The number of sets per exercise is the main factor in volume, or the amount of work you perform in a session. While many seek to add volume over time, as suggested by the bodybuilding and fitness mainstream, consider focusing on a single hard set for each exercise. Done right, this set will be the most efficient and effective way to build muscular size and strength.
The number of sets recommended throughout history is arbitrary. Dr. Thomas DeLorme, a World War II army physician, had great results rehabilitating soldiers with strength training. This experience developed his progressive resistance exercise program. It became the standard for military and civilian physical therapy programs since it worked much more successfully than less aggressive treatments. Although the program itself works well, the suggested and now famous 3 sets of 10 reps per exercise was a random starting point. These numbers came from nothing special.
Olympic weightlifting also had an early influence on resistance training. Their coaches and athletes encouraged more volume due to many reasons, not all related to training itself. Their theories, arriving mostly from the old Soviet countries, complicated training and promoted many sets and sessions. Since they had contact with early exercise scientists, this laid the foundation for modern strength training associations condemning low volume training.
Arthur Jones, a proponent of single set training, harshly criticized these authorities for what he perceived as their absurd beliefs. Single set training became associated with his training methods and brash personality, even though the origins of abbreviated training had its roots with the earliest Western lifters. This gave another reason to put the idea down, especially with expertise and money at stake.
Steroids grew popular in the 1960s along with high volume training. This allowed athletes to handle many sets, exercises, and workouts. Most bodybuilders used many sets and reps with little rest to get a pump. The concept of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy arrived later to explain their success, even though it could be attributed statistically to more bodybuilders in general and the new, powerful drugs.
Training remains an art, not a science, due to the endless variables. Although the current research seems to favor multiple sets over single sets for strength and size, at least for advanced trainees, biases and less rigor calls this into question. The research varies in quality and many things change between studies and participants.
If single set training works, it will be self-evident. You just need to try it. I defend an ideal version though, meaning that you have to perform a single set the right way for it to work: to positive failure, in good form, with a heavy weight. Three sets performed with little effort would definitely be superior to only one set with the same approach. I also suggest warm-up sets, which brings some benefits more sets could have over single sets. I ignore the possible merits of more working sets here and focus on the advantages of single set training alone.
Consider these reasons to reduce the number of working sets per exercise to just one.
All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
- Effort is most important.
Lifting weights should hit the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Motor unit recruitment shows that as long as you use a heavy enough weight to avoid fatigue in the energy systems related to endurance rather than strength, effort matters the most. By training to failure, you ensure involvement of the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
If you achieve your best effort in one set, why do another? Spreading out your effort over many sets will involve more work. This has more to do with endurance. Building up by-products of fatigue associated with lactic acid (the burn), more blood flow (the pump), and excessive muscle damage (DOMS), known as secondary growth factors, matter far less than creating tension.
To build strength and size, you need to focus on tension. Tension is that squeeze you feel during a muscle contraction. More tension requires heavier weights. If you would perform another set after a tough one, you will perform worse, indicating that you already fatigued the fast-twitch muscle fibers, generating less tension. Save your energy for more weight the next time.
With multiple sets, trainees will hold back on earlier sets. This pacing leads to several less intense sets. You spread out effort instead of condensing it. If you have the right genetics and drugs to spread out this effort and still use heavy weights, then you will get strong and muscular. For others, this effect will overtrain them and reduce the stimulus for strength and size. You can work hard or long, not both.
- It will limit overtraining.
Progress occurs quickly for most beginners before reaching a plateau. Since beginners lack strength compared to their potential, a high volume program can succeed at first. They are too weak to place much of a burden on their bodies. As they grow stronger, the high volume of exercise surpasses their ability to recover from it. They may lose strength or perhaps recover just enough to stagnate.
You can only gain so much strength and size per session. You hit the point of diminishing returns. No one really knows when this occurs as so many factors can play a role. I suggest that it can occur with anything beyond one tough set.
Volume can increase forever since it is not constrained by performance. A heavy load has a limitation as you can fail. You could walk for days at a time but not sprint at your top speed for long without the need to take a break. If you wanted to do better the next time, you we need at least a couple days to rest.
Trainees make the mistake of assuming that a bunch of easy efforts can equal one hard effort. No amount of walking will make you faster at sprinting. More sets may cause more damage but so could a 10 mile walk wear you out more versus a 100 M sprint. Would this achieve your goal of getting faster though?
Single sets allow maximum loads, effort, and concentration, allowing you to stimulate growth without wasting resources.
- Fewer sets allow more effort elsewhere.
Every set leads to a general fatigue on the body in addition to the local effect on the targeted muscles. General fatigue accumulates and too much will affect the performance of later working sets for other exercises.
More sets also suck up psychological energy as you can only focus for so long.
This also includes leaving some effort for intervals as cardio.
- You gain better measurements.
One set allows consistency. Multiple sets bring about different performances. These make it more difficult to judge progress and tinker with your program for future improvement.
- It is more efficient.
Time is precious. Why spend more time than necessary to achieve results? Countless trainees have changed the directions of their lives for the worse to devote themselves to training. This reduces their quality of life. It appears even more unfortunate when you realize that their success could come without such a sacrifice.
Reduce the Number of Sets
The additional sets beyond the minimum number required actually retard the progress that would have been produced if the workout had been greatly shortened.
– Arthur Jones
One set, while optimal, may require more effort than some will exert. Your ability to work hard is a skill that will improve in time. Stay the course, having confidence in the benefits.
Reducing the number of sets is not like drinking a magical elixir. For many people, this transition to one tough set will burst them out of their plateau. They then resume a more regular rate of progress after several sessions. They then criticize the method, ignoring that nearly everyone else regardless of their program struggles too.
Many still attempt to solve their woes by mimicking the elite. They ignore their advantages in recovery ability. Mirroring these outliers will lead to overtraining and poor results for most.
More exercise beyond the precise amount required for best results is not only wasted but counterproductive. Get the job done quickly and then recover to achieve your fastest and best results. Give single set training a try and decide its value for yourself.