Ask 10 people in the gym how many sets are ideal to perform for each exercise, and I would bet almost everyone will tell you that 3 sets are ideal. But are three sets really necessary?
For millions of years in our ancestral past, humans would sprint with ferocious intensity while hunting. In this all-or-nothing scenario, a successful hunt meant the difference between life and death, so they “gave it all they got” in a single burst of extreme intensity.
Now, I’m well aware that just because human ancestors worked out or ate a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean that these ways were ideal for us today, or even back then. However, recent scientific evidence suggests that when it comes to hitting the gym and working out, treating your workouts as if your very survival depends on you completing that set as hard as you possibly can in a single set – similar to our ancestors would’ve done during a hunt – might be as effective as three sets.
In this article, I’m going to make the case, using scientific evidence, that one set of high intensity strength training per exercise, might be as effective as three.
One Exercise Set As Effective as Three
Here are a number of studies suggesting a single set of exercise may be as effective as three.
1. In a study conducted in 1997, recreational weight lifters were compared in various set schemes tested. After reviewing the results of the one, two, and four-set experiment, their conclusion was that there is no additional benefit to doing more than a single set per exercise in improving muscular size, strength, and upper-body power.
2. Physiologists R. N. Carpinelli and R.M. Otto conducted a study that looked at all the known scientific literature regarding single-set versus multiple-set resistance training. What they found was that performing multiple sets brought absolutely no additional benefit or increase in results compared to single-set training. In an overwhelming defeat, only two out of forty-seven studies surveyed showed any benefit (and a marginal benefit at that) to be had for the performance of multiple sets.
3. In another study, researchers examined seventy-seven subjects who performed, one, two and three sets of upper-body exercise over 10 weeks and found that all three groups made similar improvements in upper-body strength.(1)
4. The next study compared the strength gains of 38 subjects performing either one or three sets of lower-body exercise over fourteen weeks. Researchers found that very similar improvements were made in lower-body strength, with an increase in knee extension strength of roughly 15 percent.(2)
5. Published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, this study found that one set of high-intensity resistance exercise was just as effective as three sets for increasing knee extension and knee flexion as well as muscle thickness in previously untrained adults.
“The bottom line is that a single set take to a point of positive failure is a sufficient stimulus to trigger the growth and strength mechanism of the body into motion. Additional sets produce nothing but more time spent in the gym.”
– Dr. Doug McGuff, Body by Science
Studies Cited but not linked:
(1). W. Wescott, K. Greenberger, and D. Milius, “Strength Training Research: Sets and Repetitions,” Scholastic Coach 58(1989): 98-100
(2). D. Starkey, M. Welsch, and M. Pollock, “Equivalent Improvement in Strength Following High Intensity, Low and High Volume Training,”
– Body by Science by Doug McGuff, M.D. and John Little