How Many Sets Are Best for Muscle Growth?

Lifters do three to as many as 10 sets of an exercise. However, professional organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, have noted that most people only need to do one set of weight-training exercises to get most of the benefits. This is based on the results of more than 30 studies showing that doing more than one set provides little benefit for novice weight trainers. That’s fine if you are a novice, but if you want to pack on real muscle, do more than one set – and several research groups have challenged the rather wimpy one-set concept. Researchers have repeatedly found that if subjects work hard on all the sets, then they get more benefit from doing multiple sets. Dr. Andreas Sachlumberger and colleagues from Frankfurt, Germany found that doing three sets was superior to one set in test subjects who trained two days a week. The one-set group improved their strength by 6 percent, while the three-set group improved by 15 percent. Scientists and trainers have gained a better picture of the optimal number of sets in a workout. One set won’t do the job when it comes to producing real muscle growth. Do three sets or in some cases more, if you are an advanced trainer. One set per exercise might cut it if your goal is general fitness and you don’t have too much time. However, do more sets if you want to make significant progress. Be assured you won’t look more muscular doing only one set per exercise.

Heavy Load Versus High-Volume Training. Which is better for growth and strength – lifting heavy weights for fewer reps or sets, or high-volume training? A short article in Testosterone magazine (Issue 178) stated that doing high-volume training drives the body toward catabolism (tissue breakdown exceeds tissue buildup), as indicated by a lower testosterone-cortisol ratio (the muscle-building hormone testosterone goes down while muscle breakdown hormone cortisol goes up). The article suggested that based on this information, intensity is preferable to volume. While these are interesting observations, they may not mean anything. Be very careful about making training decisions based on hormone changes. Athletes have set many world records with low testosterone and high cortisol levels. Further, if you get extremely overtrained, your cortisol levels actually go down, not up. Base your training choices on the bottom line – which technique makes your muscles grow the most. When you enter a contest or walk down the beach, the winner is the person with the best looking body – not the one with the optimal testosterone-cortisol ratio. (J Strength Cond Res, 15: 284-289)

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