How Many Sets? For Gaining Strength and Mass

How many sets per exercise is best for building strength and muscle?

Many people believe that you must do multiple sets per exercise and muscle group – typically, at least 3 – in every training session order to build strength and muscle.  Is this true? 

Not in my experience.  In this video you see one of my two weekly training sessions.  I perform only one set for each exercise.  I only perform 2 warm up sets before this work set of squats.  After doing a set of 15 squats I am plenty warmed up and, since I use proper form, have no need to perform specific warm ups for any of the other exercises.  Research has failed to find any benefit to performing specific warm up sets for sub-maximal resistance training.  In fact, depending on how many sets you do for a specific warm up, you could actually reduce your performance on your work sets, which would result in less stimulus for improvement in strength and muscle mass.

How many sets can you load progressively?

Strength training is based on the principle of progressive loading.  As a general rule, if you properly perform a single set of an exercise to momentary muscular failure, for example a set of 10 overhead presses with 100 pounds, you will not be able to match, let alone exceed, this performance in a second set.

This first set will deplete energy reserves and fatigue the muscle fibers, so, if you attempt a second set, you will achieve only about 8 repetitions.  Using a crude measure of load, weight times repetitions, on the first set you did 10 x 100 pounds = 1000 pounds of work, while on the second set you achieved only 8 x 100 pounds = only 800 pounds of work. 

Thus the second set does not apply the principle of progression of load and does not satisfy the requirements for progressive resistance training. Hence, unless you perform better on a second set than on the first set performed to momentary muscular fatigue, there exists no logical reason to perform more than one set of any exercise.

Training itself reduces your functional ability.  You are weaker and more fatigued after any amount of training than before said training.  Your body has to recover from your training before it can improve its functional ability i.e. get stronger and larger.

Every exercise set you perform is a stress on your system that depletes resources and demands recovery.  The more sets you do, the more stressful for your body.  The more stress you endure, the more damage you do to your body, and the more difficult it will be for you to recover from your training. 

You don't do resistance training in order to find out how many sets you can endure in a session; you do it in order to get improvements in strength and muscle mass. 

If you’re training hard but not realizing progress week to week, you probably need more rest, not more training.  To repeat: training makes you weaker, and the more you train, the weaker you get, and the more time you need for recovery.  Volume and frequency are inversely related.  This is a basic principle of exercise science.

Also, the amount of time you spend on training is proportional to how many sets you perform.  The time you spend training is time you can’t spend on other activities: family, productive work, leisure, and so on. Simply, the more time you spend training the less time you have for other activities. 

Logically then, if you value your time, and have interests other than getting strong and muscular, you should do the least amount of work necessary to achieve the desired results.  You want to do just enough work to stimulate the body to become stronger and larger, and avoid unnecessarily draining recovery resources.

How many sets do you need to get 'some' result?

Click here for full text of Berger in retrospect by Carpinelli.

How many sets do you have to do to trigger some adaptive response?  The minimum effective dose of any exercise is one set. At least 45 controlled trials have shown that 1 set triggers the same degree of strength development as 2, 3, or 4 sets. An additional 12 studies have found no differences in outcome between performing 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 15 sets for any muscle group or exercise. 

That’s a total of 57 studies showing no benefit to performing more than one set of any exercise.  In contrast, only 5 studies have reported a significantly greater increase in strength from multiple set routines than from single set routines.  The vast majority of research supports the conclusion that one properly performed set produces the same outcome as any other number of sets up to 15. Evidently, so long as you perform one quality set, it doesn't matter how many sets you perform beyond that, you will not realize significantly better results.  (I exclude so-called meta-analyses that claim to prove that multiple sets are superior to single sets because meta-analysis is not empirical science, but statistical abracadabra where authors choose studies to support their opinions then choose the statistical analysis method that will produce results supporting their preconceived bias.)

Click here to read the full text of Evidence-Based Resistance Training Guidelines.

How inroad works

These results indicate that one needs only do one set of any exercise to surpass the threshold of stimulus required to produce the desired results.  As a general rule, doing more than one set of any exercise does not improve the results but simply consumes time and recovery resources.

This makes sense if you understand what happens in a single set of exercise. 

Suppose you can perform only a  single repetition in an exercise with 100 pounds.  If you take 80% of that load, i.e. 80 pounds, you will be able to perform somewhere between 6 and 15 repetitions, depending on the muscle group and exercise.  Let’s say with overhead press you can perform 10 repetitions.

When you start this exercise, you have that ability to lift 100 pounds once, but you are only lifting 80 pounds. You perform 10 repetitions, after which you are unable to lift the load.  What happened?  You have gone from able to lift 100 pounds before doing the set, to unable to lift 80 pounds after doing the set.  So, you reduced your strength by 20% over the course of 10 repetitions.  On average, each repetition you preformed reduced your momentary ability by 2%.

This reduction in strength is called inroad.  In this example, the exercise produced a 20% inroad into your starting functional ability. This inroad is what triggers your body to build strength and muscle mass.  You don’t have to annihilate a muscle to get it to grow. A pile of evidence has proven that single set of exercise that reduces your momentary ability by about 20-25% is sufficient to stimulate the trained muscles to grow stronger and larger.

Single-set training saves a lot of time.  I train my major muscle groups twice weekly in full body routines like this, using 5-7 exercises each time.  As shown here, the actual work sets take only about 10 minutes to complete, but whole session takes 15 minutes to half an hour, including the time spent changing the equipment and setting up each exercise.  I consistently make progress week to week.

I’m not saying multiple set routines don’t work.  I have tried multiple set routines and have found similar results, and many studies have shown that multiple set routines, at least over a short term, produce similar strength gains to single set routines.  However, multiple set routines consume much more time and energy without producing signficantly better strength gains. Thus, they have a higher cost-benefit ratio than single set routines. Simply, if you train hard with proper form and set durations adjusted to your muscle fiber types, multiple sets are unnecessary so a waste of valuable time.

Therefore, in response to the question "how many sets of an exercise should one perform for best gains of strength and muscle mass?" I recommend performing only one high quality work set of any exercise.


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