The Debate Continues
In the ongoing quest for the perfect training program, serious weightlifters continue to debate and question the benefits of high intensity single sets to multiple set training regimes. Ironically enough, it seems that for every research study you find that touts one over the other, there are just as many that suggest there is no real difference in strength gain between single and multiple sets. In the article, Strength Training: single versus multiple sets by R.N. Carpinelli and R.M. Otto,(Sports Medicine, 26, 73-84). for example, the authors claim that in 47 separate research studies, only 2 showed a marginal improvement improvement with multiple sets. The remaining 45 studies suggested no noticeable difference.
In the one set to failure method endorsed by professional body builders Mike Mentzer and Arthur Jones, the lifter does one or two warm-up sets and then one set using the heaviest weights possible, continuing the repetitions until he "fails" to perform or simply cannot lift anymore. The people who support this method actually believe that one set to failure is enough to promote strength gain and that multiple sets can actually be detrimental to the body. Multiple sets on the other hand, include several warm up sets followed by several sets with the heaviest weight for the day. Resting for 1 or two minutes in between sets is required.
The results of some of these studies, however, may be misleading. In many of the studies, the researchers were focusing on a well rounded physical fitness program for the average adult. Often, it seems, these studies were short term and did not focus on longer term training programs or higher weight loads. A study by Mathew Rhea, Asst. Professor of Exercise Science at Southern Utah University suggests just the opposite of Carpinelli's study. Rhea's results prove that three sets of training are superior to one when attempting to maximize strength gain. While he admits that single set training may be fine in the short term, multiple sets will produce more gain for experienced lifters. In an article in the Washington Post, Rhea suggested that "there is some evidence that [an exerciser] could continue to realize very slight strength gains from single-setting after a year or even two. But most likely [that person] will simply maintain strength."
American College of Sports Medicine recommends multiple sets
According to William Kraemer, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) expert on resistance training, multiple sets will result in a greater breakdown and repair of the muscle fibers. It is this process that leads to muscle growth and strength gain. The position of the ACSM is that multiple sets are preferred for experienced lifters. The study on which Kraemer based his findings was a 6-9 month training period. Although the study showed no noticeable difference between the single set and multiple set groups after 3-4 months, only the multiple-set training group continued to log increased strength gain during the last 5 months of training.
A more recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Erlangen, Germany also concluded that in "pre-trained subjects, multiple-set protocols are superior to single-set protocols in increasing maximum strength" This study examined the effect of single versus multiple set training in women with previous weight training. According to this study, multiple set training resulted in a significant increase (3.5% – 5.5%) for all four strength measurements, whereas single-set training resulted in significant decreases (-1.1% – 2.0%). The important factor in this study seems to be the fact that these women were previously trained.
Although these studies seem to contradict one another, because there are so many other factors involved, neither side is really comparing apples to apples. For example, although each camp suggests that their way is the best way to optimize training, it's impossible to increase muscle size without considering the effect or cost to the body's other capabilities. In some cases, multiple set training can damage so much muscle that the length of the recovery period nullifys the benefit of the extra training. In single sets, however, a lifter used to doing only one set in training may struggle under the demands of an actual bodybuilding competition. When considering the lifter who is preparing for competition, multiple sets will also build stamina and endurance which is definitely needed to compete effectively.
Single Sets for Beginners
Consequently, the general concensus seems to be that if you're a beginner, single sets will provide the results you want as long as you're actually pushing the reps to the point of failure. Odds are, however, that you will hit a plateau within about three months. One concern with the single set method is that for maximum benefit, the set has to be performed to failure or the point where you absolutely cannot complete another full repetition. Many beginning weightlifters will not actually push themselves to this point. Another concern is that since single sets do require the lift to failure, it's much more difficult for lifters to sustain this level of activity day in and day out.
Consequently fatigue and burnout are common.
If, however, you prefer the single set method and find strength gain has stalled, try these modifications:
- Perform 8-12 reps to failure. Immediately reduce the weight by approximately 20 pounds and do another 4-5 reps to failure. Extending the single set reps will help sustain strength gain.
- Vary the type of reps you're doing by exercise. For example, do three sets of bench presses for multiple muscles but only one set of bicep curls which only benefits the biceps.
If you're an experienced lifter, however, you will more than likely see more gain from multiple sets in the long run. All researchers seem to agree that over time, our bodies will adapt to the activity level at which it's being required to perform. In bodybuilding, that adaptation usually results in a plateau or stagnant period of growth. Many professional bodybuilders suggest varying your training program to include both HIT and multiple set training to avoid these types of delays. It is also important to realize that how you're completing your lifts is not the only factor that will influence your success. Other key items to consider include:
- Personal goals and commitment level
- Choice of exercises
- The time you have available to train
- Your diet
- Your experience level
- The speed of training
It's obvious that we still don't have all the scientific facts when it comes to our body's ability to increase strength and muscle mass. One common element that appears regularly in all interviews with the professionals in the gyms is that muscles are increased basically by ripping them up and rebuilding them. How you decide to accomplish this task is a personal choice and how effective it is really depends on how your own body reacts to the stress. The lifters that seem to have the most success are the ones who are willing to be open-minded, pay attention to the signals they're receiving from their bodies and can adjust their training programs as needed. While the debate continues, your best bet is to just hit the gym, experiment with a variety of techniques and find one that works the best for you personally.