strength vs size

There will always be the debate between “bro’s” in the gym about the optimal number of reps and sets needed for strength and/or muscle growth. The truth is, there never will be a set number for either protocol as it varies individually. Research however, can provide us with a general guideline to start with and it’s up to each individual to experiment accordingly. Many claim that a single set of an exercise (when carried out to failure) is all that’s needed for growth whilst others argue that multiple sets are essential to fully maximize our muscle development. One recent study devised a method to clarify this common debate.

Study Design

A total of 34 young males who all had considerable experience with strength training, were divided into three groups (1(low), 3(med), or 5(high) sets of each exercise in each workout). They each did eight weeks of supervised workouts, three times a week, consisting of a circuit of seven different exercises: bench press, military press, lat pulldown, seated cable row, back squat, leg press, and unilateral leg extension. Each set was done to momentary failure, with the weight adjusted to ensure failure was reached in 8 to 12 reps.

Results May Surprise You

The 1 set group had strength gains similar to the higher volume groups. Therefore if strength is your training goal then you can accomplish these gains in half the time as less sets are needed. It should be noted however, that the training was carried out in a moderate rep range (8-12 RM). Consequently, it’s possible that if you use a true powerlifting range (3-5 RM) then you’d probably have to add some additional sets as the low number of reps per set would limit the amount of “practice” and thus require a higher volume.

 

As predicted, there was a clear dose-response relationship for muscle hypertrophy (muscle building), with 5 sets showing the greatest gains, followed by 3 sets and then 1 set. These findings were generally consistent with previous data from muscle hypertrophy studies, and were most pronounced in the lower body measurements.

 

Take Home Message
  1. Strength increases are similar with 1 set per exercise as with 5 sets per exercise, suggesting that if your goal is to simply get stronger, this can be achieved with minimal amounts of volume. These results apply with a moderate rep range (8-12 reps); it’s possible that training in more of a powerlifting range (3-5 reps), additional sets are needed to maximize strength.
  2. Volume is a primary driver of hypertrophy, meaning more sets will result in greater gains. High volume training can elicit superior muscle gains over relatively short time frames. However, it seems likely that repeatedly training with high volumes will inevitably lead to non-functional overreaching and thus compromise results.
  3. These studies merely provide the average responses to groups of people. Thus, these results can only provide general guidelines as to how much volume is beneficial for strength and hypertrophy; the response for a given person will vary based on genetics and lifestyle factors and thus, application of these findings must be determined individually.
 

Steve O’Mahony, BSc MSc
Performance Nutrition

 

References:

Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy 2018. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, Grgic J, Delcastillo K, Belliard R, Alto A. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018 Aug 28. doi: 10.1249/MSS