Can you get a maximum workout with a minimum number of sets? That has been a question in the bodybuilding circles since the 1970’s that never seems to get answered. For years a battle of information has raged about working out a muscle X number of times per week with X number of sets where X can seem to go from 1 to 3 in the first instance and 1 to 20 on the second.
You have examples on both ends of the spectrum showing volume training versus efficient maximum training methods. But where is the science to prove it?
Maybe we will never get a true answer. Part of the issue is that each person, while having basic similarity, can still do the exact same workout and have varying results. It is rather frustrating to have a workout partner and follow the exact same routine for fitness and nutrition but then they gain muscle more easily. But because different methods work for all types of people you should take the time to try different training methods to see what works best for you.
One Set Workouts
Ideally a muscle increases in size and strength from stimulation and stress. You push a muscle to its maximum capability (and beyond) which causes the reaction of muscle fibers tearing and growing back stronger and thicker. In theory this can be done in one set. Many people use multiple sets because the effort and focus it takes to get to absolute exhausting in only one set is difficult to achieve over and over.
But the added bonus of fewer sets is less time in the gym as well as less wear-and-tear on the joints and tendons.
Doing one-set workouts is very hard. You have to learn how to push yourself during that set very hard, and then push a little harder. Rest periods after the set should be longer, in the 2-3 minute range to ensure you have the focus for the next all-out attack. Also you shouldn’t exchange more exercises for less sets. If you can work your biceps to absolute exhaustion from doing preacher curls in a few sets (a warm-up and a maximum set) and a set of dumbbell curls then you are done. Adding more exercises will just result in overtraining if you have already stressed both muscle heads to the extreme.
One Set Tricks
Doing one-set to failure and beyond usually requires various “high-intensity” techniques. First you have to push yourself to complete as many full reps and partial reps as possible. But then it helps to take things just a little bit further to ensure maximum stimulation. Techniques such as:
- Drop Sets
- Assisted Reps
These should be used on pretty much every exercise. As you are only doing a brief number of actual “work” sets, there is less concern of overtraining and more concern of getting the maximum benefit out of what you are doing.
Ideally you can use any exercise for a one-set program. Personally I like to mix in a bit of variety with the basics to ensure I am hitting muscles from different angles each week. For example I might do the following chest routines:
- Incline Dumbbell Press – 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps (2 warm-up sets of moderate exertion)
- Pec Dec Fly – 1 set of 8 to 12 reps
- Dips – 1 set to failure
- Hammer Machine Flat Bench – 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps (2 warm-up sets of moderate exertion)
- Incline Dumbbell Flyes – 1 set of 8 to 12 reps
- Dumbbell Pullovers – 1 set of 8 to 12 reps
Really you can design a program any way you like with exercises. But this way I feel that I cover the entire range of the chest over two workouts. The first exercise typically has the lighter warm-up sets included for safety and injury prevention. But after that first all-out set there is not much of a reason to do warm-up sets on the following exercises. My muscles aren’t going to get any warmer.