Strength Training: Multiple Sets or Just One?

Sometimes I really hate science.

(Photo: Andrew Huff)

At least I hate science when it tells me something I don't want to hear, like: you need to work harder if you want better results.

I vastly prefer those studies that say the opposite. "Drink green tea, you'll burn fat while sitting on your ass!" Or, "take more naps!" Or, "don't forget those rest days if you want to build muscle!"

My Kinda Research.

Years ago, I'd read some study that said: when you are weight lifting, you don't get very much extra benefit from doing 3 sets of an exercise, as opposed to doing just one set. (Assuming you are lifting heavy enough weights).

Upon reading that long-ago study, I shouted "hooray!" and decided that from then on, there would be no more 2nd or 3rd sets for me. (Okay, so that's a lie--in real life, who ever shouts "hooray?") But I did greet the "one set" news with great relief. Because if there's anything more tedious and unpleasant than lifting some stupid heavy ornery weight up and down and up and down until muscle exhaustion finally hits--it's taking a brief rest and then repeating the whole miserable experience two more times.

So I was not pleased when I popped over to Diet Blog this week. There I learned that some smart-assed researcher took a bunch of studies about strength training, threw them all in a big Number Crunching Machine, turned the crank a few times and spat out this conclusion:

You get 46% stronger from weight-lifting if you do two or three sets of each exercise instead of one.

So how well do you know Crabby McSlacker? Time for a quick quiz:

On reading this new information, I decided to:

a. Do two or three sets of each strength training exercise instead of one from now on.

b. Pretend I never read the study and keep doing one set.

c. Question the study, quibble over assumptions, rationalize like crazy, and continue to do just one set, but leave open the possibility that someday, perhaps while high on multiple cups of coffee or fat-burning green tea or several big fat lines of cocaine snorted directly off Jillian Michaels' sculpted abs, I may actually do a second or third set of something.

The answer is of course...


About the Study:

The study was a meta-analysis of 14 other studies comparing single and multiple strength training sets. I only have an abstract, whereas Mike at Diet Blog actually got the info from the study's author, James Kreiger. Rather than just whine and speculate, I'll steal quote liberally from Mike, because he did a great job putting his post together and he's not too lazy to actually ask questions of scientists, so why not take advantage of that?

Some findings:

1. The 2-3 set groups experienced 46% greater strength gains than the 1 set groups.

2. No further benefits were observed beyond 3 sets (thank God!) though the author noted that there were very few well-controlled studies that looked at 4+ sets.

3. There was no significant effect to "performing a single set of 3 different exercises for the same muscle group." Krieger noted "that if you want to improve a certain lift, you are most likely to improve by performing more sets of that exercise."

This last finding was particularly annoying, because that's always been my rationale for being a One Set Wonder: I figure if I've got extra energy and motivation, I'd rather do several different exercises that target the same body parts in slightly different ways. It seems less tedious than doing the same thing over and over and over, and it seems like it would be better for general fitness to mix things up. But according to Krieger, I won't get the multiple-set strength benefit that way.

How Can I Argue with 46%?

Hell, I can argue with anything, especially if that "anything" involves more work! Here are some excuses good reasons for deciding I'm mostly gonna stick with one set despite this new information.

1. 46% is not 300%.

If I do three sets of something it takes me three times as long, and I experience three times the unpleasantness, but I get less than half again as strong from it. A lot more pain, a little more gain? That's ugly math.

2. I bet I would not see 46% improvement.

The "46%" seems weirdly specific considering the number of studies pooled; I'm guessing individual variability is huge. There have been times when I've done multiple sets; I did not notice nearly such dramatic improvements.

3. I don't really give a crap if I use 25 lb dumbells or 50 lb dumbells--I just want my arms to look like Michelle Obama's.

I know, I should care more about how strong I am, but really, I just want to stave off osteoporosis, pump up my metabolism, and have the most muscular look I can get with the minimal amount of effort. If I need to move a new dresser up a flight of stairs? I'll pay a delivery dude. Will three sets of the same thing make me look buffed-er, or is it better to do 3 different exercises, or can I get by with just one and look pretty much the same? That's the study I want to read about.

4. Mixing it up seems to me like a better idea from a injury prevention and functional fitness standpoint.

(This is just a rationalization, because I only seem to care about "functional fitness" when it's somehow more fun or convenient than the alternative. But if I did care, I think I'd be better off getting more variety and less repetition than doing the same thing several times in a row).

5. I can just barely make myself do one set of everything; the thought of doing every thing three times makes me want to jump off a very high bridge.

The only physical fitness achievement I truly pride myself on is keeping up with regular cardio and strength training for most of my adult life. If I had to do 3 sets of everything? I'd have quit long ago.

On the other hand, since the study said "two or three sets," I might consider taking an exercise or two that I don't completely hate and see if a second set makes more of a difference than I've been assuming it would.

C'mon, Give it a try, Crabby!

And Speaking of Working Out: Check this out: the folks at Gold's Gym have selected Cranky Fitness as one of their "Approved" sites! They must have read about Jo's kickass workout routine and mistook us for a more serious fitness blog, although you'd think Jo's pirate hat and chimpanzee shuffle would have tipped them off. But apparently, Cranky Fitness "encourages and energizes others to be fit and manage weight healthfully, promotes a lifestyle that’s balanced with healthful nutrition and habitual fitness that promotes quality of life, and promotes the benefits of creating health and not solely the prevention of disease."

And all the whining and cursing? That's just a bonus!

Thank you, Golds!

Do you folks all do regular strength training? Are you a fan of multiple sets or are you a one-set slacker like Crabby?

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