By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 5 November 2016)
Can you make progress by doing just one set per exercise, or should you do multiple sets? To answer this question, I examined a number of individual strength training studies, as well as several meta-analyses that included hundreds of studies.
Some researchers have found no difference in gains between one-set and multiple-set strength training groups. However, others have found more significant strength gains with multiple sets. The most likely reason for these divergent findings is that some studies have focused on novice strength trainers and others on advanced athletes, and they’ve used a different training programs and intensities, as well as different methods to measure gains.
Summary of research findings: multiple-set vs. single-set strength training
Several strength-training meta-analyses have been conducted in recent years to examine the findings of hundreds of studies collectively:
- Rhea et al. (2003) found that 4 sets per muscle group 3 days a week for beginners and 2 times per week more advanced strength trainers (those who had been training for at least a year) yielded the most significant benefits, assuming that the advanced participants trained at a higher intensity (lifted heavier weights).
- Wolfe et al. (2004) found that although single sets were just as good as multiple sets for beginners, multiple sets produced better results for experienced weight lifters.
- Kreiger (2009) found that 2-3 sets produced the best results, and that adding additional sets provided no extra value.
- Frohlich et al. (2010) found that single-set training was as effective as multi-set training in the short term, but multiple sets yielded better results in the longer term.
The studies supporting multi-set training have been criticized for serious methodological flaws, so their conclusions may not be valid (for example, see Winett, 2004, Review: Resistance Training Meta-Analyses Do Not Support Performance of Multiple Sets or High Volume Resistance Training, and Fisher, 2012, Beware the Meta-Analysis: Is Multiple Set Training Really Better than Single Set Training for Muscle Hypertrophy?). Moreover, newer research has found similar gains for one set and three sets even in strength trainers with more than one year of experience (Baker, 2013), which is in keeping with the findings of a research review conducted by Carpinelli and Otto (1999) and a number of other individual studies (for example, Hass et al., 2000).
Even in the studies that have found greater gains with multiple sets, the gains for subsequent sets are far less significant and subject to the law of diminishing returns. In other words, you get the biggest effect from your first set, then much smaller effects from each additional set, dwindling down to nothing (or worse than nothing if you overtrain to the point where it interferes with your body’s ability to build and maintain muscle).
Based on the evidence, how many sets should you do?
If you’re new to strength training, research indicates that one set per exercise will be just as good as multiple sets, assuming that you lift weights heavy enough that you can’t do more than 8-12 repetitions per set.
If you’ve been training for awhile and want to build strength as quickly as possible, you should use heavier weights that you can lift fewer than 8 times and do more than one set for each exercise. Options include doing 2-4 sets of a single exercise or single sets of several different exercises targeting the same muscle group.
Research suggests that while a heavy-weight/low-rep/multiple-set approach is probably the most effective strategy for building strength, using a weight you can lift 8-12 times over the course of multiple sets is better for developing muscle size. If you want both, incorporate both strategies into your workouts.
If you choose to do multiple sets, you may have to do split routines whereby you work different muscle groups on different days to avoid having overly long workout sessions.
Effective strength training exercises for each muscle group
There are a number of exercises for each muscle group that get results:
- Chest: bench press, push-up
- Back: pull-up, pull-down, row, chin-up, shrug
- Shoulders: lateral raise, shoulder press
- Triceps: tricep dip, overhead extension, close grip (triangle) push-up, tricep kickback
- Biceps, forearms: curl, chin-up
- Core: crunch, plank, Russian twist, leg raise, dead lift
- Glutes: squat, lunge, donkey kick, step-up, dead lift
- Upper leg muscles: squat, lunge, leg extension, leg curl, leg press, dead lift, donkey kick
- Lower leg muscles: calf raise, calf press
There are many different ways to do all of these exercises that make them more or less challenging or focus on particular muscles within each group. For a full list, as well as descriptions and video instructions, see the ExRx.net Exercise & Muscle Directory.
As for exercise order, do exercises targeting larger muscles first and then move on to those targeting smaller muscles. This means starting with back, chest, and leg exercises, and then doing exercises targeting the biceps, triceps, and shoulders. Otherwise you’ll fatigue the smaller muscles you need to support exercises targeting the larger ones.
How many sets over the course of an entire strength training workout?
As for total sets per workout, the University of Colorado Hospital recommends doing no more than 20 to avoid overtraining (this would cap workouts at approximately 40 to 60 minutes, depending on how fast you do the exercises and how long you rest in between sets). Professional bodybuilders who are aiming for extreme hypertrophy (massive size) often do more, but 20 per workout is a good upper limit for developing larger muscles and building strength and functional fitness if you’re not planning to enter bodybuilding competitions.
- American College of Sports Medicine. (2013). Resistance Training for Health and Fitness [PDF]. ACSM.org.
- Baker, J. S., Davies, B., Cooper, S. M., Wong, D. P., Buchan, D. S., & Kilgore, L. (2013). Strength and body composition changes in recreationally strength-trained individuals: comparison of one versus three sets resistance-training programmes. BioMedical Research International.
- Carpinelli, R. N., & Otto, R. M. (1999). Strength training: Single versus multiple sets-The authors’ reply. Sports Medicine, 27(6), 412-416.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2014). Cardio vs. Resistance Training: Which Is Healthier? Health.ClevelandClinic.org.
- Fisher, J. (2012). Beware the meta-analysis: is multiple set training really better than single set training for muscle hypertrophy. Journal of Exercise Physiology, 15(6), 23-30.
- Fröhlich, M., Emrich, E., & Schmidtbleicher, D. (2010). Outcome effects of single-set versus multiple-set training—an advanced replication study. Research in Sports Medicine, 18(3), 157-175.
- Hass, C. J., Garzarella, L., De Hoyos, D., & Pollock, M. L. (2000). Single versus multiple sets in long-term recreational weightlifters. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(1), 235-242.
- Krieger, J. W. (2009). Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(6), 1890-1901.
- Laskowski, E.R . (2015). What’s better for strength training – one set or multiple sets? The Mayo Clinic.
- Rhea, M. R., Alvar, B. A., Burkett, L. N., & Ball, S. D. (2003). A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(3), 456-464.
- University of Colorado Hospital, Denver. (2004). CU Sports Medicine: Strength Training Tips [PDF]. UCDenver.edu.
- Winett, R. A. (2004). Review: Resistance Training Meta-Analyses Do Not Support Performance of Multiple Sets or High Volume Resistance Training. Official Journal of The American
Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP), 7(5).
- Wolfe, B. L., Lemura, L. M., & Cole, P. J. (2004). Quantitative analysis of single-vs. multiple-set programs in resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(1), 35-47.