Single Set Versus Multiple Sets In Weight Training
Single Set vs. Multiple Sets for Adult Fitness
By Diego de Hoyos, MS, and Michael L. Pollock, PhD
Both competitive athletes and fitness enthusiasts report improvements in muscular strength and size (hypertrophy) with resistance training programs that require multiple sets (often three to six) per exercise. At the same time, many individuals do not have the time, energy or recuperative power to include a multiple-set-per-muscle-group resistance training program in their overall fitness regimen. Over the last 15 years, several research studies have been published that support the use of low-volume resistance training (one set per exercise) as an effective and efficient alternative to a high-volume program for adult fitness (overall health and physical fitness).
Origin of the Multiple-Set Recommendation
The end of World War II marked the beginning of the modern resistance training era. Thomas DeLorme, MD, an Army rehabilitation expert, experimented with resistance training for the rehabilitation of paratroopers and other soldiers recovering from leg injuries. His early training programs consisted of 10 sets of 10 or more repetitions of leg extensions. These programs produced tremendous increases in leg strength, but many of his patients had difficulty completing the prescribed workouts. Through trial and error, DeLorme and Watkins (1948) found that for increasing leg strength, performing three sets of 10 repetitions was as effective as, and more time efficient than, performing 10 sets. Their decision to recommend three sets of 10 repetitions for a resistance training program was based largely on their observation that individuals could successfully complete the three-set workout.
A study by Berger in 1962 was the first published report to show that three sets per exercise were better for improving strength than one or two sets. (See the chart “Strength Gains with 1 Set, 2 Sets or 3 Sets of Resistance Training.”) In Berger’s study, the three-set training group achieved significantly greater one-repetition maximum (1 RM) bench press strength after 12 weeks of training, but the 1 RM difference among the one-, two- and three-set training groups was less than four pounds.
Effects of Low-Volume Training on Muscle Strength
In the 1980s, emphasis shifted toward establishing a “well-rounded” training program that included the three exercise components of endurance, flexibility and strength. Each component had to be streamlined to fit into the total training time most adults had available for exercise. While low-volume, one-set-per-exercise resistance training was clearly more time efficient than multiple-set training, the effectiveness of a low-volume program was not clear.
Seven of the eight studies summarized in the chart on the following pages show similar training adaptations to one-, two- and three-set-per-exercise training programs. The Berger study (1962) is the exception. Subjects for all these studies were adults who were either sedentary or were training for overall fitness prior to the study.
First, it is clear from the chart that one-set training promotes significant increases in strength for both upper- and lower-body muscle groups, as well as postural muscles. Second, overall and per-workout strength increases are similar for one-, two- and three-set training.
Change in muscle strength was the primary focus of these studies, but what about the effect of different training volumes on muscular hypertrophy and endurance? Recent studies show that one-set and three-set training groups show equal improvements in muscular hypertrophy and endurance. Pollock et al. (in press) and Starkey et al. (1996) measured upper- and lower-body muscle thickness, using B-mode ultrasound, and found that both one-set and three-set training groups had similar amounts of hypertrophy after six months (Pollock) and 14 weeks (Starkey) of training. Studies by de Hoyos et al. (1997) and Hass et al. (in press) found that 10 to 13 weeks of training at 8 to 15 RM stimulated large increases in muscular endurance-increases that were similar for both training groups.
Changes Based on Length of Training
Although the research results show very convincingly that one set is generally as effective as three sets per exercise, all these studies were short-term and conducted with individuals who had not previously done resistance training. Studies have recently examined the impact of longer-term training programs and more intense weight loads.
Two studies (de Hoyos et al. in press; Kraemer et al. 1995) compared six to nine months of one-set and multiple-set training. Neither study showed a significant difference between groups after three to four months of training. However, in collegiate tennis players, Kraemer et al. found that only the multiple-set training group continued to significantly increase strength during five additional months of training. For the multiple-set group only, the training program was periodized after the initial four months and included higher-intensity exercise (3-5 RM training loads), which may have stimulated the continued strength gains. In contrast, de Hoyos et al, found continued increases in muscular strength, endurance and hypertrophy in both one-set and three-set training groups during three to six months of training. Improvements were similar for both groups except for chest press endurance, which was greater in the three-set group.
In a third study, Hass et al. (in press) measured training adaptations in 42 experienced resistance trainers. These individuals had been resistance training for an average of six years and had been using one set per exercise for at least one year. Training was closely monitored for 13 weeks, and 21 of these individuals were randomized into a three-set-per-exercise training group. Both groups had similar increases in muscle strength and endurance. Thus, the results showed that even in experienced lifters, additional sets may not improve training results. More research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine which factors are the most effective in stimulating muscular strength, endurance and hypertrophy in long-term programs conducted in the adult fitness setting.
Summary and Recommendations
One-set resistance training has been shown to be an effective and efficient means of increasing muscular strength, endurance and hypertrophy in both novice and experienced resistance trainers. Multiple-set training has not been shown to provide additional benefits in the adult fitness setting. This is consistent with the American College of Sports Medicine’s resistance training recommendations for adult fitness: one set of eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 exercises that involve all major muscle groups.
Since many adults interested in general fitness cite lack of time to train as the primary reason for discontinuing a program, one-set training may allow for better program adherence. Most of the reviewed studies used the adult fitness training model, which emphasizes a moderate repetition range (eight to 15 reps) to stimulate a balanced improvement in muscular strength and endurance. This type of training program may also prove safer for middle-aged and older adults by reducing the risk of both an acute cardiovascular event and musculoskeletal injury. For the more serious weight lifter or competitive athlete, a periodized, multiple-set program incorporating heavier loads (e.g., 3-6 RM) usually elicits greater gains in strength and power.
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