may be tempting to follow a training program used by an experienced
lifter or elite athlete, but overtraining
is probably the most common mistake of weight trainees of any
level. Beginners will probably make progress no matter what they
do, as long as they train consistently. Novice weight trainers
demonstrate about twice the improvement in half the time when
compared with stronger experienced weight trainers (Hakkinen
1987). But for the advanced weight trainer, after a period of
time, the body's ability to recuperate
is out paced by the ability to intensify workouts. So, more advanced
individuals must not necessarily workout harder, but they must
workout smarter. Progress occurs during recovery or between workouts,
so if the body has not fully recovered between workouts, overtraining
Current popular weight training dogma is based on training
practices of athletes, bodybuilders,
powerlifters, and weightlifters of the past. Training information
is passed down from generation to generation. High school coaches
often use programs from college coaches, who mimic programs followed
by professional athletes. Not only can elite athletes usually
recover from greater volumes (Fry 2000) and intensities of work,
but they may often use ergogenic aids to recuperate. Many coaches,
athletes, and other individuals incorporate program philosophies
popularized in the 70's and 80's. These programs worked during
the era when anabolic steroids
were commonly used by many advanced weightlifters. Since then,
anabolic steroids have been deemed illicit. Without these ergogenic
aids, the programs of the past often lead to physical
overtraining. Training naturally is quite different than training
The ACSM Weight
Training Guidelines state more than one set may elicit slightly
greater strength gains, but additional improvement is relatively
small (ACSM 1995). Studies demonstrating marginal improvements
in strength with more sets, typically use one exercise per muscle.
Split programs performed by experienced weight trainers typically
incorporate two or more exercises per muscle group. Fleck and
Kramer's review of the literature suggests the optimal number
of total sets are between 2 and 5 sets (Fleck & Kraemer 1997).
A second set seems understandable since a warm
up set may allow greater intensity for the following workout
set (Shellock & Prentice 1985).
Many scientific studies demonstrate one set is almost as effective
as multiple sets, if not just as effective in strength and muscle
hypertrophy (Starkey & Pollock 1996). These studies have
been criticized for using untrained subjects. Hass (2000) compared
the effects of one set verses three sets in experienced recreational
weightlifters. Both groups significantly improved muscular fitness
and body composition during the 13 week study. Interestingly,
no significant differences were found between groups for any
of the test variables, including muscular strength, muscular
endurance, and body composition.
few maverick fitness authorities and professional bodybuilders
have advocated high-intensity, very low-volume training. Author
Jones, the founder of Nautilus and MedX weight training equipment,
was one of the early pioneers of single-set training. In the
1980's, Casey Viator, the youngest Mr. America and Mr. Olympia
contestant, and Mike Mentzer, Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contestant,
promoted the high-intensity, low-volume training. More recently,
Dorian Yates, several-time Mr. Olympia, reportedly performed
only a warm-up set and one or occasionally two workout sets throughout
his off-season training.
Weight training components
(intensity, duration, frequency) are somewhat inversely proportionate
to one another (I*D*F). This model suggests, if one component
is decreased, increasing one or both of the other components
may make up for this loss. For example, by training each muscle
group every 4 days instead of every 3 days (decreased frequency),
the number of exercises or sets may be increased (increased duration),
or the amount of weight may be increased (increased intensity).
Intensity is the least forgiving of the three components,
if intensity is decreased for a time, strength and muscle mass
gains will likely deteriorate. Increasing frequency or duration
cannot make up for a decrease of intensity. Furthermore, intensity
will be unintentionally decreased if duration is too great. Each
additional set or exercise performed in a workout decreases the
amount of weight that can be used. If someone is aware they have
yet several sets and many exercises to perform, they will hold
back and not put full effort early in the workout. By the time
they have completed the first part of their workout, they are
unable to put full intensity in the remainder of their workout
because of fatigue of all the exercises and sets they had just
performed. Since muscular endurance is not a limiting factor
with a low-volume program, greater weight can be used.
A progressive intensity program seems to be the key factor
in strength development and, consequentially, muscle building
(or muscle mass restoration).
Weight training intensity also seems to be the key component
for fat loss (also see
high repetition burn more
fat myth). In fact, one set has been found to be equally
as effective as three sets in increasing energy expendature for
up to 72 hours after weight training in overweight college males
(Heden 2011). Not only can anaerobic activity utilize calories
for several hours after training (see HIIT),
but restoration of muscle mass increases calories expended at
any activity level, even during rest. These common goals can
be obtained by doing the most within the least number of sets
and exercises. Specifically, this involves performing as many
repetitions as possible within the repetition range of the workout
set: one repetition short of failure or compromising exercise
form (see weight training guidelines).
In studies that do demonstrate greater gains at higher volumes,
only a small increase of gains are seen when performing additional
sets. Each additional set yields less progress to a point of
diminishing return. See Applied Research
In determining the ideal number of sets, one must decide between
either maximizing return on investment by achieving most of the
results with minimal investment of time (eg: 1 warm-up and 1
workout set) or investing the time required for marginally more
gains (eg: 4 sets). The time saved with an abbreviated weight
training program can often be used more wisely to address other
goals elsewhere in a program, for example:
- Fat loss, toning, or cardiovascular conditioning:
- More aerobics can be performed, particularly since duration
is an important component of aerobics exercise.
- Targeting other muscle groups:
- Auxiliary movement involving a muscle group that has not
yet been exercised can be added (Neck,
- Keep in mind that too many exercises in a workout decrease
the intensity for all other exercise.
- Targeting specific muscle groups or movements:
- An additional exercise, distinct from the other movements
for the same muscle group, can be more effective than additional
set(s), for both strength and muscle size gains.
- For all other muscle groups or movement, try to keep number
of exercises to a minimum.
- Athletic conditioning:
- Alternatively, more sports-specific training can be performed.
- More rest can be taken between sets if strength is a goal.
- Recovery and more progress:
- More time can be spent recuperating after workouts, decreasing
training stagnant or injurious effects of overtraining.
- Enjoying life:
- Spend saved time engaging in some other fun or interesting
sort of physical activity.
There is less need to divide the body into as many groups
when designing a split program
with fewer sets. Each muscle group can be worked with greater
frequency, more than just once a week as many high-volume programs
force you to perform. In addition, more rest days can be implemented
for greater recovery, as in the case of a two
day split workout performed 4 days per week.
Those who are used to a program implementing multiple sets
and/or a many exercises are usually skeptical about performing
so few sets. Veterans of the old school may not feel confident
they will experience gains with less sets and exercises. They
had been introduced to and grown accustom to traditional training.
Some may even react violently at the proposition of incorporating
such an abbreviated method of training. They may defend their
methods to justify all the time and effort they had spent training
at higher volumes throughout the years.
Those accustomed to high volume training also often cite the
need for multiple warm-up sets to prepare their nagging joints
for the heavier loads. Those who try the low volume train are
sometimes amazed to discover how few warm-ups sets they need
when they reduce their training volume, fully recover between
workouts, allowing their previously festering joint pains to
subside or disappear in the process. However, an additional warm-up set(s)
may still be performed on heavy lifts such as Squat, Deadlift,
and possibly Bench Press and other heavy lifts, if required.
The idea is to get the most out of every set and exercise.
an individual is accustomed to a high-volume program, they may
also find it very difficult psychologically to perform only a
warm-up set and one workout set. It may take months until the
veteran is used to the low-volume, progressively-intense training.
The individual who is used to performing multiple sets and many
exercises for each muscle group is initially unable to perform
a workout set at a great intensity. They have taught themselves,
almost unconsciously, to hold back since they are used to performing
many exercises and sets. It may require months to teach the body
to push itself more intensely. In addition, the type of fatigue
experienced after the high- intensity, low-volume training is
different than the traditional high-volume training. Until they
are able to generate more intensity in their workouts, many may
feel they are not achieving a productive workout based on this
initial lack of fatigue.
For those who are used to a high-volume program, an intermediate-volume
training prescription may be suggested. This may be in the form
of (a) an additional exercise for major or selected target muscle
groups (eg: Chest
Dips in addition to Bench
Press and Incline
Bench Press), or may involve (b) two workout sets performed
after a warm-up set. The workout weight should be increased 5
to 10 % if 12 reps (or the upper repetition range) is performed.
The two workout sets may be performed with the same weight (straight
sets) or the second workout set may be 5% greater than the resistance
used on the first workout set (outlined below), independent of
the progress weight.
Alternating from a one to two workout sets every other workout
can also be considered. If new exercises are introduced, a warm-up
set with a single workout set can be performed for the first
week, or micro-cycle. This can permit more complete acclimatization
to the new exercises, serving as a period of active recovery.
After this introductory period, perform an additional set on
only every other exercise. During the next micro-cycle, perform
an additional set on the other half, every other exercise. Continue
alternating every workout, or micro-cycle, an additional set
every other exercise.
Another low-volume method involves
alternating between one workout set on heavy days (with longer
rests between sets) and two workout sets on lighter days (with
shorter rests). Also see light / heavy
training and 2
day splits templates.
Multiple sets may be required for certain sports specific
goals and situations. More sets can be performed for a specific
type of muscular endurance for the specific muscles involved
in the specific activity or sport (also see specific
adaptation). However, most sports and athletic endeavors
actually do not require the sort of muscular endurance derived
from performing multiple sets. Even if a particular athletic
movement pattern may benefit, intermittent muscular endurance
is likely not required for more than a couple movements, although
this type of conditioning can typically be addressed by other
forms of training other than weight training. For example, intense
aerobic or recreational activities should be chosen if they are
more activity or sports specific (see Aerobic
in the case of training for a sport or activity that requires
a degree of muscular endurance, it may be advisable to train
for strength and general conditioning during the off-season.
Muscular strength gains are more lasting than muscular endurance
gains. Muscular endurance is the first to diminish during detraining,
so it should be emphasized during the weeks leading up a competition
only if a particular
type of muscular endurance is required in the sport and only
on exercises that mimic the movement(s) of the sport. See Residual Training Effect.
Strength gains can even be maintained longer with periodic sessions
every few weeks. For seasonal sports, periodization
is more effective than training at a fixed intensity and duration
(Bompa, 1990). Even during periodization periods of high-volume
training are balanced with periods of low-volume training, particularly
during recovery workouts and tapering.
Interestingly, training volume has more impact on power than
strength (Baker 2001). Multiple sets are commonly performed in
Olympic-style weightlifting programs
to develop necessary motor
skill and power required for these lifts. Numerous power
and strength training periodization techniques have been developed
to cycle training volumes, allowing for periods of low volume
and thereby maximizing training results. See sample Athletic
Weightlifting Program and Sample
Powerlifting Program. Even the popular 5/3/1
Strength Training Program can be adapted for low volume auxiliary
If muscular endurance for sports performance is required for
a larger part of the year, a wave protocol can be implemented
(Naughton, 1991). A wave involves cycles of progressively greater
sets added weekly with lower repetition ranges and heavier weights
than the previous sets. A cycle may last weeks or can be made
up of several intricate cycles growing progressively longer each
successive cycle. Muscular endurance is essentially transferred
to muscular strength during the wave. Unfortunately, endurance
is rarely transferred to strength with popular programs; multiple
workout sets are dogmatically performed with no real understanding
of why they are being prescribed. Incidentally, this transfer
of muscular endurance to strength even occurs with single set
training; by progressively performing more repetitions until
an upper range is reached, weight can then be increased with
a subsequent decrease in reps. See Variation
Examples and Variation
In all these cases, care should be given to avoid chronic
overtraining while conserving resources for periodic progressions
in intensity, possibly by abbreviating the number of exercises
executed in a workout to accommodate the greater number of sets.
Paradoxically, as an auxiliary trainer or off-season coach, it
may be necessary to prescribe a progressively higher-volume program,
not necessarily to prepare the athlete for their sport, but instead
to prepare the athlete for an anticipated high volume training
regimen implemented by their primary coach.
Ultimately, a choice must be made to reap the majority of
the results with fewer sets or marginally more results with more
sets. Performing the fewest sets and exercises necessary to reach
your objectives will facilitate higher workout intensities and
can reduce the occurrence of overtraining
no matter what your level of training. When utilizing higher-volume
workouts for certain sports-specific objectives, balance high-volume
periods with low-volume periods of training for maximum results.