One Set vs. Multiple Set Weight Training

If you are an avid reader of exercise research and information, then you have probably heard of the single set vs. multi set controversy. If you haven’t heard of this controversy, then you might find some eye opening information within this article. The debate centers on the question “Can a single set of a weight lifting exercise provide the same or more overall benefits as performing multiple sets”. In our time-strapped world, this is an obvious topic of importance. However, research to date has wavered between each side of the argument.

Since the rise of weight-lifting’s popularity through the 1980’s and 90’s, performing multiple sets of an exercise has been the standard way to work out. Typically, those looking for strength and/or muscle building benefits would perform anywhere from 2-6 sets for a given body part. Many “hardcore bodybuilders” like to take this a step farther, performing anywhere from 5 or more sets per exercise, and 3-5 exercises per body part. These bodybuilders would definitely subscribe to the “more is better” philosophy of working out.

Recently, these methods have been challenged. Those that back the single set approach believe that taking the muscle to complete failure is the stimulus for muscle growth and strength, so performing any more than one set to failure would be counterproductive. If this theory were true, there would be no point to doing more sets.

Backers of the multi set theory disagree. They believe that more sets cause more testosterone and growth hormone release, more glycogen and creatine storage, and a better neurological response (these are all seen as positive factors for increasing muscle size and strength). Now if either group could back up these theories with scientific research, the question would be settled.

Even within scientifically controlled studies, there is still much room for debate. Some studies help back the single set theory, while others help back the multi set theory. A recent study performed at Appalachian State University took untrained women and split them into 2 groups. One group performed one set of circuit exercises for 8-12 repetitions. The other group performed 2-4 sets with varying repetitions and intensities. The results of the study showed that both groups made similar improvements in muscular strength after 12 weeks. However, only the multi set group made significant improvements for muscular power and speed after 12 weeks and 24 weeks. Testosterone increases were also only significant after 24 weeks of training in the multi set group.

Conversely, a study done by the Center for Exercise Science at the University of Florida gave more credence to the single set theory. In this study, the subjects used were males who had been training for at least one year, as opposed to untrained females in the previous study. The groups performed one set to failure or three sets to failure for different body parts, three times per week. After 13 weeks both groups showed significant improvements for muscle endurance, body composition, and one repetition strength. There were also no significant differences between the two groups for any measure. The only problem with this study is that most people who use multi sets don’t perform all their sets until failure, so over- training could have prevented the multi set group from making significant improvements over the one set group.

There are many more similar studies that have been done on this topic. Some show that the multi set method is more beneficial; others show that single sets can be just as effective. I have tried both methods in my own training, as well as on my personal training clients. Although I was able to maintain and even build strength on the one set method, it became very hard both physically and mentally to continue training with very heavy weights to failure every workout. I found old injuries starting to creep up from the strain on my ligaments and joints. As a trainer, I did not feel comfortable having clients train to absolute failure without at least performing two to three lower intensity sets beforehand in order to decrease risk of injury. This becomes a catch 22 since you are no longer performing a single set.

After weighing all the evidence, I have to give multi set training the nod. There is just too much real world and scientific evidence to argue the other way. Even many studies that are used to support the single set method show slight increases in strength and muscle mass for the multi set group. However, you are not limited to only one training method. The best way to find out which method works best is to try both out for your self. One set training can be a welcome addition if you are limited by time, burned out from multiple set training, or just looking to try something new.

Submitted by:

  • Name: Cory Davidson, B.S. in Exercise Science
  • Date: 05/27/02 at 21:32
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