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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

New Evidence On Sets Controversy

The ink was barely dry on last month's "One Set Or Many?" article when thought provoking comments across the spectrum began to arrive. What's more, newly released research answers the two main criticisms of studies showing no significant difference in strength or size gains as a result of doing one set compared to multiple sets.

One man scoffed that the "one-set-to failure" theory was devised by Arthur Jones to sell his expensive Nautilus machines to gym owners who had to have a high turnover of members to make any money. "[They] could not have someone using a $2000 pullover machine for 5 sets of 10 reps," he contends. According to this man, "The bottom line ... rationale for short workouts was $$$$$."

From the other side, a fellow wrote that abbreviated workouts have been "especially helpful" to him, because they "allow time for other pursuits while sacrificing nothing in effectiveness."

A third man, obviously a skeptic, complained: "The one set wonders don't think to mention their warm-up sets."

The same man recommended that I read Arthur Drechsler's discussion of the sets controversy in The Weightlifting Encyclopedia (see our Products section under Recommended Books). I did. Artie makes some sophisticated points that we all would be well advised to keep in mind.

Drechsler observes that whether one set or multiple sets are optimal often depends on what you're trying to accomplish. For instance, if you are training for an event that requires repeated bouts of effort, multiple sets may be indicated.

Another approach, however, would be to rely on sports specific training - and not weights - to develop endurance. If you're training for football, wind sprints or scrimmaging is probably the best way to develop the stamina to play hard in the fourth quarter. Remember that specificity is the guiding principle in all athletic training.

Artie Drechsler also reminds us that individual differences come into play. "...Some athletes may benefit from a greater training stimulus [more sets] that other athletes," says Drechsler.

I agree. Another e-mail made essentially the same point. It read: "Maybe [the fact that] Bill Pearl and Arnold Schwarznegger could do more volume and continue to get stronger and bigger is [the reason] why they left most of the rest in the dust."

Drechsler goes on: "Obviously there is a point where more training does not increase the training stimulus." Right, and that may be one all-out set for some and 3 or 4 work sets for others. "Know thyself," as the Oracles preached.

The number of reps in a set also has a bearing on the appropriate number of sets. Artie explains: "Since weightlifters need to perform relatively low reps in training (and especially in competition) they will typically need to employ more set to achieve their ends than someone who is performing five, ten, or twenty reps in a set." Explaining further, Drechsler says, "There is now scientific evidence that more muscle fibers are activated on a maximum set of five reps than on a maximum single. From this it follows that a maximum set of high reps is more likely to stimulate a maximal training effect than a maximum single."

Right again. I've often said, if you want to do a second maximum set of 20 reps in the squat, there's something wrong. You either didn't go hard enough in the first set, or you're nuts.

New Studies Answer Critics

Artie Drechsler's points may help to explain why research on the set question is inconclusive. As my earlier article said, a review of literature by Carpinelli and Otto found that 33 out of 35 strength-training studies showed no significant difference in strength or size gains as a result of doing one set or multiple sets. (Sports Medicine. 25(7): 1998) The two main criticisms of these studies, according to Dr. Carpinelli, are that they were too short, and that the participants were often untrained. The suggestion is that seasoned trainers might benefit from doing more sets.

Dr. Carpinelli now reports in the October 1998 Master Trainer that those "valid criticisms" are addressed in a series of studies by Michael Pollock, M.D., and his colleagues at the University of Florida, and another research group.

Five studies by Dr. Pollock's group were presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. Four of them address the duration issue; they extend for six months compared to only six to 12 weeks in the earlier studies.

Two of the studies (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Supplement 30(5); 116 & 165, 1998) examine strength and size increases as a result of one set or three sets of 8-12 repetitions to muscular failure three days a week. Strength was assessed for both one rep max and reps at 75% of pretraining max, in the bench press, row, arm curl, leg extension and leg curl. Muscle thickness increases were measured by ultrasound in eight locations covering the upper and lower body.

The researchers found almost identical increases in upper and lower body thickness for both the one-set (13.6%) and three-set (13.12%) groups. Increases in one rep maximum were also essentially the same, for all five exercises, but the principle of specificity asserted itself on one exercise when it came to maximum reps or endurance. Both groups showed significant across-the- board increases in endurance, but the 3-set group showed significantly greater improvement in the bench press. At 25 weeks, the one-set group averaged 22 reps in the bench press compared to 27 for those doing 3-sets.

The third 6-month study by the Pollock group (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Supplement 30(5): S163, 1998) focused on increases in knee-extension strength in three different modes: one-rep max, isometric peak torque and training weight. Again, there was no significant difference between the one-set and three-set groups. One-rep max increased 33.3% and 31.6% for 1 set and 3 sets, respectively; isometric increases were 35.4% versus 32.1%; and training weight increases were 25.6% compared to 14.7%

Even though the researchers apparently didn't find it significant, note that the one-set group gained slightly more strength in the first two modes and substantially more in training weight (25.6% versus 14.7%). It seems to me that specificity is at work again. When you do only one set there's nothing to keep you from doing your absolute best; but when you plan to do three sets it's natural to hold back and pace yourself. I believe that's probably why the one-set group gained more strength. They triggered more muscle fibers than the 3-set group, where pacing probably reduced intensity somewhat.

The fourth study by the Pollock group (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Supplement 30(5): S274, 1998), also 6 months long, showed significant increases in circulating insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) in both one-set (34%) and three-set (30%) groups. Dr. Carpinelli, who teaches the neuromuscular aspects of strength training at Adelphi University (Long Island, New York), says, "IGFs are multifunctional protein hormones, whose production in the liver and other tissues is stimulated by growth hormones." They are important because, "They stimulate glucose and amino acid uptake, protein and DNA synthesis, and growth of bones, cartilage, and soft tissue."

The researchers concluded: "The elevation of IGFs is no greater with high- than low-volume resistance training." That's noteworthy, because it's generally believed that high-set training results in more growth hormone secretion. (See Growth Hormone Synergism by Douglas M. Crist, Ph.D., 2nd Edition, 1991.  
 (Unfortunately this book is no longer in print.)

The final study by the Pollock group (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Supplement 30(5): S115, 1998) addresses the training experience issue. As you'll recall, some have suggested that experienced trainers might benefit from higher volume. In other words, after you've been training for a while, you need increased volume to continue progressing - more is better. According to this study, those people should think anew.

The researchers recruited 40 adults who had been performing one set to muscular fatigue, using nine exercises, for a minimum of one year; average training time was six years. The participants were randomly assigned to either a one-set or three-set group; both groups did 8-12 reps to failure three days per week for 13 weeks.

Both groups significantly increased their one-rep maximum strength and endurance. There was no significant difference in the gains made by the two groups in the leg extension, leg curl, bench press, overhead press and arm curl. The researchers concluded: "These data indicate that 1 set of [resistance training] is equally as beneficial as 3 sets in experienced resistance trained adults."

Another research group, K.L. Ostrowski and colleagues, tested "the effect of weight training volume on hormonal output and muscular size and function" in experienced trainers. (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 11(3): 148-154, 1997) Thirty-five males, with one to four years weight-training experience, were assigned to one of three training groups: one-set, two-sets, or four sets. All participants did what I would call a periodized routine; they changed the rep range every few weeks. They did free-weight exercises four times a week for ten weeks using 12 reps maximum (week 1-4), 7 reps max (week 5-7) and 9 reps (week 8-10). All sets were performed to muscular fatigue with three minutes rest between sets. The only difference between the three programs was the number of sets.

As in the Pollock group studies, no significant differences in results were found. The authors concluded: "...A low volume program ... [one set of each exercise] ... results in increases in muscle size and function similar to programs with two to four times as much volume."

Significantly, regarding hormone output, they concluded: "High volume [four sets of each exercise] may result in a shift in the testosterone/cortisol (anabolic/catabolic) ratio in some individuals, suggesting the possibility of overtraining." In other words, high-volume training not only doesn't produce better results, it may also lead to overtraining.

The Bottom Line

After considering this new evidence, Dr. Ralph Carpinelli sums-up: "The lack of scientific evidence that multiple sets...produce a greater increase in strength or size, in itself, provides a rationale for following a single set training protocol."

That seems to be where we are today based on the latest peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Unless you're training to accomplish a task that must be repeated over and over, there appears to be no good reason for most people to spend hours in the gym doing set after set. Volume training works, as my last article concluded, but in most cases the strength and size gains are no better than result from warming-up and performing one hard set.

The choice is yours.

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