Single Set Weight Training Vs. Multi Set Weight Training

Overview

A perennial debate in the world of weight training involves selecting the optimal number of sets per workout for each exercise. A set is a group of repetitions with a rest period in between. Most beginning exercisers start with one set and add more sets under the guidance of a fitness or personal trainer until they are doing two to three as they gain experience and strength. These additional sets challenge the muscles to rebuild and grow.

Considerations

Deciding to do single or multiple sets will be guided by whether your goal is to be stronger, such that you can produce maximal force against resistance; to have increased muscular endurance, to exert force repeatedly; or to enlarge your muscles to create a pleasing look, writes Jessica Matthews, continuing education coordinator for the American Council on Exercise.

Time Frame

If you want general fitness and improved health, begin with lighter resistance and complete one or two sets of eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise, Matthews recommends. Rest for 30 to 90 seconds between sets. For better endurance, use somewhat lighter resistance to complete two to three sets of 12 to 16 repetitions of each exercise, and rest only 30 seconds between sets. For muscular strength, use heavier weights and complete two to six sets of four to eight repetitions, with rest periods of two to five minutes. To build the look of your muscles, use a resistance between that for strength and endurance and complete three to six sets of six to 12 reps, with 30 to 90 seconds of rest between sets.

Misconceptions

Matthew R. Rhea, an assistant professor at the Arizona School of Health Sciences, writes for the National Strength and Conditioning Association that “a very small, but vocal group” promotes an opinion that single-set training programs elicit maximal strength gains. The vast majority of exercise professionals hold instead that multiple-set training programs achieve maximum strength gains, he notes, based on a study of the literature.

Expert Insight

Single sets might benefit novices with modest goals of what they expect out of strength training and limited time, Rhea notes in his paper, “Resolving the Single- vs. Multiple-Set Strength Training Debate.” Although single sets might stimulate some improvements in muscle tone, and performing some strength training as time permits is better than nothing, “such a situation will not result in maximal strength gains, and any argument to the contrary is misleading and unsubstantiated,” Rhea writes.

Benefits

Researchers at the Institute of Sport Sciences at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, looked specifically at the issue of single vs. multiple sets of weight training for women aged 20 to 40. In a paper published in 2001, in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” they found higher strength gains in the women who did multiple sets.

About this Author

Award-winning writer Rogue Parrish has written travel books and worked at the National Institutes of Health, “The Baltimore Sun” Business Desk and at “The Washington Post.” She began writing professionally in 1975. Parrish holds a summa cum laude Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.