One Set or Multiple Sets

One set versus multiple sets for weightlifting is a question few people ask. The dogma of multiple sets; 5 sets of 5 or what not seems to be how most people start out because someone suggested it. The real reason why two, three, four or 45 sets would be better than one is seldom explored. Its just taken at face value because someone with more experience said so. First I will start with the benefits of doing just one set of a single exercise.

Doing one set has the following benefits over multiple sets:

It allows for a shorter workout.

It allows one to lift all they can to failure without worrying about pacing themselves for the next few sets of the same movement.

It makes it so one doesen't have to decide how many sets to do. One is easy to justify, if more than one, then one has to decide on an arbitrary number. Starting out simpler is often best.

It encourages new lifters to stick with things longer in the beginning. One set is easier to endure and enjoy as compared to 20. And not overwhelming a new lifter with too much too early on is important to keeping them with a program.

Doing one set per movement frees up more energy to use in exercise variation and other exercise movements. Instead of 5 sets of Barbell curls, one can do 1 set of barbell curls, one of dumbell curls, and so on and expend the same time and energy as doing five sets of an identical exercise.

One set is easier to recover from than more than one if sleep, food, and recuperative abilities are not the best such as if one is a "hardgainer."

Allows ones grip to be less of the limiting factor on deadlift and rows as compared to multiple sets of such movements. This can make it so the single set person doesen't use straps while the multi set person is more likely to.

Doing one set has the following potential drawbacks

Takes longer to become proficient with a new exercise movement because you do it with less repetition. This is partly offest by the fact that doing one set can allow one to do the movement more than one time a week. Especially a factor in highly technical Olympic lifts.

One set is often done to failure versus multiple sets which are not. This can teach the body to fail. In theory failing on a lift is hard on the Central Nevous System. Of course one can just keep some in the tank and not go to failure absolutely rather they do one set or more than one set.

One set causes less microdamage to the muscles worked than more than one set. So in theory one will adapt and grow bigger muscles in response to the repeated trauma more so than the less work of a single set could cause. One could also argue even if this is so doing five sets does not generate five times the muscle growth, strength, or size as one set. Some studies suggest the difference in strength gained using one set versus multiple sets is slight or negligible for the less advanced. If there is a difference in favor of multiple sets the time/reward involved hardly makes it efficient in comparison.

One set doesen't allow you to have an adequate warmup or to pyramid up or down in weight as multiple sets can. Perhaps one set does not allow a warmup set, but those who do multiple sets often have a lighter warmup set and don't count it so one set lifters can have a light warmup set and not count it also if they wish. Being able to pyramid up or down in weight falls more under the category of exercise variation. Five sets same weight same basic reps targets the same muscles the same way each time while varying the weight works things differently. This is similar to a one set person doing five different related exercises of a single set versus five sets of the same exercise for a multi set lifter. Being able to work up or down in weight is a good thing to bring up in regards to multi set lifters though. In contrast 10 sets of different exercises target the body better than 10 sets of a single exercise. So single set work gives one flexility to do more exercise variation in the time the multi setters do the same movement. Personally to me if the weight is varied set to set I don't consider them multiple sets of the same "exercise." I consider the variation enough set to set they they are like different sets of different movements albet it very related. This is like saying a max deadlift attempt you work up to in 6 lifts is 6 sets when in reality its one set to the fan of single set lifting. Different perspectives on the same thing.

Burns less calories than multiple sets and helps you lose weight slower if that is a goal.

My Final thoughts on the topic.

One can progress with either one set or multiple set training as long as the training is progressive with either weight increases, rep increases, or set increases. I think multi set training might be more training ones recovery abilities than ones strength and "lifting" abilities. The old stereotype is that bodybuilders have mirror muscles and less strength than their physique would suggest. Multi set training might be a part of that. Or perhaps body part split training is the real culprit as the two usually go hand in hand. Instead of building as much contractile elements in their muscles the set after set approach improves more their ability to haul nutrients, and waste products away from the muscles than the ability to exert maximal strength all at once. This leads to increased vasculity and muscles with more sarcoplasmic growth as its formally called. Muscles with more energy to do work and recover fast but less neuromuscular control or tendon strength to lift heavy weights.

Then again wouldn't one high rep set accomplish the same thing? However again in the real world any physical task has rest periods; almost no job is done till one collapses. So building up multi set strength can have some applications I don't doubt. Or perhaps the multi set strategy develops muscles just the same as single sets would from a bodybuilding perspective and those at the top have more to owe to genetics or drugs than to multi set training. It is true atheletism and musclarity are largely genetic things one develops further through work and what works for elite level atheletes may not work for average joes. Multi set training could be less effective but through perserverance and inspite of inferior training methods massive muscularity develops in some. The 40 plus set Arnold workouts would be counterproductive to the average weight trainer I am quite sure as an example. One can alway start with single set training, graduate to exercise variation, then to multi sets down the road if one wishes to give it a try. But multi set people hardly ever go back to single set training so perhaps its worth exploring single set training in the beginning to see if it works ideally for you.

Olympic lifting, strong man lifting and anything that required learned technique refined to the most efficient way might do better with multi set training and its repetitive ways. High multi set frequency or single set every other day might have a more approximating end result though in a way. But when skill is involved like bow hunting, Olympic lifting and what not multiple effort or set approaches to training might be ideal.

Single Set Supporters

*To be a single set supporter one doesn't have to advocate just one set for everyone for every movement. Believing its better for some or most lifters is enough to be a supporter by my definition.

Stuart McRobert

Mike Menzer

Multi Set Supporters

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Ronnie, Jay Cutler and almost all bodybuilders of modern era

Olympic Lifters that lift multiple times a week for multiple low rep sets often.

Related Links