Single Set vs Multiple Sets

Single set versus Multiple Sets – new research

There has been an ongoing debate in the strength training and bodybuilding communities for about 40 years as to whether a single set of an exercise is superior for building size and strength than training with multiple sets.  The idea that a single set of an exercise might be more effective than traditional multiple set training was first popularized in the 1970s by Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus strength training equipment.  Based on his training observations, Jones believed that a single set per exercise taken to the point of failure- a training method that is commonly known as high intensity training (HIT)- was the most effective type of training for improving both strength and size.  In a series of published bulletins widely circulated throughout the strength and bodybuilding communities, Jones made his case for the superiority of single set training, sparking heated debate on the issue that continues to this day.

The debate drew the attention of exercise physiologists around the world, resulting in a growing body of research data examining the issue.  However, despite an abundance of research studies physiologists were not able to resolve the issue.  The main problem was that the research was equivocal; some studies supported the idea that a single set was more effective than multiple sets, other studies found multiple sets produced greater increases in strength and size, but most studies found no statistical difference in results between the two training methods.  In short, there was no consensus in the research.

In general most research indicates that multiple sets tend to produce somewhat larger increases in strength and size.  However, the issue is that the difference in results between the two has not been large enough to definitively say that multiple sets are superior.  On average multiple sets produce a few percentage points greater increase in strength and size, usually in the range of 2-10%, but this difference has not been large enough to be statistically significant (statistical significance is important to show that the results are not just a matter of chance).

With research unable to declare a clear winner the debate continued unabated.  Despite the lack of consensus the physiological community generally accepted multiple sets to be superior to a single set, which drew some very vocal and deserved criticism from a few scientists.

In response to these critics a number of “meta-analyses” have been conducted by researchers in recent years to see if the conflict could be resolved.  A meta-analysis is essentially a study of studies.  It is a way of analyzing the results of multiple studies on the same research hypothesis to see what can be learned by looking at the entire body of research data as a whole versus the examining the results from individual studies.  A meta-analysis can often more powerfully estimate the “effect size”, the true difference in results, in comparison to the smaller “effect size” of a single study.  Measuring “statistical significance” is different than measuring “effect size”.  The advantage of measuring effect size via a meta-analysis is that it may reveal actual differences that were missed by examining the statistical significance of the results of the individual studies comprising the meta-analysis.

Let’s have a look at these meta-analyses and see if they have finally put to rest the whole single set versus multiple set debate.

Strength Studies

The first meta-analysis was conducted by Rhea et al (4) in 2002.  Examining 16 studies Rhea reported that 3-set training produced superior results to 1-set training.  In 2003 Rhea et al (5) conducted another meta-analysis, this time of 140 published studies, and concluded that 4-sets produced maximum strength gains in both trained and untrained subjects.  Both of these studies received some criticism due to the criteria Rhea used for study inclusion and also for his statistical analysis methods.

A third meta-analysis conducted in 2004 by Wolfe et al (6) of 16 studies found multiple sets to be superior to a single set in trained subjects and in programs lasting 17 to 40 weeks.  As in both Rhea’s meta-analyses, Wolfe’s study received some criticism for his statistical analysis methods.

Aware of the criticism of the previous three analyses, Kreiger (3) conducted a fourth meta-analysis in 2009 specifically designed to improve upon the limitations of the previous studies.  He examined 14 studies with 92 effect sizes measured across 30 groups of subjects comparing 1-set, 2-3 sets, and 4-6 sets.  He found that 2-3 sets produced 46% greater increases in strength than 1 set in both trained and untrained subjects.  Interestingly, he also found no difference in results between 2-3 sets and 4-6 sets.  Performing more than 3 sets did not produce a greater increase in strength.  Kreiger’s study strengthens the findings of both of Rhea’s previous studies.  There were some differences between Wolfe’s findings and Kreiger’s findings in terms of the effect of volume of training but Kreiger’s study also strengthened Wolfe’s finding that multiple sets produce superior results to a single set.  Finally, a 2010 meta-analysis of 72 studies by Frohlich et al (1) found single set training to be the equal of multiple set training for short training periods but multi-set training to be superior over longer periods of training.

In summary, there is now a consensus in the research literature supporting the idea that multiple sets are superior to single set training for increasing muscular strength.

Size Analysis

All of the meta-analyses cited above examined differences in strength gains; none examined the issue as to whether single or multiple-set training elicited greater muscle size gains.  Increases in strength are caused by both neural and hypertrophic changes and it is possible that the superiority of multiple sets for increasing strength might be due to a greater neural effect and not hypertrophy.  It is possible that multiple sets might be superior for increasing strength but not size so this issue needed to be resolved also.

In 2010 Kreiger (2) addressed this topic with another meta-analysis designed to determine if multiple set training elicited greater muscle hypertrophy compared to single set training.  Examining 55 effect sizes across 19 groups in 8 studies he found that multiple sets produced 40% higher increases in muscle hypertrophy regardless of the training status of the subjects or the length of the training program.  Kreiger also concluded that the 46% greater increase in strength from multiple sets revealed in his earlier meta-analysis was largely due to greater hypertrophy and not neural factors.

Interestingly, while Kreiger found no significant difference in hypertrophy from 2-3 sets or 4-6 sets he did find a trend for greater hypertrophy with 4 or more sets.  One weakness of his analysis was a limited number of studies that utilized 4 or more sets so he stated that no definitive conclusion could be reached as to whether 4 or more sets was superior to 2-3 sets for inducing muscle growth.

Summary

The debate as to the superiority of single versus multiple set training has been on-going for around 40 years.  High intensity training (HIT), originally popularized by Arthur Jones in the 1970s, promotes the idea that single set training is superior to traditional multi-set training for improving both strength and size.  Until now research on this topic has been equivocal and unable to resolve the dispute.  However, six recent meta-analyses have confirmed that multiple set training produces greater increases in both strength and size than single set training in both trained and untrained subjects.

References:

 1.       Frohlich M, Emrich E, Shmidtbleicher D., Outcome effects of single-set versus multiple-set training- an advanced replication study. Res Sports Med. 2010 Jul;18(3): 157-75

 2.       Kreiger JW., Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr; 24(4): 1150-9

 3.       Kreiger JW., Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep; 23(6): 1890-901.

 4.        Rhea, MR, Alvar, BA, and Burkett, LN. Single versus multiple sets for strength: a meta-analysis to address the controversy. Res Q Exerc Sport 73: 485–488, 2002.

 5.       Rhea, MR, Alvar, BA, Burkett, LN, and Ball, SD. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exerc 35: 456–464, 2003.

 6.       Wolfe, BL, Lemura, LM, and Cole, PJ. Quantitative analysis of single- vs. multiple set programs in resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 18: 35–47, 2004.


Comments

Single Set vs Multiple Sets — 30 Comments

  1. Great Article, great Stuff!! I was researching over 20 hours till I found your awesome site!
    Could you do some summary over the old theme whole body vs. Split Training?

  2. What about the following paper:

    Fisher, James, et al. Evidence-based resistance training recommendations. Medicina Sportiva, 15 (2011): 147-162
    http://baye.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/ebrtr-Fisher1.pdf

    In conclusion they write:
    “We recommend that appreciably the same muscular strength and endurance adaptations can be attained by performing a single set of ~8-12 repetitions to momentary muscular failure, at a repetition duration that maintains muscular tension throughout the entire range of motion, for most major muscle groups once or twice each week. All resistance types (e.g. free-weights, resistance machines, bodyweight, etc.) show potential for increases in strength, with no significant difference between them, although resistance machines appear to pose a lower risk of injury.”

    Any thoughts?

    • That article made a lot of sense to me. Probably because I already believed most of it! I was leary of the 1x or 2x per week part. Seems like you need 3+ x week. I feel weak if I miss 2+ days in a row.

  3. Could it be that since mutiple sets require far more dedication that the people who do them simply work harder (on the first and subsequent sets) and get better results? People are far more likely to drop out of a multiple set program vs a single set.

    Personally the Arthur Jones approach has worked well for me, but if you want to do 2,3,5, 20 sets instead of one, have at it.

  4. I have heard it said that since Arthur Jones invented the Nautilus equipment, it was in his best interest to promote the idea that a single set is all you need. A gym owner could then turn over the machines faster, getting more people in and out of the gym quicker (more people signing up at the gym). The people then don’t have to do long workouts that are so hated, so retention at the gym is also higher…Gym owners loved (and still do) love these machines. The fact that Arthur Jones successfully convinced a lot of people that not only was this the most profitable way to train (for him and the gym owners) but that the trainee would see greater benefits is what makes him a marketing GENIUS, despite the fact that the research has proven his method to be slightly less than effective.

    • brak,

      The research does not prove his method to be slightly less than effective. It has shown HIT to slightly less effective than a multi-set program. HIT is effective, just not as effective as a multi-set program for average trainees.

  5. Seems like most HIT people get about two sets per muscle group. Horizontal/vertical pushing, same for pulling and a squat and a deadlift. High enough volume for decent response and low enough for supporting recovery.

  6. I think that 2-10% won’t make a big difference and for some reason I like single set training, so I’ll stick with that! Great article, keep writing!

    • Daniel,

      See my four part series “Intensity or Effort – Which is it”. Carpinelli’s 2008 paper is extensively reviewed in that series.

      • I liked the summery of the articles nice work.
        My only concern is that they don’t address tempo/tension/effort.
        Yeah doing a single set of X reps compared to multi sets would be ridiculous. But change the tempo and tension of your single set, your effect has now increased for that set.
        Just my brief thoughts on it.
        Again great job

  7. Well, every human is different and will respond differently to weight training.
    I´ve lift weights for 20 years, tried every combination of sets/reps (5 x 5, 3 x10, 4 x 8 and so on…) and for me the best results (strength / recovery / wellness / bodyfat) was ONE SET of 15-20 reps to FAILURE (the point where I could not perform one more rep with proper technique). No soreness next day, able to practice sports or even weight training again.

    • I just recently had the idea to try single set weight training. I have a feeling my results will be like yours. In the past, I have worked legs to the point where they are still sore when I go to repeat the legs workout. In between, I couldn’t walk. Or to avoid this, I skipped legs altogether. I think single set training is a good start for the first 6 months to a year, and a good compromise. It’s hard to find time to be dedicated, so anything that will shorten workouts, while allowing one to hit all the muscle groups, should improve results, and prevent over-training. Most notable quote from the above studies: “””a 2010 meta-analysis of 72 studies by Frohlich et al (1) found single set training to be the equal of multiple set training for short training periods but multi-set training to be superior over longer periods of training.””” This almost suggests that all beginners should start with single sets for 6 months to a year, until they plateau, or decide to use steroids.

      • One thing I accidently, but happily, discovered a dozen years ago was “once per week per muscle” training. For 20 years I always trained multiple days per week – mostly twice per week per muscle, but sometimes three times per week. Like you, I always got very sore following my workouts. Then, in my early 40s, I stumbled upon once per week training. I found it to be better for me than twice per week per muscle group. I no longer get sore after a workout and my gains were better than they had been on any of the previous multiple days per week workouts that I had done.

        Rich

        • I prefer low frequency, HIT as well (5-7 rep range). May I ask how many sets and reps/set you used in your 1x/week training?

          Now that I’ve turned 45, however, I’m getting concerned about beating up my joints with lower rep sets. But happily, new research suggests that rep range is largely irrelevant for hypertrophy; what matters most is going close to failure and progressive overload, regardless of rep range.

          Your site/info are much appreciated by the way!

  8. To clear up this argument let’s first dissect your typical bodybuilders’ training protocols since hypertrophy and strength are their main goal. Most on average will do 3-5 movements per muscle group, 3-5 sets per movement and around 6-15 reps per set. So when a bodybuilder says he is doing 20 sets per muscle group he is actually working hard on about 4-6 sets to failure. That’s because in each movement he is working up pyramid style to his heaviest weight. If his last set of squats is 405lbs for 10 reps, typically he will start with 135lbs for 12-15 then 225 for 12-10, 315 for 10 reps and finally 405 for 10 reps. That’s how most bodybuilders train. They work up to a single hard set doing multiple moments. HIT proponents don’t count the warm ups, volume proponents do. In the end it’s quite the same. So now here is a short cut to avoid all those movements and warm ups that tap into your recovery both mental and physical. Just pick one good compound movement that you are good at and work up to your heaviest weight for the desired rep scheme and do multiple sets with that weight. You have accomplished the same as the bodybuilder with one third of the cost. Then next training session pick another compound movement if you wish and do the same.

  9. Train when you feel real good. Start exercise with a light weight, and kick its arse. Add weight and continue with enthusiasm, after five or six sets, certainly never more, the weight will be kicking your arse, stop there, rest, grow, then do it again, five + days rest for each body part.

  10. All things being equal just doing 1 set vs. 3 sets it makes sense that 3 sets might produce more growth because there is more volume.

    However, the whole point of doing one set is not to keep all things equal, it is to increase the frequency and decrease the sets during a single day and maintain the total volume over the same period of time.

    Thus, we should compare for example doing a full body single set routine every day or three non consecuitive days a week to doing a three set routine once per week or three times per week.

    That would be a fair comparison. The total number of sets is the same by increasing the frequency. Also, one set alone may provide a sweet spot to maximize protein synthesize on a continual basis everyday without exhausting recovery or restart synthesis momentum. Including training to near failure, but not failure would also be a logical inclusion for whole body, single set training if performed every day.

    This should also include training of each muscle fiber type, so all rep ranges should be done. Monday (low rep rance, one set) Tuesday (middle rep range, one set) Wednesday (high rep reange, one set) etc. This is how the muscle factor training could be encorporated into single set training. Thursday (start over low rep range, one set). If 7 days a week is too much then do the normally recommended 3 non-consecutive days used with training to failure and multiple set training. However, I believe that taking a day off is supposed to cause 50% drop in protein synthesis as mentioned in Pavel Tsatsouline’s book for example. So, I would try to look into the idea of finding a way to train every day by not training to failure and using one set.

  11. Hey Rich – Nice article.

    I think your conclusion needs to be further expanded. As I didn’t read all of the research I must wonder if they are comparing apples to apples, e.g. are the single sets performed in the same manner that the multi sets are performed or are they using the 2sec concentric 4sec eccentric reps and more importantly is the single set being performed to failure? If a single set of standard positive reps is compared to multi set of positive reps it would make sense that the multi set consistently outperforms. However, it wouldn’t be fair to use that research to state that the multi set workouts outperform single set of nautilus workouts.

    You stated that Frohlich et al found single set training to be the equal of multiple set training for short training periods (what did they consider to be short training periods?). If this is the case then especially with someone new to weight training why would you start them on a multi set routine? To me it makes sense to start them on a single set routine for 6-8 weeks and then transition them into a multi set routine. For those serious about avoiding plateaus changing up your program every 6-8 weeks is essential as even with what we consider very complex workout routines there is still a routine that the body will adapt to and thus create plateaus.

    I am more of an advocate of multi set routines however twice year I throw in a 4-6 week single set routine 2-3x/wk using the nautilus model of 2sec concentric and 4sec eccentric, taking each set to failure and progressing the resistance when I reach 12 reps. I have done this over the last 6 years and have seen most of my strength gains following these cycles. However, I would also agree that most of my lean muscle gains occur during multi set cycles.

    Honestly, I think it really depends on what you are looking for and if what you are looking for is to continuously make gains in strength and size then you should definitely incorporate a single set cycle a couple times a year to complement your multi set routines. Additionally, if you are just looking for a way to get into reasonably good shape and to maintain that, then incorporating a single set routine a couple times a week into your overall fitness routine that includes other forms of cardio would be a great option.

  12. I used to train using multiple sets such as 5 x 5 and switched to a single set in which I would pyramid up to. Over time I lost the strength I developed simply because the level of intensity required to benefit from a single set isn’t possible. I recently switched back to multiple sets per exercise using submaxiaml weight and have noticed a huge improvement in size and strength in only three weeks. Also, the intensity required to benefit from single sets requires a training partner which is something I don’t have as I train at home. Single sets also don’t allow adequate practice. If you are a powerlifter or weightlifter you need to practice lifting no different than how a golfer requires copious repetition to perfect their swing.

  13. With differences being that small multi-sets make sense only for professional strength athletes and nobody else. Why should an amateur spend much more time in the gym if he can only gain single digits percentage better results?

  14. Yes one hard set is all that is required. But how do you get there? Nobody who can squat for example 315 for 10 reps will walk into the gym and do it right away. Doing at least two honest warmup sets is an absolute mental and physical necessity to give it your all with 315 on your back. Now is that one set or multiple set Training? In the end it doesn´t matter how you call it, that is just mental Masturbation. to get big and strong you HAVE TO safely lift the heaviest weight possible, which your momentary condition allows, in the Basic exercises (Squat and deadlift in some variation, Standing press, dip, chin, bench press, bb curls, maybe Pullovers)for one hard set. To safely do so you have to do usually one, two or three honest warmup sets, “honest” meaning putting in enough effort/repetitions.

  15. I prefer low frequency, HIT as well (5-7 rep range). May I ask how many sets and reps/set you used in your 1x/week training?

    Now that I’ve turned 45, however, I’m getting concerned about beating up my joints with lower rep sets. But happily, new research suggests that rep range is largely irrelevant for hypertrophy; what matters most is going close to failure and progressive overload, regardless of rep range.

    Your site/info are much appreciated by the way!

  16. Good article – I have recently changed from using 3 sets per exercise to 2 sets. I like it much better – since it takes less time, I am more likely to not miss a session. Also, I do not see much, if any difference in size or strength.

  17. One set…..walk in…pick wt….do 20 reps…if i can do 20 nonstop i increase wt next week. If i do 15 or so. I rest and pump out to 20.
    Incln bnch mon
    Tbar row n pullover tue
    One exercise for each shoulder muscle wed
    Incln bicep curl 10 reps and preacher curls 10 reps and tricep pushdown 10 reps and tricep behind head ext 10 reps on thur
    Fri hack squat 20 reps and leg curl 20 reps and stand calve raise 20 reps

    In and out of gym in 10 min. Workout in my work clothes

    I will cont this until i dont make gains. So far so good

  18. Strength and Body Composition Changes in Recreationally Strength-Trained Individuals: Comparison of One versus Three
    Sets Resistance-Training Programmes

    Although there is an over-abundance of research finding the opposite to this study – this later 2013 study found no significant differences between 1 and 3 sets.

    However, looking at percentages – 1 set full body programs are actually more effective for loss of adipose tissue and strength.

    Note this study was conducted on the upper body only for 8 weeks.

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