If you are an avid reader of exercise research and information, then you have probably heard of
the single set vs. multi set controversy. If you haven’t heard of this controversy, then you
might find some eye opening information within this article. The debate centers on the
question “Can a single set of a weight lifting exercise provide the same or more overall
benefits as performing multiple sets”. In our time-strapped world, this is an obvious topic of
importance. However, research to date has wavered between each side of the argument.
Since the rise of weight-lifting’s popularity through the 1980’s and 90’s, performing multiple
sets of an exercise has been the standard way to work out. Typically, those looking for strength
and/or muscle building benefits would perform anywhere from 2-6 sets for a given body part.
Many “hardcore bodybuilders” like to take this a step farther, performing anywhere from 5 or more
sets per exercise, and 3-5 exercises per body part. These bodybuilders would definitely
subscribe to the “more is better” philosophy of working out.
Recently, these methods have been challenged. Those that back the single set approach believe
that taking the muscle to complete failure is the stimulus for muscle growth and strength, so
performing any more than one set to failure would be counterproductive. If this theory were
true, there would be no point to doing more sets.
Backers of the multi set theory disagree. They believe that more sets cause more testosterone
and growth hormone release, more glycogen and creatine storage, and a better neurological
response (these are all seen as positive factors for increasing muscle size and strength). Now
if either group could back up these theories with scientific research, the question would be
Even within scientifically controlled studies, there is still much room for debate. Some
studies help back the single set theory, while others help back the multi set theory. A recent
study performed at Appalachian State University took untrained women and split them into 2
groups. One group performed one set of circuit exercises for 8-12 repetitions. The other group
performed 2-4 sets with varying repetitions and intensities. The results of the study showed
that both groups made similar improvements in muscular strength after 12 weeks. However, only
the multi set group made significant improvements for muscular power and speed after
12 weeks and 24 weeks. Testosterone increases were also only significant after 24 weeks of
training in the multi set group.
Conversely, a study done by the Center for Exercise Science at the University of Florida
gave more credence to the single set theory. In this study, the subjects used were males who had
been training for at least one year, as opposed to untrained females in the previous study. The
groups performed one set to failure or three sets to failure for different body parts, three
times per week. After 13 weeks both groups showed significant improvements for muscle
endurance, body composition, and one repetition strength. There were also no significant
differences between the two groups for any measure. The only problem with this study is
that most people who use multi sets don’t perform all their sets until failure, so over-
training could have prevented the multi set group from making significant improvements over
the one set group.
There are many more similar studies that have been done on this topic. Some show that the
multi set method is more beneficial; others show that single sets can be just as effective. I
have tried both methods in my own training, as well as on my personal training clients.
Although I was able to maintain and even build strength on the one set method, it became very
hard both physically and mentally to continue training with very heavy weights to failure
every workout. I found old injuries starting to creep up from the strain on my ligaments and
joints. As a trainer, I did not feel comfortable having clients train to absolute
failure without at least performing two to three lower intensity sets beforehand in order to
decrease risk of injury. This becomes a catch 22 since you are no longer performing a single
After weighing all the evidence, I have to give multi set training the nod. There is just too
much real world and scientific evidence to argue the other way. Even many studies that are used
to support the single set method show slight increases in strength and muscle mass for the
multi set group. However, you are not limited to only one training method. The best way to
find out which method works best is to try both out for your self. One set training can be a
welcome addition if you are limited by time, burned out from multiple set training, or just
looking to try something new.
- Name: Cory Davidson, B.S. in Exercise Science
- Date: 05/27/02 at 21:32
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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