By Michael Krueger
The debate around whether one, two, three, or more sets of an exercise is the best way to train seems like a minor kerfuffle in the great scheme of things, but that is not s–at least not for the somewhat obsessive and argumentative weight lifting community.
In the real world, the majority of people usually train with three sets of an exercise without giving it much thought as to why. Well, let’s talk about it.
The practical function of weight on a bar is to limit reps. If you want to do eight reps, you load the bar so that it is a struggle to make that last rep. The supposed function of multiple sets is to build endurance, or maybe it’s to stimulate growth, or maybe it’s to improve strength. When it comes to total sets, how many is enough, not enough, or too much? It’s possible to keep dropping the weight on the bar for each successive set, thereby continuing along until you can get only a single rep on your final set and then you can be certain that you are quite finished. Unfortunately, it might have taken ten or more sets to get there. The question is, how much benefit has been gained from all those additional sets, and was it necessary to achieve the most strength, endurance, and/or muscle?
The short answer is, “It depends on you, your goals, and your genetics” (very unsatisfying, I know). Alas, despite all the research (and opinion aside), that is the best answer available. All the research says that a single set to who knows how many sets is good. That being said, the first consideration is cost/benefit. How much time do you want to spend lifting and how much benefit is enough, given the investment in time? This isn’t as straightforward as you might think, since it is both subjective and objective. If you have all the time in the world and want to work out most of it, then it definitely would be worth it. On the other hand, your genetics will limit the amount of benefit (entertainment value notwithstanding) you actually, measurably, will get.
Using myself as a guinea pig, I have found that I can get an incredible amount of progress with a five-set protocol. Without going into detail, I can attest that I will get much stronger and then spectacularly burn out within about 12 weeks of working it really hard. So, when I use five sets, I place it about 12 weeks before the end of a cycle and then go for it. By the time my head says “enough,” my body has gotten about all the progression it can handle, and then it is time to back off and start all over again.
You may find you respond differently both mentally and physically, and that is to be expected. The catch here is that you need to try a drastically different protocol to see what happens. This can be hard on many different levels and may end in tears, but it is the only way to know for sure.
So, most likely you have used a particular rep/set protocol for most of your training history. To make useful, quantitative changes, it helps to know what sort of progress you’ve made training the way you have been training. If you’ve been at this for any length of time, you should have some good data to go over to see where you’ve been and predict where you might be going. If you don’t have this data, do not despair (but start keeping a log!). You can still figure this out; it’s not that complicated.
There are many different ways to approach a protocol that is different from that which you are using now. Say you are doing three sets of ten and you want to try five sets of ten reps. You may drop the weight on each set so that you might get ten for each of the five sets, thereby increasing the volume but decreasing the intensity. These are called drop- down sets, and they are quite effective. You may also leave the weight static and let the reps fall where they may; you may only get a couple reps by set five. This works very well if you can get your head around not making your desired rep mark as well as decreasing overall volume. This shortage of reps makes some people crazy, but you won’t know until you try it. You may also start out with a weight where you can get 15 but only do ten and then keep getting only ten even if you could do more until the last set where you can just get ten. I never cared for this scheme, since it seemed to me to be four warm-up sets and one work set, but some people do well with it.
As you can see, there are many different ways to approach the question of how many sets are most effective. What you will find out is that your most effective protocol is different from your workout partner’s and will even change from cycle to cycle and year to year. By knowing this, you may optimize your workouts, and the self-knowledge you gain will be more valuable than you can imagine.
If you are going to do some experimentation, be prepared for the naysayers and the “experts” (see BroScience) to chime in with their two cents. Most of them mean well, but that doesn’t make their advice any more useful.
Your body will respond to a particular stimulus in a specific way. You may build big muscles or just get stronger with little apparent hypertrophy at all. Then again, you may be more prone to improvements in muscular endurance and doing multiple sets of ten or more really suits you better than doing low reps; you just can’t tell.
To make it even more challenging, what worked for you five years ago might not work as well today, and what works today might not be optimal in another five years. Some people find this frustrating while others are intrigued with the possibilities for the additional adaptation that it opens up. I tend to fall in the latter category. I used to be really good at eight to ten reps but not so much at three to five; now I’m equally good at both. I could get into what I believe is the reason behind that but that is for another column. Just understand that every phase of life you go through can create new opportunities and new challenges, be it in the weight room, on the road or track, in the pool, on the bike, or on the skills course at the Combat Challenge.
Knowledge Creates Power
Whatever number of sets you train with, it is important to understand why. You don’t need to do every exercise for the same number of sets either, but you need to understand why you are doing what you are doing. The worst answer to the question “Why?” is “I don’t know.”
Your body and mind will respond to stimulus in its own unique way; it might be totally contradictory to the current conventional wisdom. It doesn’t matter so long as it works for you.
So try one set or five or ten sets on one or all of your exercises; you might be surprised by your results. Even if the experiment is physically less than successful, at least when someone suggests that you do something different you can say you’ve tried it and it didn’t work
…and then get back to doing what does.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.