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How Many Sets Should I Do?

If I were to ask you, what are the benefits of resistance training? You would probably say that it increases strength and muscle mass.  A more difficult question is what volumes are better one or multiple sets?  At COR, we often get asked “How Many Sets Should I Do?”, forcing us to research the literature of resistance training sets and resistance training volume. There has been a mixture of research that has suggested that one set is more effective than multiple sets and vice versa.  Some research has also suggested that it depends on the person’s genetics.

When I was an athlete, we would work out 4 days a week.  These workouts would involve 10-12 exercises per session and would be 4 sets of 5-8 reps.  Our goal was to get bigger, stronger and faster.  What I did notice with some people who we called “lazy”, they would lift 1-2 sets per exercise and call it a day.  These individuals who did that were the biggest, strongest and the best athletes on the team. The question that I ask myself today is, “could I have seen the same results or better and saved a lot of time if I would have followed their plan”?

Background Behind Weight Training

As a strength coach, it is very important to have a plan and execute that plan.  There are different variables that you need to think about when designing a program.  The hard thing about designing a program for people is that everyone is different.  What may work for me, may not work for you.

There are variables that you need to consider when designing a program:

  1.       Volume
  2.       Intensity
  3.       Frequency

Recent research has focused more on volume rather than frequency and intensity.  My focus in my training has been trying out different numbers of sets. Some studies have suggested that there is no difference between training with 1 set vs. 3 sets. Others have showed that 3 sets are more beneficial.  The real question before you even think about designing a program for yourself or others is what your goals are.  Are you trying to get bigger, stronger or faster?  It can be important to know that improvements in strength can be different between each muscle. What I mean by this is, someone may only need one set to improve leg strength and 3 sets for improving chest strength.

Also, remember individuality differs not only between people, but also between days. For example, if you’re having a bad day, you get fired, and y our wife leaves you, then it is going to be hard to concentrate on a good lifting day. In this scenario, perhaps only one set is ideal. Another example, imagine you are feeling full of energy and your favorite song plays on the radio, perhaps on this day you can lift 2 – 3 sets.

Which Training Volume Improves Muscle Strength, Endurance and Lean Body Mass?

Other studies have looked at the effects of performing one set per exercise program for at least a year, then switching to a 3 set program. The purpose of switching to a 3 set program was to see if there was an increase in muscle strength, endurance and body composition. The study used 42 adults whose average age was 40 and had almost 5 years of weightlifting experience.  The 42 people had to use a training program that used a one set program for at least a year. There were 21 individuals who performed one set and 21 people who performed three sets of 8–12 repetitions to muscular failure 3 days a week for 13 week. One repetition maximums (1-RM) were measured for leg extension (LE), leg curl (LC), chest press (CP), overhead press (OP), and biceps curl (BC). Muscular endurance was evaluated for the CP and LE as the number of repetitions to failure using 75% effort. Body composition was measured by using the seven skinfold measurements. The results showed that both groups significantly improved muscular endurance, 1 RM strength, lean body mass.

One set programs can be beneficial for the average person, it can help:

  1. If you are in a hurry.
  2. Keeps you motivated.  I’m sure many of you out there have spent at least 2 hours in the gym at one point. Spending too much time in the gym have a better chance of delaying training.
  3. You need to make sure it is a quality workout.  If you know me you know that I express “lifting with a purpose”. When lifting, you need to focus on the movements and the muscles involved.  When you are only lifting one set, you better make it count.
  4. Step up the weight.  Let’s say you do a set that involves 10 reps.  If you’re only doing one set, it better be a very challenging 10 reps.  The purpose of the one set is to fatigue your muscles fast.
  5. Last but not least, you must warm up.  Performing one set is a max lift set.  There is no warm up set, you pick up a heavy weight and lift.  It’s not like a multiple set program where you perform 1-2 warm-up sets and then go.  Make sure you get a good sweat before you workout to reduce the risk of injury.

How Would You Create a Program for Athletes?

When designing a program for athletes, it is important to know what their goals are.  You want to create a program that is beneficial for their gains.  You want to break down their program into seasons: offseason, preseason and in-season.  Of course, you have some young athletes who play all year around, you may not have use some of these programs.

If you are training your team:

  1.       Offseason-Depending on how many practices you are having, if none at all, then you can increase the volume in their program.  This doesn’t mean that you avoid performing one set training completely. Strength programs in the offseason can be designed to teach athletes the proper mechanics of the lifts, especially for beginner weight training individuals.
  2.       Preseason-This time of year is designed to prepare your athletes for the upcoming season. Your athlete’s bodies may be getting more sore from not used to practicing. When designing for the preseason, your weight training time may be shortened and you need to create a time efficient program that is beneficial.  This is where 1-2 set programs can be effective.
  3.       In-season-When designing an in-season program, this involves low volume training. The reason we do this is because our bodies take a beating during the season. Instead of breaking the body down, we need keep their bodies fresh and active for the long haul.

If you around people in the gym, you will hear “everyone is different”.  If your wondering how you can improve your overall fitness, try changing up your volume.  You never know what kind of gains you will see by just mixing it up.  Remember your body won’t adapt if you keep doing the same things over and over.  Mix it up and good things can happen.


  1. Humburg H, Baars H, Schröder J, Reer R, Braumann KM. 1-Set vs. 3-set resistance training: a crossover study. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):578-82.