Is One Set Better Than Multiple Sets in Exercise?

How Many Sets Should You Really Do?

Man squatting with a barbell
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It's hard to believe that there's still so many controversial opinions about exercise, but when it comes to strength training there are plenty of conflicting opinions. There's the free weights vs machines controversy, and don't forget the protein issue that never seems to get resolved. And of course, there's the question of how many sets you should do to get the most results.

Some trainers recommend doing anywhere from 3 to 5 sets for maximum gain, while others say just the opposite; that one set is just as good as two. Is one set better than multiple sets in exercise? Who is right?

One Set vs Multi-Set Training

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

From this theory, we know that intensity is the key to strength gains. So the question becomes: Can you get the kind of intensity you need from one set? Some folks think 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.

If you've heard confusing advice, we wouldn't be surprised. Study results, as well as recommendations, have changed through the years. A landmark 1999 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 which concluded that trained exercisers get more strength gains out of multi-set training as opposed to one set training. These different studies suggested that beginners can get solid strength and muscle gains  with one set training, providing they are challenging their muscles with enough weight, but that people who are experienced with weight training may need more sets to improve strength and muscle gains

Fortunately, further studies have been done that add more light to this continued area of controversy. A 2009 study found that 2 to 3 sets per exercise was associated with a 46 percent greater strength gain than 1 set in both trained and untrained subject, and a 2010 study showed similarly a 40 percent greater gain in muscle hypertrophy (growth) in both trained and untrained subjects who completed multiple sets. Finally, a 2015 study showed a dose response (better the higher number of sets) when looking at 1 set, 3 sets, and 5 sets with regard to strength gain, muscle endurance, and upper arm muscle hypertrophy.

The Basics 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 regardless of fitness level. Advantages of one set training are that it's:

  • Great for beginners. Beginners will get the most out of one set training and it's the perfect way to start, learning how to do the moves with good form while avoiding overdoing it.
  • Time efficient. It takes less time to do one set of each exercise as opposed to 3 or more sets, so you can easily squeeze in a short workout, even when you're short on time.
  • A compliance enhancer. People are more likely to stick with an exercise program when they don't have to spend hours in the gym.
  • Easy to change your workouts. You can easily change your workouts by substituting new exercises when you get bored or when you body stops responding.

Making Your Workout Efficient and Effective

If you decide to go with one set training, you actually have to work a little harder to make sure you get everything out of each and every rep. Focusing on what you're doing can ensure that every second of your workout counts.

  • Make it a quality workout. Take your time during each rep and focus on the muscle that you're working.
  • Focus on the exercise.  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 8-15). 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 4 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.
  • Warm up. Get your muscles ready by doing at least 5-10 minutes of cardio or by doing light warm-up sets of each exercise.
  • Rest. Rest at least one day between strength sessions.

Bottom Line

If you're really going for strength gains, muscle endurance, and muscle hypertrophy, multiple sets have an advantage. That said, there are advantages of one set workouts for many people, and there are ways that you can make these single sets work to your advantage. Making sure your workout is efficient and effective can go along way towards getting to your fitness goal no matter the number of sets you actually complete.

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Article Sources
  • Krieger, J. Single vs Multiple Sets of Resistance Exercise for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010. 24(4):1150-9.
  • Krieger, J. Single Versus Multiple Sets of Resistance Exercise: A Meta-Regression. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009. 23(6):1890-901.
  • Radaelli, R., Fleck, S., Leite, T. et al. Dose-Response of 1, 3, and 5 Sets of Resistance Exercise on Strength, Local Muscular Endurance, and Hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2015. 29(5):1349-58.