By Milos Sarcev IFBB Professional Bodybuilder
One set vs. multiple sets, which is better? This article will help you to determine how many sets you should do for maximum hypertrophy.
Q: After reading several of your articles, it is apparent that you believe in mulitple sets which is also used by many champions currently, and has been through the years. I'm curious as to what your response is to Dorian Yate's training method which is heavy duty - one set all out?
A: First let me again emphasize that I have utmost respect for Dorian for his bodybuilding accomplishments. He has managed to dominate in what I consider to be the most competitive era of our sport. Line of bodybuilding greats such as Levrone, Wheeler, Ray, Labrada, Cormier, El Sonbaty, Coleman, Dillett and others were trying their hardest to defeat him for many years. To really realize Dorian's superiority one just. need to see judging score sheets. Dorian was winning with "perfect" score, which means every judge gave him first place in every round. Basically there was Dorian and the rest of us!
What separated him the most was his radically different training approach. While all of us were fallowing multiple sets / frequent workouts theory, Dorian utilized modified Heavy duty method endorsed by bodybuilding legend Mike Mentzer. His infrequent and short, but super intense and heavy workouts undeniably created one of the greatest physiques of all time. I must admit, I tried his method myself. Also I had a chance in many occasions to train with him in my gym (Gold's gym Fullerton), his World famous Temple gym and true Mecca of bodybuilding, Gold's Gym Venice.
Every time we trained I just followed what he was doing and he assured me that he practice what he preaches. In many occasions I run into people who told me that they are certain that Dorian deliberately claims that he trains like that but in reality he does much more. They just can't comprehend that such a "little" work (regardless of insane intensity) can produce such a magnificent results. Besides, why would he reveal his secrets that got him where he is? Honestly, even I questioned his integrity first time I was introduced to his "one set all out / no more necessary" training principle. In Bournemouth we had a chance to discuss about our different views. While he is adamant that one set pushed to the maximum of someone's mental and physical abilities would generate enough muscle fiber stimulation to cause muscle hypertrophy (growth) my question is WHY second (third or hundredth such a set) would be counterproductive? Precisely, at which point muscular stimulation through heavy weight lifting training instead of positive (muscle building) stimulation becomes negative (muscle losing) activity? Also, if one set created ENOUGH stimulation why wouldn't second set create additional benefits, and when would we achieve MAXIMAL stimulus?
My approach is that I choose 4 different exercises per each muscle group and first two I do with a goal to stimulate fast twitch (white) muscle fibers - responsible for size, bulk, and strength. Usually that would be some free weight heavy compound move -where I would be able to lift heaviest poundage's. After couple of warm up sets I would choose the weight that I believe I can lift for about 8 repetitions to failure. I would perform it in perfect form, full range of motion, but SLOWER than usual. Changing a tempo and performing both eccentric and concentric contraction in this manner I would put my muscles in prolonged "time under the tension" extremely important parameter in muscle stimulation. Using slower tempo I would be able to do less repetitions than normally, and I would fail probably on 5th or 6th rep. Today's scientific research shows that for the best results in fast twitch muscle fiber stimulation for muscular hypertrophy we have to use rep range between 5 and 8 (with 4 reps meaning not enough and 9 reps meaning to many).
My second set I would try to handle the same weight but perform repetitions in normal tempo (slow eccentric and explosive concentric) and this one I consider that "all out set". My final third set of my first exercise is "finishing" set where I would attempt to lift the same load for another 5-8 repetitions. If anyone tries this system they would certainly realize that their strength would be diminished after 2 exhausting sets and in order to be able to accomplish the same number of repetitions in this final set they would have to be using "forced" reps with the help of their training partner.
So, what Dorian accomplishes in one I do in three sets. But, from personal experience I can make the statement that there is very few people in the World that can generate so much mental and physical power to challenge themselves in a single set after just brief warm up. Even after 20 years of training I still have a fear that if I attempt my maximal poundage's in any exercise, I would potentially hurt myself. Consequently, Warm Up to Strength Training by John Paul Catanzaro is an excellent new DVD which will help to prevent injuries and to optimize performance.
Let's assume we train chest and first exercise is barbell bench press. If our personal best is 450lbs for 6 repetitions, what weight would we use to warm up? Quite possibly 135lbs on first and 225lbs on our second warm up set. Could we safely from that point double the weight and go for it or should we be cautious? Better yet, lets assume we would do legs and start with heavy compound move for quadriceps. My personal best on free weight squats is (OK - was) 635lbs for 6 repetitions. What should I use to warm up for 2 sets before I would attempt to lift that "house" sitting on my back? Should we talk about leg press and weights used in that exercise?
To summarize - I am trying essentially the same thing that Dorian does to maximally stimulate my muscle fibers and make them grow. Th only difference is that many times I tried to train like him after completing that single all out set I couldn't help but question myself if I pushed myself to my absolute limit. With "my approach" I prepare myself with a slow set, which also helps breaking that mental barrier (fear) than I test myself with second "all out" set and finally I push myself again (with a little help of my friend) and make sure that I absolutely trashed my fibers by going beyond my max using forced reps. Speaking with many experts in a field of exercise physiology I've realized that there is no answer to this question. I understand that Dorian had no reason to try more sets as he was satisfied with progress he was getting with one. Does that mean that he wouldn't progress even more attempting to do additional set(s)?
About the Author
Milos Sarcev is a Fitness Model, IFBB Professional Bodybuilder and certified fitness trainer. He is currently an International Nutrition, Strength, and Conditioning Consultant, and has assisted many other professional bodybuilders and fitness competitors to achieve their top level of competition. You can contact him at https://www.instagram.com/milossarcev/?hl=en