Low-Volume, Progressive-Intensity Weight Training

Barbell Deadlift

It 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 and psychological overtraining. Training naturally is quite different than training synthetically.

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). However, 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.

Baker (2013) conducted a similar 8 week study, also measuring strength and body composition changes in recreationally strength-trained men. Again both groups significantly improved muscular fitness and body composition. Although there was no statistically significant differences in muscular strength or body mass before or after training, the single set training group experienced a significant decreases in the sum of skinfolds. Although the single-set group's beginning 7 site skin fold values were significantly higher than the 3-set group (76+/-28.8 vs 73.5+/-15.4 mm), the single-set group ended up significantly leaner than the 3-set group after 8 weeks (61.8+/-19.5 vs 66.2+/-17.9 mm).

Dumbbell One Arm Lateral Raise

A 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 2 days instead of every 3 days (decreased frequency), the number of sets may be increased (increased duration) to compesate for the loss of frequency Hamarsland (2021). 

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 from 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 Weight Training Volume.

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, Dorsal Flexors, etc).
    • 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 targeting the development of additional heads of the muscle See Varying Exercises.
    • 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.
  • Strength:
    • 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 and uneasy about performing so few sets. Veterans of the old school high volume approach 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 incremental warm-up set(s) may still be performed on heavy lifts such as Squats and Deadlifts, if required. The idea is to get the most out of every set and exercise so less sets will need to be performed.

Sled Lying Leg Press

If 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. In fact, a study by Barbosa-Netto (2021) suggests that most people use weights which are too light with insufficient effort to stimulate strength or hypertrophy, even on a workout set of their first exercise after warm-up sets have been performed. 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) an optional additional workout set, particularly if 12 reps (or the upper repetition range) is performed (aka: merit based progressions), or (c) a mandatory second set every other microcycle, particularly on heavy day if alternating between Light / Heavy microcycles, a form of undulating periodization. The two workout sets may be performed with the same weight (straight sets) or the second workout set may be performed with a very small weight increase (aka: microloading) beyond the resistance used for the first workout set (outlined below), independent of the progress weight.

  • Warm-up set A: 50% of workout weight (12-15 reps)
  • Workout set 1: Recorded weight (8-12 reps)
    • If 12 reps, increase workout weight 5-10% next workout
  • Workout set 2: Recorded weight + <2.5%
    • If reps completed in satisfactory form, record for new workout weight

An alternative approach could allow for (d) an optional second workout set if the individual feels like they could likely achieve a small increase in their workout weight (microload) while still performing at least the low end of their prescribed rep range.

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 Sports Performance).

Hang Power Clean

Even 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.

In advanced strength training when performing fewer reps multiple sets need to performed. For example, in Olympic-styple weightlifting or Powerlifting training, performing triples, doubles, and singles are common place. Each successive set is performed with progressively heavier resistance. Much of the volume is achieved while performing progressively heavier warm-up sets until finally building up to workout resistance(s) (eg 90-100% 1RM). Even with such a program, volume can be kept low for accessory exercises with more moderate rep ranges.

Interestingly, training volume has greater impact on power than strength training (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 movements.

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, the transfer from muscular endurance to strength is severely impeded with programs that do not undulate volume and intensity. Without these variations, multiple workout sets are dogmatically performed and intensity is stagnated progress is compromised. Incidentally, this transfer of muscular endurance to strength occurs to some degree in the early stages of training with single workout set training. This transfer happens when progressively more repetitions are performed until an upper range is reached, weight can then be increased with a subsequent decrease in reps. See Variation Examples and Variation Deviations.

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.

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