Single Sets vs. Multiple Sets for Strength Training

Man squatting with a barbell
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To see results from your strength training sessions, you must overload the muscles with challenging enough effort to cause adaptation to occur. 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 and your current fitness level. If you're really going for strength gains, muscle endurance, and muscle growth, multiple sets have an advantage. But one-set workouts may work well for many people.

What Is Single-Set Training?

Single-set training is performing one single set of repetitions per exercise in your training session. This is opposed to multiple-set training in which you perform more than one set of reps per exercise. As an example, a single set of squats could be 1 set of 15 repetitions, where a multiple set session could be 3 sets of 12 repetitions.

The number of repetitions in your single-set is varied by how much weight you use, which body part, and your current physical fitness level. The heavier the weight you're using, the fewer repetitions you will be able to do during your single set. Conversely, you could do several repetitions with a moderate to light weight.

Some advanced lifters may perform very heavy single sets with only 2-5 repetitions to increase their maximum lift. This method could be combined with other exercises performed for multiple sets. Beginner lifters might use single-set training with multiple repetitions and light to moderate weight as a way to get used to strength training, working on form, and not overly exhausting themselves.

 The Single-Set vs. Multiple-Sets Debate

The conflicting opinions about how many sets stem from the overload principle. Research suggests that you have to push your muscles beyond their present capacity to gain strength and size. 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 exhaustion. Others equate more sets with greater muscular gains.

For experienced lifters, single-set training may still provide benefits, but not as much as multiple-set training. A 2020 study in Sports Medicine examined the effects of performing a single set of 6 to 12 high-intensity repetitions with weight loads around 70 to 85% of the participant's one-rep-maximum, 2 to 3 times per week for 8 to 12 weeks.

The researchers found that this single-set training can increase squat and bench press one-rep max strength for bench press and squat in men who resistance train, but at a suboptimal level. The study did not address deadlift strength or any other type of lift, and neglected women and highly trained strength athletes.

For older, more frail individuals, a 2015 review of the results of 25 studies in Sports Medicine found that the optimal number of sets for building strength is 2 to 3.

A 2010 meta-analysis of 72 studies examining single-set and multiple-set training results revealed that multiple-set training provides many advantages over single-set training. These advantages depend on other variables such as age, training experience, and the duration of the study. However, using single-set training was shown to be effective in the short term. The researchers concluded that for long-term progress and those looking to increase their strength, multiple sets are superior.

Authors of a 2015 study that looked at one, three, and five sets of exercises found that multiple sets were better with regard to strength gain, muscle endurance, and upper arm muscle growth.

The results of a small study of only 16 subjects over a short-term, 8 week period showed that single-set training could produce the same benefits for increasing strength in the upper body as three sets and resulted in greater fat loss. Keep in mind that this was a short study performed on few people and may not be the best representation of facts.

Another small study on 43 people in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that one set of high-intensity training is enough to improve muscle mass and strength. The research showed that over ten weeks of training, the single-set of high-intensity training provided better results than performing 3 sets of as many reps as possible.

Keep in mind that this study examined high-intensity and maximum training to failure during the sets. This type of training is not always optimal for results and might not show a complete picture of how standard single-set and multiple-set training can lead to strength and muscular gains.

Research results suggest that beginners may get solid strength and muscle gains with one-set training if they challenge their muscles with enough weight, although these effects may be short-term. People who are experienced with weight training may need more sets to see improvements. Overall, the research suggests that multiple-set training is superior to single-set training for most people.

Pros and Cons of Single-Set Training

Pros
  • May work for beginners

  • Easier to manage time-wise

  • Preserves strength

  • Exercise flexibility

Cons
  • May not work for advanced lifters

  • May not increase strength or muscle

  • Short-term effects

Pros

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 appropriate 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.

Using single sets for a couple of exercises at the beginning of your workout can preserve your strength for the rest of your training session. For instance, if you'd like to work on your squat form or increase your maximum weight lifted, performing a single-set is a wise choice while preserving your strength for further exercises performed with multiple sets.

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.

Cons

As you can see from the results of multiple studies, single-set training may not be the best choice for more experienced lifters or those who've worked past the beginner stage. Single-set training can help you learn the ropes of form and movement patterns safely but may not help you obtain your strength or muscle growth goals.

For this reason, using single-set training might be best for short-term results while getting accustomed to a new movement or weight.

Make Single-Set Training Work for You

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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