Thursday, August 14, 2014

One set, three sets, or more: Which is best for strength and muscle gains? by Jerry Brainum

Perhaps the most contentious debate among trainers, physiologists, and bodybuilders relates to the volume of exercise that is best to promote muscle hypertrophy (growth) and strength gains.Back in the early days of bodybuilding, pioneers such as the great Eugene Sandow,suggested that those lifting weights should do only one set per exercise. But Sandow also advised the use of light weights to build muscle, probably because he sold light dumbbells. As time progressed, the volume of training gradually increased, too. By the 1940s, men such as Steve Reeves and Clarence Ross, the 1947 and 1945 Mr.Americas respectively, were training three times a week, averaging three sets per exercise. In the late 50s, the volume of exercise increased exponentially, with programs that featured six days a week of training, working varying muscle groups, and as much as 20 or more sets per muscle group.
    The increased training volume remained the standard until about 1970. At that time, an eccentric entrepreneur from Florida, Arthur Jones, introduced the "better barbell," namely his Nautilus training machines. These machines, which Jones claimed were the result of about 30 years of development, worked on the principle of variable resistance, made possible by the unique Nautilus cam that was part of every machine. More importantly, however, Jones said that using his machines worked muscles far more intensely than was possible with free weights because the machines placed resistance throughout the full range of exercise motion, unlike free weights, where the resistance at some points was nearly zero. This increased stress on exercised muscles also required a reduction in training volume, lest you exceed a nebulous "recovery ability." Doing so, said Jones, would result in either no gains, or even a loss of muscle through overtraining. As proof, he pointed to the glacially slow gains made by most bodybuilders, who Jones considered grossly overtrained.
    Specifically, Jones stated that no one needs to do more than one set per exercise, done to complete muscular failure to ensure a maximal recruitment of available muscle fibers. While the often dogmatic Jones offered some persuasive evidence that training in this high intensity, but low volume manner is superior, in reality his system never captured the complete attention of those in the iron world. Most simply could not accept the notion that doing only one set could ever produce better gains than doing three or more sets per exercise. While Jones disparaged mainstream academic physiology researchers, most of whom he characterized as "idiots,"  several researchers nonetheless have published studies over the years that sought to either prove or disprove Jones' principles of high intensity, low volume training.
    Some studies have indeed found little or no difference in muscle gains when doing one versus three sets of an exercise. Others, in contrast, have found that a minimum of three sets is required to build muscle, although beginners can get away with doing only one set because the initial gains in muscle size and strength that occur with weight-training have more to do with neuromuscular adaptations, rather than actual muscle hypertrophy, which usually doesn't show up until after about three months of regular training. Some studies show that doing a greater volume of training is superior because it promotes a greater release of various anabolic hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone. This seems a moot point, since recent research shows that the temporary elevations in these anabolic hormones that occur following exercise play no significant  role in promoting gains in muscular size and strength. What counts in the way of hormones is producing enough to maintain normal levels, or using drugs, such as anabolic steroids and growth hormone, that result in much higher than normal levels of the hormones, which have definite, unquestionable positive effects on muscle hypertrophy and strength gains.
   A major problem with nearly all the past studies that have sought to either prove or disprove the high intensity/low volume style of training is that the subjects in those studies have almost always been untrained college students. While being a college student doesn't matter in this respect, being untrained certainly can affect the results of the study. As noted, when you begin lifting weights, your initial gains result from a more efficient neuromuscular connection. Basically, the exercise makes the connection between your brain and your muscles more efficient, which results in increased muscle strength, followed by increased muscular size. The salient point here is that beginners have a tendency to make gains on any type of training program.So using rank beginners as a way to determine the benefits of any particular style of training is bound to produce skewed results. Not to mention that some beginners are able to train harder than others right from the start, and would likely make faster muscle gains.
    A new study that takes still another look at the one versus three set controversy, starts with the premise that three sets are indeed superior to doing one set of an exercise. But unlike prior studies, in this study the subjects all had at least a year of training experience, which is enough to eliminate any of the beginner anomalies discussed earlier. This study lasted for eight weeks, and featured 16 men with an age range of 18 to 21. The men were divided into two groups, with 8 doing an upper body routine that included one set per exercise, done three days per week. The other 8 men did the same routine and workout frequency, but did three sets per exercise. All the subjects ingested their usual diets, but refrained from using any food supplements that may have influenced the study results. At the start of the study, baseline strength tests were done using the bench press and shoulder press exercises. All the exercises done in the routines were standard upper body exercises, using only free weights, not machines (I can hear the ghost of Arthur Jones saying, "idiots!").
    The results after 8 weeks of consistent training showed that both groups showed a 20.7% strength gain, with no significant difference between the two groups. The only significant difference between the one and three set groups was in fat loss, as determined by measuring seven skin fold sites before and after the 8-week program. Those in the one set group showed less skinfold thickness compared to the three set group, an indication of greater loss of subcutaneous body fat. This finding surprised the study authors, who expected that the greater number of total reps and volume in the three set group would have produced a better body composition result. The authors suggest that the lower volume training may maintain better muscle glycogen and protein stores, reduce intramuscular damage,  and thereby promote greater lean mass formation. On the other hand, skin fold measurements, while accurate when measured by someone who knows precisely the correct measuring technique, isn't as accurate at other methods to determine body fat gains or losses.
    The essential point of this study is that it used more experienced subjects, and that with these subjects, doing one set proved as effective as doing three sets per exercise, despite 66 percent less training time. Science decrees that one study doesn't constitute definitive evidence, so this study would have to be replicated with similar results countless times before it's officially accepted as scientific gospel. Even so, I suspect that you cannot eliminate the specter of cognitive dissonance with regard to long held beliefs as to what constitutes the best way to train. In the end, the answer to that question is probably whatever you believe works best for you.

Baker, JS, et al. Strength and body composition changes in recreationally strength-trained individuals: comparison of one versus three sets resistance-training programs.BioMed Res Intern 2013.

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