Recovery and Adaptation after Weight Training Sessions with Different Number of Sets to Failure

Posted 2018/09/26. Last updated 2018/09/26.


It is well known that weight training can increase strength and muscle mass. According to the most commonly cited model (super-compensation or Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome), after the workout, the body starts recovering to reach the original “fitness” level (resistance phase). If recovery is adequate, then super-compensation occurs, increasing the “fitness” level above the original base. If the workout is extreme, the “fitness” level cannot return to its original level (exhaustion phase).

There a few studies that examined the time course of recovery and adaptation after workouts. In general, most people return to their baseline levels within 2-3 days, while adaptation (increase of strength) takes place approximately one day after recovery. However, the effect of different numbers of sets on recovery and adaptation has not been adequately investigated in the literature. Moreover, a practical way to determine the recovery time for a specific person has not been discussed. I recently published a paper addressing the two above-mentioned issues.

Paper Summary

A 40-year-old well-trained male exercised the chest with (a) 3 sets of bench press; (b) 5 sets of bench press, and (c) 5 sets of bench press and 4 sets of dips, all to momentary concentric muscular failure during a 6 months body split program:

The (chest) recovery was assessed by comparing the number of repetitions of the first bench press set to the number of repetitions in the previous training session. The results showed that with 3 and 5 sets to failure, adaptation (+1 repetition) took place after 5 days (see Figure below). 9 sets needed 7 days for recovery and no adaptation took place.

Days vs. Resources Example

Figure: A theoretical example of the effect of different workouts (different number of sets to failure) on recovery time (from paper). Resources could, for example, refer to the metabolic (e.g., glycogen stores), morphological (mechanical) (e.g., myofibril protein growth), neurological (peripheral or central fatigue and improvements), and/or hormonal systems. Asterisk indicates training of another muscle group.

These findings show that:

  1. The workout has to be more challenging than the previous one (i.e., a minimum threshold has to be exceeded).
  2. The workout has to be within the tolerance of the trainee (i.e., there is a maximum threshold).
  3. The workout has to be personalized (i.e., there is an optimum level).
  4. The recovery must be completed before another workout, and ideally some time for adaptation has to be given.

What does this mean in practice? For the specific trainee:

The Figure also shows that the adaptation was faster when exercising the chest without training the back and/or legs, indicating that Selye’s adaptation energy (resources potential) might be applicable to weight training as well. In other words, the training frequency can be higher when one skips muscle groups. This means that any program evaluation needs to be done with the complete training program in place, as avoiding some muscle groups could “overestimate” recovery abilities.


The main take-away message is that non-beginners and non-competing athletes can experimentally determine their recovery and adaptation time. Starting with evidence-based programs and with trial-and-error, the ideal workout frequency can be found. To accelerate the procedure of finding the right frequency, one should consider their Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness DOMS (focus on days that the DOMS are gone) and motivation (mood or perceived recovery) (one should feel some motivation and not tired).


Beginners should focus on learning the correct exercise form and feeling their muscles. Athletes can follow more complicated training programs (e.g., repeating training even when muscles have not fully recovered). The reason is that there are indications that more complex models (e.g., fitness-fatigue model) might have better results than the simple super-compensation model. However, for the normal population being in a fatigue state might not be worth it, as it might influence other aspects of life (work, relationships, etc.).


Giechaskiel, Barouch. Recovery and Adaptation after Weight Training Sessions with Different Number of Sets to Failure. American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2018; 6(3):89-98. DOI: 10.12691/ajssm-6-3-5.

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