By Dave Durell
Posted on NaturalStrength.com on June 1, 1999
The optimal number of sets of resistance exercise required
to produce maximum increase in strength remains a very controversial
topic. In order for any strength training program to be considered
effective, obviously that program would have to produce an
increase in strength. If two different systems both produced
an equal increase in strength, then other criteria must be
utilized to determine which is truly the most effective. These
additional criteria would be the amount of time invested to
achieve the desired result, as well as the amount of effort
expended. Thus, the most effective system of strength training
(or anything else) would be the one which produced the greatest
possible results with the lease possible amount of effort
in the shortest possible time. The purpose of this article
is to compare single set training to multiple set training
to determine which training protocol comes closest to being
the previously mentioned most effective system.
Multiple set training is defined as performing more than
one set of a certain resistance exercise, typically 2 to 5
sets. Usually a 1 to 2 minute rest period is taken between
sets. Traditionally, multiple set systems have been considered
a requirement to stimulate maximum strength gains (1). While
multiple set training has produced unquestionably good results
in a multitude of trainees over the years, this system contains
one inherent flaw: it attempts to defy the principles of logic,
reason, and human physiology by disregarding the incontrovertible
relationship between intensity and duration.
Intensity is defined as the percentage of possible momentary
effort being exerted (2). Duration is the amount of time over
which such efforts are conducted. To paraphrase, intensity
is how hard it is, while duration is how long it takes. There
is universal agreement that intensity is the single specific
stimulus required to generate increased muscular strength.
The critical, yet often ignored, factor involved in strength
training programs is that intensity and duration are inversely
proportional. This means that as the intensity of effort increases,
the amount of time that such an effort can be sustained will
proportionately decrease. These are incontrovertible facts
not subject to debate which can be readily observed in everyday
life. It is literally impossible for a human being to sustain
100% intensity for prolonged periods of time.
Consider, for example, the activity of running, something
almost all of us have had experience with since we were children.
Picture yourself sprinting at top speed for a distance for
50 yards. Now imagine yourself running a distance of one mile.
Can you run the mile at the same all-out pace you used in
sprinting the 50 yards? Of course not. Why? Because intensity
and duration are inversely proportional. Since you drastically
increased the duration of your run, the intensity had to decrease,
whether you wanted it to or not.
Once the facts regarding the intensity-duration relationship
are clearly established, it becomes possible to manipulate
these variables to produce the desired training result. Since
intensity is the factor responsible for stimulating strength
gains, and duration is inversely proportional to intensity,
an ideal strength training program would combine the highest
possible intensity with the lowest possible duration. One
set per exercise, performed until no further volitional movement
is possible, satisfies these requirements.
Have any studies been performed comparing multiple set to
single set training? One study performed at the university
of Florida (3) consisted of 25 subjects performing 1 set of
lumbar extension exercise 1 day/week for 10 weeks. Strength
increases ranged from 42% to 102%. A second study performed
at the University of Florida (4) utilized a total of 110 subjects
who performed either 1 or 2 sets of lumbar extension exercise
1 day/week for 12 weeks. The results showed significant and
similar improvements for both groups as compared with controls.
The researchers concluded that performing more that one set
was unnecessary for increasing strength in the muscles of
the lumbar spinal area.
Another interesting study was performed by Golds Gym of Bristol,
CT and ESPN cable television network (5). This study compared
the effects of a 3-set, 2-set, and 1-set upper extremity resistance
training program on 61 subjects. Results showed an average
overall strength increase of 16.42% in the 3 set group, 23.54%
in the 2-set group, and 26.95% in the 1-set group.
How do these results compare with other similar studies?
A review by Fleck and Kramer (1) showed that the average increase
in strength for most studies using isometric or isotonic testing
and training of a variety of different muscle groups was between
20% and 30%. Thus from a theoretical as well as practical
standpoint, it appears that single-set training systems produce
comparable or superior strength gains in less time and with
effort than typical multiple-set training systems.
How can this information be utilized by the individual wishing
to make his own training program as effective as possible?
The following guidelines are offered:
1. Make each repetition as intense as possible by maintaining
strict form. This includes controlling the repetition speed,
taking care to move the weight by muscular force alone without
momentum. No quick starts, bouncing or heaving. Lift the
weight smoothly, pause at the end position, and lower slowly
under full control.
2. Make each set as intense as possible by continuing that
set until no further volitional movement is possible, that
is, to muscular failure. Continue performing strict repetitions
until you are stopped in your tracks during the repetition
despite your greatest effort. Remember, if you complete
a repetition, no matter how hard it was, you must
attempt another one! Make sure, however, you have the proper
safety measures in place first, i.e. racks to catch the
weight in a safe position and a competent spotter.
3. Make each workout as intense as possible by performing
only one set per exercise in the fashion described above.
Remember, intensity and duration are inversely proportional;
if you do extra sets , the intensity of your workout will
decrease, reducing its effectiveness. In addition, keep
your workouts as brief as possible by limiting the total
number of exercises performed to one, or at the most two,
per muscle group.
I hope this article has provided a clearer understanding
of the intensity-duration relationship as it applies to effective
strength training. Such an understanding, properly applied,
is the cornerstone of an effective strength training program.
1. Fleck, SJ; and Kramer, WJ: Designing Resistance Training
Programs. Human Kinetic Books; Champaign, IL 1987.
2. Mentzer, Mike: Heavy Duty. Self Published, 1992.
3. Pollock, ML; Leggett, SH; Graves, JE, et al: "Effect of
Resistance Training on Lumbar Extension Strength". Am J Sports
Med 1989; 17: 624-629.
4. Hochschuler, SH; Guyer, RD; and Cotler, HB (ed): Rehabilitation
of the Spine. Mosby-Year Books, Inc., 1993.
5. Sansone, J; and Fitts, B: ESPN/Golds Gym Fitness Study.
Unpublished Study, 1993.