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 can occur.
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
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.