Single versus multiple sets: which is best for increasing muscle size?

/ Posted 03.26.2010

Traditional bodybuilding training involves using several exercises with multiple sets to increase muscular size and strength. The majority of successful bodybuilding champions, both past and present, trained in this manner. On the other hand, some consider the usual style of bodybuilding training gross overtraining. This group is known as the “HIT” or high intensity advocates. The guru for this type of training philosophy was Arthur Jones, the eccentric inventor of the Nautilus and Med-Ex exercise machines. According to Jones, the body has a finite level of recovery ability following exercise, and those who exceed this limited recovery ability will either make very slow gains, or infrequent gains from their training. As such, Jones often suggested that an ideal weight-training program should be brief, but intense,followed by sufficient rest between training sessions to allow the body to fully recuperate. While many top bodybuilding champions have chosen to ignore the HIT philosophy, instead preferring to do high volume, frequent training sessions, some have espoused Jones’ teachings. Those in the HIT category include the Mentzer brothers, Mike and Ray, and  multiple Mr.Olympia, Dorian Yates. Casey Viator, the youngest Mr.America winner at 19  when he won the title in 1971, also trained under Jones’ supervision for a while in Florida.

Much of what the HIT advocates say is just plain common sense. If you train to failure, as they recommend, the likelihood is high that you are indeed training any particular muscle to its maximal capabilities. Another truism in this regard is that you cannot train with a high level of intensity and a high volume simultaneously. Most bodybuilders who do large volumes of training that features a large number of sets and exercises usually pace themselves in order to allow themselves to complete what they consider the required amount of sets, reps, and exercises. One question that arises in the HIT versus traditional style of training is what the science shows. Jones himself wasn’t impressed by most exercise scientists, whom he considered morons. As you might expect, few of them ever agreed with Jones’ HIT philosophy.Over the years, numerous studies have been published in professional journals that analyzed and tested the HIT system. While a few of these did suggest that the HIT system was the most efficient and sensible way to train, the majority argued that HIT was not as efficient as traditional weight-training. Several studies have shown that training with multiple sets, rather than only one set per exercises, as is advocated by HIT groups, is superior for strength development. Other studies have shown that doing multiple sets promotes a greater release of various anabolic hormones compared to one set training. These hormones include testosterone and growth hormone. What has not been examined is the effect of one set routines compared to multiple set routines in promoting gains in muscular size.

A recent meta-analysis looked at this very question: which works better to increase muscle size: single sets or multiple sets? A meta-analysis involves looking at previous studies and coming to a conclusion based on the trends shown by past studies. The new analysis compared various set schemes, ranging from one set to six or more sets per exercise.The major finding of the analysis was that multiple sets produce a significantly greater level of muscle size gains compared to doing only a single set per exercise. This held true for both novice and more experienced subjects.There was a also a trend shown in which increased number of sets produced greater muscle gains. Thus, 4 to 6 sets per exercise produced better results compared to doing 2 to 3 sets per exercise. The effect levels off, however, when doing more than 4 sets per exercise. In other words, doing 6 sets rather than 4 won’t produce significantly better muscle gains. I doubt that all the studies analyzed included a true HIT style of training to utter failure. If that had been the case, I believe that the ideal number of sets would be no more than three. Doing one set per exercise is certainly better than nothing, but considering that most of those who think they are using a true HIT style of training are not, then the conclusions of this analysis make sense. Most bodybuilders would be better off doing multiple sets per exercise if added muscle size is their goal.

Krieger JW. Single vs.multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.J Strength Cond Res 2010: in press.

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