just came across this on tint...... 1 set vs 3 sets
1 Set vs 3 Sets - Which is better?
a crossover study answers the question
"In seeking the most practical and time-efficient strength training method possible, a necessary question is: Can performing one set of each exercise with a high level of intensity give an individual the same results as performing two or three sets? The answer is a resounding yes." - Matt Brzycki, A Practical Approach to Strength Training, 1995, pg 39(1)
In studies examining resistance-trained individuals, multiple-set programs were found to be superior for increasing strength, power, hypertrophy, and high-intensity endurance...some short-term and all long-term studies support the contention that a training volume greater than one set is needed for progressive physical development and improved performance.- Strength Training, National Strength & Conditioning Association, Lee Brown Editor, 2007, pg 51
One of the controversial topics in strength training is whether performing one set to failure of an exercise is as good as performing multiple sets of the same exercise. High intensity advocates promote the belief that one set to failure will produce the same increase in strength as multiple sets, often citing research in support of this belief. Is one set as good as two or three sets? A new research study using a crossover design provides a unique perspective on this topic.
In 2007 a group of German researchers designed a 41 week crossover study to determine the differences between performing 1 set or 3 sets of an exercise.(2) The general training design of the study consisted of initially dividing subjects into either a 1-set group or a 3-set group. The 1-set group trained for nine weeks using 1 set of 8-12 reps to failure while the 3-set group trained 3 sets of 8-12 reps to failure. After completing nine weeks of training, all subjects took a nine week, no-training break. Then subjects resumed training, crossing over to the opposite training program for an additional nine weeks - i.e. the 1-set group trained with 3-sets, the 3-set group trained with 1-set. By having all subjects train with both the 1-set and 3-set programs any genetic differences between the groups were nullified. 29 untrained subjects were recruited and randomly assigned to either the 1-set or 3-set group. Subjects were tested for maximum strength (1 rep max) on the bicep curl, unilateral leg press (left and right) and the bench press multiple times throughout the study.
Was 1-set as effective as 3-sets? No, it wasn't. The 3-set training program improved strength significantly more in the upper body exercises than did 1-set training. The 3-set training program also increased lower body strength more than the 1-set did, but the increase did not reach the level of significance. Subjects improved their maximum strength during the 3-set program by 10% more in the bicep curl, 4.6% more in the left leg press, 6.1% more in the right leg press, and 5.9% more in the bench press than during the 1-set program.
The results of this study show that, on average, 3-sets confers a training advantage over 1-set. What, physiologically, could explain these results? I suggest the muscle factor model offers two primary explanations for the superiority of 3-set training.
Only fibers that are activated and overloaded will grow. Simply activating a muscle fiber is not sufficient to cause an adaptive response in that fiber - the fiber has to be overloaded sufficiently. Performing three sets to failure likely overloads more total muscle fibers than a single set. Due to the way muscle fibers are recruited during exercise (see the muscle factor model for a discussion of muscle fiber activation), at the end of the first set only the very strongest of total active fibers have been sufficiently overloaded. Less strong but more enduring active fibers have not been sufficiently overloaded because the set was terminated before these fibers were fully fatigued. Some of those fibers that were not fully overloaded during the first set are overloaded during the second set Similarly additional fibers not fully overloaded during sets one and two are overloaded during set three. In this way, more total fibers are fatigued (overloaded), resulting in a greater increase in strength from the 3-set program.
Additionally, some of the active fibers partially recovered during the rest period between sets. Training these fibers a second and third time likely caused a greater overload on the fibers than a single set to failure. The higher the training load, the greater the overload, the better, as long as the total load doesn't incur an inroad so severe that the body can't fully recover prior to the next scheduled training session.
I suggest these two reasons - overloading more total muscle fibers and a greater overload on individual fibers - explain why the 3-set training produced greater increases in strength than 1-set training.
If this is correct (and I believe it is completely correct), it points the way to training that would be even more effective than a traditional three sets to failure. Namely, any program that overloads more total muscle fibers and overloads those fibers to a greater degree (as long as the overload doesn't exceed the body's ability to recover from) will produce better results than programs that train fewer fibers with lesser overload.
A crossover study comparing 1-set training to 3-set training in the same group of subjects reveals that 3-set training produced significantly greater increases in upper body strength and greater, but not statistically significant, increases in lower body strength. The muscle factor model suggests that the reason 3-set training produced the best results is because it overloaded a larger total number of muscle fibers and that it overloaded many of those active fibers to a greater degree than did 1-set training.
1. Bryzcki M., A Practical Approach To Strength Training, 1995, Masters Press, pg 39
2. Humburg H, Baars H, Schroder J, Reer R, Braumann K., 1-Set vs. 3-Set Resistance Training: A Crossover Study, J Strength Cond Res, 2007, 21(2), 578-582