October 14, 2009

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?


  1. I do two sets with each one. I start with as heavy as I can use for 8-10 reps, take a short break, and lower the weight 10-20 pounds and do the second set. That way I "feel" the hard part is over after the first set :-)

  2. Most people do not exercise.

    If you are doing as much as you can, and regularly, you are better than average.

    If you are really staying consistent, working out almost daily, staying strong and healthy, you deserve that endorsement (and you do, believe me).

    Could we always do more? Sure, if we neglect other things.

    Do your one set. If you really want results in one area, do multiple sets for that area. Mix it up if it keeps you exercising, it's the fact that you are doing anything at all that is the great news for you.

    Strive for balance and consistency, because, in the end, unless you are so rich that you can afford to spend all day doing nothing but exercise, you are better off than the couch potatoes.

  3. I do two sets each of two different exercises for each muscle group. Yeah it's really monotonous but it's all I'm allowed right now! I still think a CrossFit or Monkey Bar Gym type format are better for building muscle than a traditional weight routine - no matter how many sets you do. I'd also be interested in knowing if the study looked at super sets?

  4. Crap, for me, I love the weights so much, it is hard for me to stop!

    I read the Diet Blog thing.. and for me, it is all about what works for me & what I enjoy the most. I am not trying to be some big ole strong person so the 1 set thing never was my deal. Even when I did bodybuilding, I did multiple sets & gained strength & size.

    I like to keep things changing so I have done all sorts of variations thru time! I do circuit training right now & just follow what my bod & mind like & if I see it is working in the mirror, all is good. If things are not looking right in the mirror and/or I can feel it is not working, I change it.

    Find what works for you, what you can hang with, what produces results you are happy with & go with that!

  5. I have yet to incorporate strength training into my routine. I know, I know...but, in my defense I was one of those "most people" (see messymimi above) not too long ago. And my new gym is the school one, filled with 20 something year old muscley guys. Not a good enough excuse? Ok, will promptly work on it.

  6. I'm a three sets girl... and I put a lot of stock by research. I know it's hard sometimes to challenge our assumptions... especially when it's something we don't WANT to be true, but there you have it. If you want results, you're better off going with proven methods than just making something up on your own.

  7. Hmmm. I've been doing 3 sets of everything once all the way through, then another round of 3 sets if I have time. Maybe I will just up the weight a little and drop off the second round of sets.

    Word! On Michelle Obama's arms. I'd go sleevless in the dead of winter if I had those guns.

  8. Go Cranky Fitness!

    I usually follow a DVD or some sort of workout plan and they usually involve multiple sets so that's what I do. I work out at home and I don't have access to a huge amount of equipment anyway, so I don't think I have any weights that would be heavy enough to give me results with just one set. Fortunately I don't mind weight training - I find the repetition sort of therapeutic. (yes, you may call me crazy if you like).

  9. SleevEless, that is. It's early.

  10. If I'm feeling strong, I'll do one warm up set, then a heavy set.

    If I'm feeling weak and tired, I'll go lighter with multiple sets.

    Both, in other words.

  11. I'm one of those who actually DOES want to be able to move a dresser up a flight of stairs..... or wrangle a calf, or hold a big metal roller up above my head when fixing the baler.

    But the Michelle Obama arms would be nice, too.

  12. I do strength training about 3 times a week mostly upper body cause I'm trying to increase my upper body strength and also looking to get some smoking arms....I always say I'm working on my Jillian arms.

    Anyway I'm a 2 set person. Kinda falls in the middle of the 1 to 3 set mindset. Although every once in a while I do a week of just one set keeps my body guessing

  13. I use the slimbell wimpy girly-weights (three lb) and do one set each of three different exercises. One of said exercises is holding them at shoulder height for as long as I can. It works for me.

  14. It depends. If I'm going with one of my podfitness workouts - multiple sets because that's what it does for me. If it's just me and Mike&Mike in the Morning? Up the weights and just do one. But then I tend to do the multip-exercises for each muscle approach.

    I'm also better about doing multiple sets if I'm using the bow-flex. Don't know why that is...

  15. We can probably chalk this one up under the heading of "Study That Will Soon be Contradicted then Validated and Contradicted Again." Then again, it depends what your goals are. If your goals are strictly strength increases then it stands to reason that multiple sets would be more effective. The whole "time under tension" thing and all that....

    I think we overthink things. I think.

    We would probably all do well to just get up and move, stop analyzing it too closely, and let the chips fall where they may. For me, I like a fast-paced circuit routine that combines strength, calisthenics and conditioning exercises and it feels right for me. If a study comes around that contradicts this methodology I'll ignore it and remember that this type of research is done by people in lab coats who have never curled more than a mechanical pencil in their lives....

  16. Two sets. Anything else and I might start throwing the weights at people. Wait, would throwing them count as a third set? eh who am I kidding? Since I never do a 3rd set, it's unlikely that I would have enough strength to throw the weights. sigh.

  17. Crabby,

    My goal for fitness is to find out the absolute minimum I have to do and still be able to open all the jars in the pantry.

  18. I do whatever my trainers tell me to do...how's that for lazy - I don't even have to think about it, lol! I do believe it's usually three sets, but lack of oxygen to my brain happens early in my workout and I can barely remember to breathe, much less what I've done later on (I have to ask them via email when I blog about my workouts - no joke!).

    I want Michelle Obama arms too and will do whatever (well, within reason) it takes to get them!

    Congrats on the Gold's Gym award - what they said about your blog is so true and you totally deserve it!

  19. I do two sets of things...when I do sets of things...which is not very often as of late.
    The study was quite interesting. I'm going to look at the stats to see the variability. I wonder if the people were all of the same fitness levels at the start...and if the gender mix was half and half...stats are fun...you can manipulate them to say a lot of things with a bit of twaking. I'm curious to see the numbers...

    I must say - I love the picture at the beginning...totally and completely hooked up labware in an utterly useless formation but it still looks damn cool with all the food colouring in there! Yes I am a geek...keep putting lab photos of lab equipment I use at the start and I admit, I'll read every article :)

  20. I do strength training a few times a week. And I'm a fan of whatever my trainer tells me to do...lol I do not like to make her mad.

  21. I do strength training a few times a week. And I'm a fan of whatever my trainer tells me to do...lol I do not like to make her mad.

  22. When use of all limbs is unlimited I usually go for two sets. Must be middle child syndrome.

  23. I will normally do 2 sets too- sometimes I force a third set but then to stave off boredom it will often be a different exercise (sigh).
    @ Diana- as I get older I find a gym full of 20 something muscley young men a plus - they improve the scenery!

  24. It's so hard with all the studies so I just do what I like.
    for me one set feels as though Im just getting started so I do more.

    and I did the same with my clients when I was a trainer.
    that said, other trainers I met who did one set ONLY were typically doing THREE SETS but seeming two warm ups.
    When they said they did one set it was one WORKING set.

    ahh, semantics.

    ye confuse me.

  25. I read something like this awhile ago and decided that I would do two sets because the study said something about 3 sets not giving a measureable benefit over 2. Nowadays if I even pick up a hand weight I feel like I've accomplished something.

  26. I do 3 sets with the weight set so that the third set is a real fight to finish. Not to the "no pain, no brain" point, but I want to be working hard for that last rep.

    I do alternate upper body/lower body daily.

  27. hmm, very very interesting study. i kind of do my own thing, personally and it's been working so why fix what ain't broke, right?

    i do three sets of the same exercise on exercises that are pretty hard for me. on the ones i actually like feeling the burn on (usually leg ones) i do a whooooole lotta reps in the bodyforlife fashion (12 on a low weight, 10 reps on medium, 8 reps on kinda hard and 6 reps on crazyhard followed by 12 on kinda hard for a total of 5 sets.) but there are some (like shoulders) that i just CAN'T do three sets of because my arms feel like they're going to fall right out of the socket like workout barbie. (even though i wish i had her arms)

    very amusing post again, crabby! i always laugh out loud whilst reading. ps. congrats on the golds approval!

  28. Hi Cranky. All of this math with percentages makes me feel like I'm taking the SAT over again! When I first started lifing weights, the trainer at my gym told me to aim for three sets of each exercise. Have kept that up, although on my more lazy-butt days the sets might be five or six reps each instead of eight to 12.

  29. Some days Crabby, I think you read my mind. All of it. (But regarding no appreciable benefit after 4 sets - that made me laugh. FOUR sets? REALLY? Oh, I know people do it. I'm just saying that for ME, it's laughable. Mostly because it seems SO BORING.)

  30. "One Set Wonder" - love it! Congratulations on the Gold's recognition; that's pretty significant!

  31. Three sets, because that's what Harley "Oracle" Pasternak told me to do in Five Factor Fitness. I think you should just go with the Michele Obama arm thing.

  32. I do three sets, when I get the chance to do any at all, but my pauses between sets are actually about thirty seconds or less, so maybe I'm doing one v e r y looong set.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  33. it depends on what I want out of the strength training I am doing. If I'm looking to get stronger in a certain direction I do heavier weights, less reps and multiple sets. If I wam looking for muscular endurance I do the whole 'do as many as I can in a minute'. If I'm rehabbing I do 1 set of as many of that exersices as I can, multiple time during the day. There's varying benefits to differnt ways of strength training. I dont think its a bad thing doing just one set to fatigue.

  34. I do what the book says! That is when I'm actually doing something... although I actually haven't started yet, so technically I'm not doing anything. How's that for slack?

  35. HAHAHA..this is a very well done post! I would have to agree with everything you say..I do 2 sets but I am no michelle,,maybe I need to bump it to 3...either that or stop eating so darn much! love your site

  36. I am the author of this paper. I would like to respond to a few of the comments made here.

    In response to "Arena Fitness" who said "We can probably chalk this one up under the heading of "Study That Will Soon be Contradicted then Validated and Contradicted Again."

    This meta-analysis is actually the 4th that has been published. All 4 of them have found multiple sets to be superior. The reason I did mine was because the methodology of the previous 3 was weak. However, with better methodology, I confirmed the results of the first 3 papers.

    In fact, the majority of studies published over the past decade favor multiple sets.

    In response to "Arena Fitness"'s comment, "that this type of research is done by people in lab coats who have never curled more than a mechanical pencil in their lives....":

    I have been passionately strength training since I was 19 years old (I am now 35). In fact, many researchers who perform this research are typically avid strength trainers.


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