday- back and chest
  • Thursday- legs and shoulders.
  • Friday-back and chest
  • Saturday- legs and shoulders
  • Sunday- arms and abs
Back And Chest DayLegs And Shoulders DayArms And Abs Day
Incline Row or ShrugsFront Squat or Box SquatDumbbell Curl or Hammer Curl
Pull-Over or Reverse FlyDeadlift or Romanian DeadliftTricep Kickback or Extension
Pull up (Weighted) or One-Arm RowLunge or Calf-RaiseWeighted Dips or Reverse Curl
Bench Press or Narrow Bench PressShoulder Press or Lateral RaiseWeighted Crunch
Incline Bench Press or Chest FlyHammer Press or Front RaiseSide Bend
Dumbbell Cross Over or Decline Bench PressHigh Pull or Incline Reverse FlyLeg Raise
2 set workout exercises.

For each workout, you’ll be targeting two muscle groups. Furthermore, you’ll be performing 3 exercises for each muscle group (choose one from each category).

You’ll also complete 2 sets for each exercise (as per above).

This equates to 12 total sets per muscle group per week, which is in the recommended range for hypertrophy.

The exception would be for the arms and abs, where you only complete 6 sets per week. But the other exercises also hit these muscle groups, and this is why sets are limited for these exercises (you don’t want to overtrain).

Check out my other article for the pro’s and con’s of dumbbell training!

A Powerlifter’s Recommendation: The Double Down Workout.

The second 2 set workout method is by Steve Shaw (powerlifter).

It’s called the double down workout and also involves performing two sets per exercise.

The first set is for 10 reps, and the second set is for as many reps as possible (AMRAP), up to 15 reps.

Additionally, you’ll also do a “finisher set” after the two sets. This requires you to do 50 reps of any exercise for that muscle group, as quickly as possible (ideally to the point where you can’t possibly do another rep).

Here’s how to do Steves’s double down workout:

  1. Perform 2 exercises per muscle group.
  2. Work 2 muscle groups per workout and hit each muscle group twice per week (except arms and legs which you only workout once per week).
  3. The first set involves 10 reps using a weight that challenges you for the 10 reps.
  4. Rest for 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. The second set involves doing AMRAP up to 15 sets using the same weight as the first set (increase weight if you can do more than 15).
  6. Rest for 1 to 2 minutes.
  7. Complete a finisher set of 50 reps to failure.
  8. Rest for 3 to 4 minutes
  9. Repeat for another muscle group.

Just like Marc Lobliner’s workout, you should also use rest-pauses if required, and increase weight as necessary to challenge your muscles.

Also, make sure you don’t sacrifice for weight.

Check out my other article to find out the ideal weight training duration!

Example Double Down Workout:

Here’s an example of what Steve’s double-down workout could look like with dumbbells.

Follow a 5-day training split:

  • Monday- rest
  • Tuesday- rest
  • Wednesday- back and chest
  • Thursday- legs and shoulders.
  • Friday-back and chest
  • Saturday- legs and shoulders
  • Sunday- arms and abs

Here’s an example of back and chest day:

ExerciseSetsReps
Bent-Over Row or Pull-Up (Weighted)210, 15
Reverse Fly or Shrug210, 15
Any Back Exercise Of Your Choice150
Bench Press or Incline Bench Press210, 15
Chest Fly or Dumbbell Cross Over210, 15
Any Chest Exercise Of Your Choice150
Example back and chest day.

Here’s an example of legs and shoulders day:

ExerciseSetsReps
Front Squat or Dumbbell Squat210, 15
Deadlift or Lunge210, 15
Any Leg Exercise Of Your Choice150
Shoulder Press or Hammer Press210, 15
Lateral Raise or Front Raise210, 15
Any Shoulder Exercise Of Your Choice150
Example legs and shoulders day.

Here’s an example of arms and abs day:

ExerciseSetsReps
Bicep Curl Or Hammer Curl210, 15
Tricep Kickback or Overhead Extension210, 15
Any Arm Exercise Of Your Choice150
Weighted Crunch210, 15
Leg Raise or Side Bend210, 15
Any Ab Exercise Of Your Choice150
Example arms and abs day.

Each muscle group gets 4 working sets and a finisher set for each workout. And you’ll be hitting each muscle group twice per week (except arms and abs which is only once per week).

This equates to 10 sets per muscle group per week, which is sufficient for hypertrophy.

Most importantly, you should push as hard as possible in the finisher sets. These are essential to maximize training volume and to make up for the fact you’re only doing 2 sets per exercise.

Check out my other article to find out the ideal number of training days!

How To Perform These Workouts At Home

A pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench are ideal for the High Reps To Hugeness Workout.

For heavy adjustabe dumbbells- I use the Powerblock Elites.

The Powerblocks aren’t the cheapest dumbbells on the market. But they have enough weight to take a beginner to the intermediate-advanced stages of training. You can find my full workout plan here.

Each dumbbell goes from 2.5lbs all the way to 90lbs (with the addon-kits). The lighter weight settings are ideal for small isolation-type moves like the curl, tricep extension, and lateral raise.

In contrast, the heavier weight settings are great for heavier compound lifts like the row, bench press, and pull over.

For the adjustable weight bench- I use the Flybird.

Having researched over a dozen benches, I felt this one provided the best value for money.

It’s fully adjustable, allowing you to do all the flat/incline/decline exercises in the workout. The adjustment mechanism is also quick and easy to use, allowing for faster workouts.

This bench can also be folded and stowed away after your workout which provides a great space-saving benefit.

The only real downside is the seat- it’s a bit higher than a commercial gym bench. And this can make it hard for people with short legs to get a firm foot plant (e.g. when bench pressing). I plant my feet on the footrest instead.

Concentrate On Reaching Weekly Training Volume

If you choose to lift weights with lower sets, it’s important to make sure you reach a sufficient weekly training volume for hypertrophy.

Put simply- what you lack in sets you need to make up with more exercises, reps, weight, and/or training days.

Here’s how to do it.

What Is Training Volume?

Training volume is defined as the number of sets, reps, weight, and training days completed in a week.

It’s the technical way of describing how much total weight you have lifted each week.

training volume definition

For example- someone who lifts 2 sets of 8 reps at 20 pounds has the same training volume as someone who lifts 4 sets of 4 reps at 20 pounds (assuming an equal number of training days).

Training volume is important because studies have found that muscle growth has a dose-response relationship to training volume.

In other words, the higher the training volume, the more muscle you build.

But you should avoid exceeding the recommended training volume (see below), as this is counterproductive to hypertrophy.

Check out my other post to find out your ideal weight-load to lift!

Training Volume For Hypertrophy

The generally recommended training volume for hypertrophy is around 3 to 4 sets per muscle group per workout, 3 to 5 workouts per week.

Additionally, you should also train each muscle group 2 to 3 times on separate training days and do 8 to 12 reps at 70 to 80% of your 1 rep max.

This recommendation is based on completing 3 to 4 sets for each exercise.

2 sets of 15 reps can be enough to build muscle

But from what you now know about training volume, you can see how 2 sets can also be sufficient. All you have to do is lift heavy weights for more reps.

Check out my other article for 25 tips to build muscle as a skinny guy!

Reach Failure To Ensure You Reach Training Volume.

One of the best ways to ensure you reach a sufficient training volume when doing 2 set workouts is to train to failure.

This means you repeat each exercise until you can no longer physically do another rep. Or at the very minimum, you should reach close to failure.

perform 2 sets with high reps to failure to build muscle

The importance of training to failure is seen in this 2016 study, which showed that high reps can induce as much muscle growth as low reps (if pushed to failure).

What you want to avoid with 2 set training is not making the most from each set.

In other words, make sure you are challenging yourself and not using 2 sets as an excuse for easy workouts.

Remember, what you put into training tends to be what you get out of it.

1 Set Vs 2 Sets Vs 3 Sets In Bodybuilding

To wrap things up, let’s compare doing 1 set vs 2 sets vs 3 sets in bodybuilding.

Here are the reasons why you may or may not want to choose 1 or 2 set over 3 set workouts

1 Set Vs 2 Sets.

I’ve established that 2 sets can build muscle. But can you gain muscle with 1 set per muscle group?

In general, it is possible to gain muscle with 1 set per muscle group per workout. Performing 1 set to failure will provide a sufficient stimulus for muscle hypertrophy. But performing sets of 2, 3, and 4 will add greater benefits to muscle growth than 1 set alone.

1 or 2 sets can be enough to build muscle, but 3 or 4 sets is better

Ultimately, 1 set is better than no set right?

But always try to hit the 2/3/4 set-range.

This has been shown in a 2010 meta-review which showed that 2 to 3 sets initiate greater muscle hypertrophy than 1 set.

The exception to this rule would be if you included lots of different compound exercises done with 2 sets to hit the same muscle group multiple times, thereby replicating performing several sets.

Doing 1 set could be beneficial if you get easily bored with training. However, the drawback is that it would also significantly prolong the duration of your workouts.

2 Sets Vs 3 Sets

Performing 3 to 4 sets per muscle group per workout is the generally accepted standard for hypertrophy.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to go.

In fact, I’ve shown you two workouts that utilize 2-set exercises. And these training programs are created by pros.

But be aware that these workouts require you to work to failure (or close to). And if you’ve ever trained to failure, you’ll know it’s intense (not for the faint-hearted).

I would highly recommend you focus most of your workouts on 3 sets and every once in a while, switch to 2 set workouts (should you wish)

This strategy was recently termed daily undulating periodisation. It’s basically a fancy way of saying to include variety in your workout to challenge your muscles for growth.

Again, this could be especially beneficial if you get easily bored of monotonous routines.

Do You Need To Lift Heavy To Get Big?

Whichever route you choose, you’ll need to choose your weight carefully. Conventional wisdom tells you to lift heavy to stimulate hypertrophy. But do you really need to lift heavy to get big?

Lifting heavy is not required to get big. Although heavy lifting is the most popular way to build muscle, lighter weights can build just as much muscle. If light lifting is chosen over heavy lifting, then it is important to train to failure and not exceed 15 reps per set.

lighter weights with higher reps can be enough to build muscle

The important word to stress is “lighter”. You can build muscle with “lighter” weights, not light weights.

There’s a big difference.

You’ll still need a weight that’s heavy enough to stimulate hypertrophy. The lightest you should go is one that will still take your muscle to failure by the 15th rep.

Never exceed more than 15 reps per set if you want to get big!

If you’re training with dumbbells, you can check out my other article to find out what dumbbell weight you need to gain muscle.

Conclusion

Today I’ve explained how 2 sets are enough to build muscle. I’ve also given you two workouts from a bodybuilder and a powerlifter.

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is to work at a high enough intensity. 2 set workouts can build muscle if they are done at an intensity that allows you to reach your training volume.

But be aware that this will often mean training to failure on your sets, and not everyone can stomach this over the long term.

This is why many people choose to perform 3 to 4 sets instead. Because this allows you to build muscle without the need to obliterate your muscles on each set!

Do you prefer doing 2 sets or 3 to 4 sets?

Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions! You can find my details on the “contact us” page.

You may also be interested in the downloadable Kalibre Blueprint PDF which details exactly how I gained 40lbs of lean muscle (it’s 100% free!). It details the exact exercises and nutrition (with printable worksheets) I used to go from skinny to ripped!

Thanks for reading guys!

Peace Out,

Kal

(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)

Kal

I'm Kal (B.S, M.S)- a health & fitness writer and owner of Kalibre Fitness. I love to nerd out on weight training and nutrition. My primary interests are in muscle hypertrophy mechanisms and strength development. You can connect with me in the "Contact Us" section below!

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