It’s 5pm Monday, and you rock into the gym ready to join the legion of disciples for “International Chest Day’! As you approach your favourite bench, you realise it’s occupied…
“Hey mate, do you have many sets to go”?
“Yeah, just 1…”
Which in most instances, never actually means one!
So, is there a best number of sets that you should perform, per exercise to maximise the results from your training? I believe there is, but today I am going to take this a little left-field and put the power back into your own hands.
There are way too many trainers and gym rats these days quoting ‘the science’, and for every “research study” that sides with one argument, there will be another that refutes it.
And for every athlete or social media “identity” promoting one particular type of program, there will be another promoting the polar-opposite, and producing similar results.
So who is right?
I believe your goal (what you are training for) and your application (how you are training) are going to greatly influence the benefits of single versus multiple sets per exercise training.
It really boils down to how you do it, and what you are doing it for!
Let’s have a closer look
Multiple sets: 3 plus per exercise
Now, I don’t know if these recommendations were carved on stone tablets and trekked down from Mount Sinai, but the general 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions is pretty much at the top of the commandments of bodybuilding.
I am not 100% sure who came up with this concept, if it was one of the original Weider training principles, but I remember first seeing it 20 odd years ago…and it’s still popular today.
And do I believe it to be effective? Sure, it can be quite effective for a novice lifter (and for competitive athletes too, but that is a whole new article).
I do say novice, because in the initial stages of your training career, simply learning the movement via repetition is going to improve your training ability and performance. Plus, as a novice lifter, you are somewhat unable to generate the all-out focus and intensity of a seasoned gym member when it comes to mental focus as well.
This isn’t to say that you are not training hard; far from it.
But being able to train with 100% all out intensity, where you are able to zero in your concentration to the task at hand and into the working set, taking it to the utmost limit truly is a learned skill that takes time to master.
As such, with that initial inability to generate all out focused effort (it will come), gives you the availability and ‘desire’ to do a few more sets.
What do I mean by ‘desire’, aren’t we talking about training performance? Yes, and I will cover that more in a little bit.
Dual sets: 2 sets per exercise
As your ability to train hard improves, your ability to train long decreases!
I am sure that we would all agree on this; you can train hard or you can train long, you just cannot do both in the same session.
And as we all like to do a variety of exercises per body part matched with a limited total capacity per workout, an easy solution is to start reducing sets per exercise.
3 now becomes 2.
If I had a preferred set number myself per exercise, I admit 2 would be it.
For me, I like the initial challenge with my first set of trying to better my previous best performance from the week before. I am aiming to establish a new standard.
And then, I get the immediate chance to re-establish that new standard by beating it with my second set. After that, I am done and it’s time to move on.
From personal experience, I have found with multiple sets (3 and above) one of those sets I will coast. What I mean is, I might go hard on set 1, go a little less on set 2 (subconsciously saving myself) and then go all out again on set 3.
That leaves me to question; what is the purpose of set 2? Would I not just be better off to drop my working sets down to 2? And that is what I routinely do.
Single sets per exercise
Do single sets ever present an effective option? Heck yes!
Before, I mentioned ‘desire’. With your training, desire can have a dual application.
Example - have you ever been in the position when you have multiple sets per exercise coming up, and you embrace that first set, hit your intensity threshold and the ‘desire’ to do anymore is simply lost?
Example - As the sled comes crashing back down on the leg press after demolishing your previous personal best, you are left gasping for air, seeing stars and think to yourself, “what… I need to do that again in 5 minutes?”
When you have that thought, it is very hard to re-group and re-focus for follow-up sets of the same exercise with the same level of INTENSITY.
When it hurts that much (sure, a good hurt… but it still hurts), and you know more hurt is coming up, it can be hard to embrace; physically, mentally or both.
On the flip side, if you know that you only have 1 set to perform and this is your only chance all week on this particular exercise to stimulate growth, you don’t tend to waste it.
You go for the extra rep and give it your absolute all.
So in this instance, performing a single set per exercise can offer a number of mental, as well as physical advantages.
Plus, if you are sticking to the same overall volume per workout (let’s say 8 total working sets), this also enables you to perform an additional number of exercises: winning!
- Workout A – 2 working sets per exercise, 4 exercises for a total of 8 working sets, compared to
- Workout B – 1 working set per exercise, 8 exercises for a total of 8 working sets
Same volume, but the challenge is much different!
So, in summary, I don’t think one way is necessarily better than the other, just different to be used in different situations.
Different applications of training are suited to different goals and abilities.
And don’t be afraid to mix it up!
You might go into the gym planning on smashing multiple sets on the bench, but if you are fried after 1, I think it’s potentially more beneficial to adjust things on the spot, mix them up and move to your next exercise and attack that!