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Single vs. Multiple Sets: The Strength Debate

If you’ve been keeping even a distant eye on the strength training community, you’ve likely come across discussions on the issue of single vs. multiple sets.

Single set training, a variation of which is referred to as HIT (High Intensity Training), is characterized by maximal efforts performed in one set. Multiple set training, also termed “volume training,” is lifting which involves multiple sets of usually sub-maximal efforts.

For the casual observer and the less seasoned lifter, the question might simply be “How many sets are optimal for strength gains?

Now obviously there are many permutations of each method which complicates things from a “which one’s better” perspective. Compound that with differing needs, goals and a near-infinite amount of periodization methods, and you have a recipe for a complicated discussion.

Thankfully, there are people out there who are way smarter than I to navigate through the subject, look at the data through a fine-toothed comb, and come up with some conclusions.

In this case that individual is James Kreiger, M.S., whose findings are published in the October 2009 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.  Here are some snippets of his findings.

The issue with previous meta-analyses (compilation of studies) on the subject is, that many of the studies included did not control diligently enough for variables.

This analysis only included studies that met very strict criteria – most notably those studies that compared only single vs. multiple sets, whilst keeping other variables constant.

When things were whittled down, 14 studies with 30 treatment arms made the cut. Here is what the data revealed:

–  The 2-3 set groups experienced 46% greater strength gains than the 1 set groups.

–  These strength gains were attained in both trained and untrained individuals (which contradicts previous research).

–  No further benefits were observed beyond 3 sets – although the author was cautious here noting that there were very few well controlled studies that looked at 4+ sets.

Practical Application

–  When training to get stronger, strive for 3 sets.

–  The author notes that single sets can improve strength and save time, but may not be optimal for improvement.

–  What about performing a single set of 3 different exercises for the same muscle group? According to Krieger, his analysis did not show a significant effect. He notes that if you want to improve a certain lift, you are most likely to improve by performing more sets of that exercise.

Final Thoughts

Any strength training effort is beneficial. In the end you have to look at what you are trying to accomplish. This analysis makes a very compelling case for using multiple sets vs. a single set for optimal strength gains. And presumably if you are lifting weights, strength gains are a good thing!

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