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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

One Set Or Many Sets?

How many sets? That's probably the most hotly debated question in bodybuilding today. High-set advocates say "more is better," while the one-set-to-failure crowd proclaim "less is more." Who's right? Does either camp have science on it's side? Could both be correct?

Whether or not we like to admit it, there's still a lot we don't know about the precise mechanism by which muscles adapt and grow. New York Giants strength and conditioning coach John Dunn summarized what we know for sure in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. "In weight training, there's only one scientific fact: progressive overloads build muscle," Dunn said. "That simply means whatever you do today, if you do more tomorrow you're going to get bigger and stronger." Beyond that we're operating largely on the basis of trial and error.

Much of our "knowledge" has come from observing competitive bodybuilders. Bill Pearl and Arnold Schwarzenegger, recognized by most as the best of their time, were volume bodybuilders. They did up to 20 or 25 sets per muscle group, and that's probably how most bodybuilders still train.

But we now have a new group of bodybuilding champions who have developed even more massive physiques using a different approach: low-volume and very high intensity. These bodybuilders do only a few very hard sets for each body part. One example is Swiss bodybuilding star Jean-Pierre Fux (pronounced "Fooks," as in "looks"), who is 6' 1/2" and weighs 270 pounds in ripped condition. (See photo of Fux below.)"I use very short workout sessions - just a few sets with as high intensity as possible" Fux told IronMan magazine (March 1997). Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, Arnold's successor, belongs to the new low-volume, high intensity school.


Fux trains using low-sets and high-intensity.

What about research? Has science settled the volume versus intensity dispute? Dr. Ralph N. Carpinelli, who teaches the neuromuscular aspects of strength training in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Human Performance at Adelphi University, says the issue remains unsettled. An extensive review of the scientific literature by Carpinelli and R. M. Otto "showed that 24 out of 25 strength training studies reported that there was no significant difference in the magnitude of muscular strength or hypertrophy (when it was measured) between training with single versus multiple sets." Says Carpinelli, "There is no evidence that a greater volume of exercise will elicit a greater response." (Master Trainer, December 1997)

In the same issue of Master Trainer, Dr. Carpinelli gave the results of a study comparing muscle fiber enlargement in bodybuilders, who generally do many sets with short rest periods, and competitive weightlifters and powerlifters, who generally do high-intensity, low-volume training with long rest periods. Surprisingly - at least to some - no significant difference in the size of muscle fibers in the two groups was found.

The volume versus intensity debate has also found its way into team sports. Countering the assertion that the vast majority of athletes use multiple sets, high-intensity guru Mike Mentzer, in the November 1998 All Natural Muscular Development, reeled off a list of elite teams which use the "less is more" high-intensity training approach. In football, the list included nine NFL teams and six college teams that went to bowl games; in basketball, NCAA champion Kentucky and the United States Women's team that won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics; championship teams in hockey and volleyball rounded out the list. Mentzer credited Matt Brzycki, high-intensity strength coach at Princeton, as the compiler of teams using high-intensity training to enhance athletic ability.

While I can't vouch for the Mentzer/Brzycki list, at minimum it indicates that the how-many-sets controversy continues to rage in collegiate and professional athletic circles. Clearly, the debate remains unsettled across a broad front. Bodybuilders, exercise physiologists and strength coaches are still duking it out.

I am forced to conclude, based on current knowledge and experience, that both training approaches work. Until the issue is settled - it may never be conclusively resolved - each person must decide for him or her self what makes sense. For many, it may boil down to personal preference.

Ask yourself: Do you enjoy spending several hours in the gym four to six days a week or would you prefer shorter sessions which are more intense and less frequent?

It's not a matter of which approach is easier. Done properly, both types of training are brutally hard. It's more whether you like doing set after set with short rest intervals - many people love the pumped feeling - or do you prefer a quick warmup and one all-out work set. The latter approach has always appealed to me. I groove on really drilling a set, and then moving on to the next exercise. I don't enjoy doing the same exercise over and over. I also prefer to use my time as efficiently as possible. I've never wanted to spend my life in the gym.

Keep in mind that this is not necessarily an either/or proposition. Variety is the spice of life, and the same holds true for bodybuilding. Volume and intensity affect the muscle cells differently - I cover this in detail in the new book I'm working on now - and some combination of the two approaches may be a viable solution.

Is there a moral here? Yes, I think so. Perhaps it's that bodybuilding is a work in progress. At this juncture at least, there are few absolutes. It pays to critically evaluate everything you read or hear. Don't blindly copy anyone's training regimen, including mine.

As I wrote in Ripped 2: "There's bodybuilding wisdom in the maxim: Surely the quickest path to disillusionment is the one blazed by someone else." Every bodybuilder is conducting an experiment of one. (I like the idea of an individual sport where you sink or swim on your own.) We all have different backgrounds, needs, goals and abilities. There is no one "best way" for everyone. Try different approaches and see which one suits you best.

Ripped Enterprises, 528 Chama, N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108, Phone (505) 266-5858, FAX: 266-9123, e-mail: cncbass@aol.com.  Office hours:  Monday-Friday, 8-5, Mountain time.

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