Is One Set Better Than Multiple Sets in a Workout?

Man squatting with a barbell
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Some trainers recommend doing anywhere from three to five strength-training sets for maximum muscle gain, while others say that one set per exercise is just as good as two or more. The right answer depends on you and your goals. If you're really going for strength gains, muscle endurance, and muscle growth, multiple sets have an advantage. But one-set workouts work well for many people.

One-Set vs Multi-Set Training

The conflicting opinions about how many sets stems from the overload principle. Research suggests that, in order to gain strength and size, you have to push your muscles beyond their present capacity.

Some experts argue that it doesn't matter if you fatigue your muscles in one set or several sets, as long as your muscles experience a sufficient level of exhaustion. Others equate more sets with greater gains.

Study results, as well as recommendations, have changed through the years. A landmark 1998 study found that there was no significant difference in strength or muscle mass as a result of single versus multiple sets. This was followed by a 2002 study that concluded that trained exercisers get more strength gains out of multi-set training.

These research results suggest that beginners can get solid strength and muscle gains with one-set training if they are challenging their muscles with enough weight. People who are experienced with weight training may need more sets to see improvements.

Further studies have added more light to this area of controversy. A 2009 study found that two to three sets per exercise were associated with a 46 percent greater strength gain than one set in both trained and untrained subjects. A 2010 study showed a similar gain in muscle growth in trained and untrained subjects who completed multiple sets. Finally, a 2015 study looked at one, three, and five sets of exercises and found that multiple sets were better with regard to strength gain, muscle endurance, and upper arm muscle growth.

Advantages of One-Set Training

While multiple sets may result in the greatest gains in strength, one-set training can still be a good choice for many people. One-set training works for beginners because it's a good way to start learning how to do exercises with good form while avoiding overdoing it.

It's also good for people who don't have a lot of time for exercise. It takes less time to do one set of each exercise as opposed to three or more sets, so you can more easily squeeze in a workout. You are more likely to keep up with an exercise program when you don't have to spend hours at the gym. Plus, not repeating an exercise over and over can help decrease boredom.

Another advantage of one-set training is flexibility. You can easily change your workouts by substituting new exercises when you get tired of the old ones or when your body stops responding.

One-set training is:

  • Great for beginners
  • Faster
  • Easier to stick with
  • Flexible

Making Your One-Set Workout Effective

If you decide to go with one-set training, you do have to work a little harder to make sure you get the most out of each and every rep.

  • Warm up: Get your muscles ready by doing at least five to 10 minutes of cardio or by doing light warm-up sets of each exercise.
  • Stay focused: Take your time during each rep and focus on the muscle that you're working. Do every single repetition with perfect form: No jerking, bouncing, slumping, or cheating.
  • Use heavy weights: To fatigue your muscles, you should be lifting enough weight that you can only complete the desired number of repetitions (somewhere between eight and 15). If at the end of your set you can keep going, that's a sign that you need to increase your weight.
  • Go slowly: Using momentum means that you're not recruiting all of your muscle fibers. For each repetition, count to four during the lifting and lowering phase of the movement.
  • Think maximal effort: Remember, you're only doing one set, so go all out while staying within your own limitations and capabilities.
  • Rest: Rest at least one day between strength sessions.
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Article Sources

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