I hear it often: "When I work with weights, how many sets should I do?" And my answer usually surprises: "It depends." It depends on your fitness status, objectives, body type and how much time you have.
In one of my previous columns I said that strength training keeps you younger. So this type of training is very important to your health. Unfortunately, too many people skip it because of lack of time. So there's a need to make resistance training more time efficient. But how much is enough?
In case you're wondering, this article is about time efficiency. It's about helping you get the maximum out of your workouts. The objective is not to turn you into a bodybuilder or a world-class powerlifter. It's about regular people who want to improve their overall strength and live healthy lives. If that fits you, read on.
So here's the debate. If you want to improve your strength and build some lean tissue, should you do one set to momentary failure or multiple sets? For this article, momentary failure will be defined as the point at which you can't complete one more repetition with proper form. This method is touted as a very time efficient method. Arthur Jones, founder of Nautilus, trained his clients with one set to failure per exercise. Some of his clients turned out to be world champions. So there are probably some benefits to the one set approach.
Let's look at what the research tells us. In the 2011 article, "Evidence-based resistance training recommendations," the authors reviewed the literature on single vs. multiple sets on strength development and concluded that one controlled, challenging set was enough to significantly improve strength. The studies that gave an advantage to extra sets did not go to momentary failure on the first set.
How about muscle gains? Some studies show an advantage to two-to-three sets as opposed to just one. But the differences vary depending on the protocol and the fitness status of the participants. This is one area where the extra sets may give you a 20-30 per cent bonus. So you need to ask yourself this: Is the bonus gain worth the extra time?
So quality of training is more important than quantity. A challenged muscle will adapt to the demand. Too many people perform resistance training at a sub-maximal level. They don't really challenge the muscle to get stronger. No wonder they don't see any progress.
So this brings us back to the beginning. What are your objectives?
If you want general strength for health, here is the take-home message: After a warm-up, pick one exercise per body part. Perform one set of 8-15 repetitions. You should not be able to perform another repetition with proper technique because the muscle is too tired.
Keep track of your progress. You should gradually be able to do a few more repetitions. When 15 gets too easy, increase the resistance. You can get the bulk of the benefits from one challenging set. Your job is to challenge the muscle, then let it recover.
Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.