Strength Training: How Many Sets? How Many Repetitions?

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Image Courtesy of Stockimages, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How many strength training sets should I do?

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.

Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image Courtesy of Patrisyu, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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 should I do 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.

How many repetitions should I do for each set?

Image Courtesy of Stock Photo, FreeDigitalPhoto.net
Image Courtesy of Stock Photo, FreeDigitalPhoto.net

The ideal number of repetitions depends on your body type and strength training goals.

Most reliable sources say that beginner strength training goals can be achieved with 8-12 repetitions per set (if you can’t manage 8, try a lower weight, and if 12 is too easy, increase the weight). Research also indicates that one set per exercise or muscle group is sufficient for beginners.

If you’ve been training for awhile and want to accelerate your progress, you should lift heavier weights with fewer repetitions and do 2-4 sets per exercise

OR

alternate between weights you can lift 8-12 times (better for increasing muscle size) and those you can only lift for 4-8 repetitions (better for developing muscle strength), either within the same workout or on different days.

If your priority is developing muscular endurance rather than strength, choose a weight you can lift 20 times and take shorter rests between sets (fewer than 90 seconds).

Strength training strategies should be customized for your body type

Keep in mind that bodies respond differently to strength training routines based on a number of variables including genetics and diet. One factor that has a major influence on how your body responds is your balance of Type 1 and Type 2 muscle fibers:

    • Type 1 muscle fibers, also known as slow-twitch, have less power but more endurance (great for activities such as long-distance running or cycling).
    • Type 2 muscle fibers, or fast-twitch, fatigue more easily but can produce more power (better for activities that require brief, explosive movements, such as sprinting and power lifting).

Low-rep sets (8 or fewer) with heavier weights encourage growth of Type 2 muscle, while higher-rep sets (12 or more) with lighter weights encourage growth of Type 1 muscle. Strength gains in both types of muscle are achieved in the 8-10 rep range, though heavier-weight/lower-rep sets are better for building Type 2 muscle, while lower-weight/higher-rep sets are more effective for building Type 1 muscle.

It will be easier to get big if you have more Type 2 muscle than Type 1 – just do high-weight/low-rep sets. If you’re having trouble bulking up but you have great stamina for endurance sports, you probably have more Type 1 muscle, so you may get better results with a lower-weight/higher-rep strategy. If you go with this option, take shorter rests between sets.

Will women bulk up if they use a high-weight, low-rep strategy?

Most men using the high-weight, low-rep, multiple-set approach not only gain strength, but also bulk up to varying degrees (genetics and diet also play a role in this). However, although women using this approach will also build strength rapidly, they won’t typically bulk up unless they take steroids or have unusual high testosterone levels.

Women have some testosterone, but far less than men, so it’s very difficult for them to gain size. Female strength trainers usually just lose fat and replace it with lean muscle. Muscle weighs more than fat, so their weight may stay the same or even increase as they lose inches and develop a more toned and streamlined appearance.

For answers to more questions about strength training, general fitness, and health, see the main Mind-Body Health page.

References:

    • 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.
    • Hutchinson, A., PhD. (2011). Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise.  HarperCollins.
    • 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.
    • National Strength and Conditioning Association. (2014). Foundations of Fitness Programming [PDF]. NSCA.com.
    • Penney, S., MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, FNS. (2015). Fast-twitch, slow-twitch: what’s the difference and does it matter? National Academy of Sports Medicine. Blog.nasm.org.
    • 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.
    • Westcott, W., PhD. (n.d.). How many repetitions? Healthy.net.
    • 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.