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How Many Sets Should You Do

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Bodybuilding and Fitness Newsletter 11/27/2019

How Many Sets Should You Do in Your Workout?

If you’ve been involved with bodybuilding or other weight-lifting activities for any length of time, then you’ve probably heard the debates surrounding which training methods are the best. Opinions fall across a broad spectrum, but one of the hottest areas of disagreement has always been how many sets you should do in a given workout.

Even more specifically, is it better to perform one set per exercise or multiple sets per exercise?

Supporters of both multiple-set and single-set training are adamant that their approach is better than the other, and it’s hard to find a middle ground. Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument and then find out what science has to say on the matter.

Volume Training – The Traditional Model

For most of bodybuilding history, trainers have gone into the gym and performed three sets of 10 reps for each of three or four exercises per body part, with each workout repeated one to three times a week. Once that approach stops working, the common advice has been to add sets or exercises, or to occasionally change exercises.

This is the typical bomb-and-blitz methodology that really became popular during the 1970s at the height of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as a bodybuilder.

This type of volume training has built most of the best bodies in recent history, but it’s also left many natural and genetically-average lifters toiling in frustration.

High-Intensity Training

Proponents of single-set training generally fall into the High-Intensity Training, or HIT, camp of weight training. HIT first came into vogue when Arthur Jones introduced Nautilus equipment to the public, also in the 1970s, and it offered a different approach for lifters who were spinning their wheels with volume training.

In short, HIT is based on these principles:

If you read the theory of HIT, as developed by Arthur Jones and others, all subsequent points follow from that first principle - a single set taken to failure.

The thinking goes like this: “failure” is the only true indicator that you’ve taken your set to the limit and stimulated muscle growth. Once you’ve done that, it’s pointless to perform another set.

But training to failure is stressful, so you need to allow enough time between workouts for full recovery and growth, which is why HIT advocates recommend infrequent workouts.

What Does Science Say?

So we have two vastly different approaches to lifting weights, and both sides claim that their approach is better than the other.

But what can scientific research tell us about the number of sets we should be performing?

Well, it’s a topic that has generated a decent amount of interest from researchers in various fields, and while there is not yet a clear-cut conclusion, most available results are trending in the same direction.

For instance, six major literature reviews were published between 2002 and 2010, with meta-analysis covering more than 200 independent strength training studies. All six of the survey studies showed at least some increase in the production of lean mass or strength gains when subjects performed multiple sets per exercise when compared to single-set training.

While some results were dramatic, such as a 2007 study that showed double the lower-body strength increases from three sets as opposed to one, most of the reported differences were significant but not spectacular.

Other research, such as a 2011 study by scientists in the UK, found no differences between one-set training and multiple-set training in terms of strength or lean body mass. A 2001 review came to the conclusion that two or three weekly sessions of 15-20 minutes each would deliver all of the health benefits possible from weight training.

What’s Best for You?

As you can see, even the scientific studies are a bit of a mixed bag, but the majority of available evidence points to multiple set training as being BETTER for strength and muscle gains than single-set training.

For most people, though, those differences are not dramatic, and single-set training (to failure) will likely produce the same, or almost the same, results as multiple-set training in considerably less time.

If, on the other hand, time is not a big concern for you and you just want to build as much strength and muscle as possible, then multiple sets per exercise may give you somewhat better results.

In the end, both approaches have their benefits, and it comes down to what’s most important to you.

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