I’ve recently come across some websites and articles that reference research indicating higher volume training is superior for building mass. I’m not an exercise physiologist so the technical aspects of the research is over my head. I do however recognize some of the names of the researchers. I’ve longed believed intensity is superior to volume (still do), but what accounts for what seems to be overwhelming research evidence to the contrary?
As I understand it, the research generally seems to indicate that a greater protein synthesis occurs with a sufficient amount of tension and fatigue. One set might not be ‘optimal’ no matter how high the effort. It can just take ‘more’ work still. I think this is why 3 sets shows better results in some studies versus 1 set.
Kind of think of it like performing one a 1 rep max to failure and you did nothing else. Almost everyone would agree one rep to failure would cause little to no growth. You need more reps, right? 10 reps in a set is probably better than 1 for size…all things being equal.
That means more work and tension and to get fatigue.
Good question. I wonder when enough is enough? Where is the fine line between maximum growth or overtraining? Mike Mentzer was onto this, but many have questioned his ideas. I think Dr Darden is right on the spot, as I am a living proof of his ideas working. HVT? No, I don’t think so. Amplified with anabolic steroids may be another question.
Re research I suspect a lot of bias. It all depends on what results the researcher wants to show. It must be impossible to rule out confounders in the groups researched. Most often the groups are too small to draw any significant conclusions.
I read a review of articles stating that Arthur Jones had a point. I tend to trust serious reviews.
The one study, a 2016 meta analysis by Schoenfeld & Kreiger, suggests that overwhelming research exists to support the position that size (not strength) is increased with more sets (5>3>1). Again, I’m only reading the abstract because the substance of the paper is over my head. It’s disconcerting that there seems to be much evidence that the one set to failure protocol may be wrong.
This is an argument that has been going on as long as I have been alive and I doubt it will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction even after I am dead.
well we know more does stimulate more, even HIT uses that concept. Look at HIT specialization routines. Instead of just one set of curls, you might do curls supersetted with chins, then finish with one other bicep exercise. The big thing is training hard and doing ‘minimal’ whether that’s 1,2, 3 or 4 exercises for a muscle vs HVT which might be a ton of easier sets.
Here is the problem at least as I see it. I have made great progress with HIT. I was consulting with mike mentzer by telephone. then when progress stopped probably due to working out once every seven days I did powerlifting for a few years. Made more progress despite heavy training and much more frequent workouts. After that I went to girondas 8x8 with 30sec rest not to failure. . Again made progress. Now I am back to HIT. After almost a year of lighter high set training I am making progress again. I suspect it will halt again at some point.
The question I keep facing is that all these systems work up to a point. If one system was the true system wouldnt the others fail to work? At this point I am considering either a periodization approach alternating volume with HIT. Or a blended approach where one workout I goto failure and beyond. And the next workout I do a not to failure 8x8 woth little rest.
Hello there Gatorcpa! Great topic!
Training volume seems to be the most controversial of all the training variables.
Intensity of Load, of Effort, Frequency of Training, Rest Periodos, etc. don’t generate as much fuss.
First of all, I suggest you read this material on the subject of training volume:
(The best paper I have read this year pertaining to muscle hypertrophy, also includes a critique of Schoenfeld and Krieger meta-analysis)
On the volume camp we have people like Brad Schoenfeld, who seems to me to be a victim of the public or perish mentality, and Mike Israetel. Mike is a really bright and insightful fellow with great ideas about training, but great part of his material is full of assumptions and errors that makes it frustrating enough to continue to pay attention to him.
The most important training principle is consistency, and resistance exercise should be a lifetime endeavor and not a 8-12 weeks to hugeness affair. Let’s play a little number game:
Let’s said you have the potential to increase your muscle size by 100%. Training with multiple sets will increase your size at a rate of 10% per week, while training with a single set gives you around 60-80% of the benefits you would get with multiple sets, as some experts like Stuart Phillips said. According to this little math game, you would reach your potential in 10 weeks training with multiple sets, while you will reach that point in about 16 weeks training with a single set. Not to bad, and also single set training is much more efficient and allows one to commit more to training.
Regarding Schoenfeld 2016 meta-analysis, to me it is a clump of papers about the topic, with not regard to the different variables that were not controlled between the studies, such as duration of the intervention, Frequency, Effort, nutrient intake, muscles group assesed, and so on. The conclusion is just numerological abracadabra.
I do think that almost everyone would make better and consistent gains with a single set, but multiple exercises per muscle group, progressive program. When you reach a plateau, there are some options:
Find ways to increase the tension that muscles are subjected to, such as eccentric accentuated training.
Decrease training Frequency between muscle groups to allow more recovery.
Take a break from training. Search for HST - Strategic Deconditioning.
Genetics Dictate Reality… Deal With It, and Enjoy Your Life. As Dr. Darden said in his Triceps article, there is no better advice than that.
Enough rambling for today.
Everyone, have a great Christmas!!!
Single vs Multiple sets is an old question. I suspect that the execise science community will eventually come to some consensus on the question, and the answer will be nuanced and complex.
If I were to guess at the nature of the final consensus, I’d expect to see the following:
- There is an effect from volume, particularly for hypertrophy (strength maybe not so much), but that you very quickly get into the realm of diminishing returns.
- The optimal number of sets is probably the wrong question. The more likely result will be that there are a certain number of stimulating reps that are required for maximum stimulation, and not all reps end up being stimulating, i.e., the reps have to be performed under certain conditions to have value.
- Over the long haul, what matters most is that you are consistent about training in ways that continue to challenge the muscles.
- Individual responses to intensity and volume matter a lot (i.e., genetics)
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of the stuff published by Chris Beardsley. He doesn’t come from a academic background, but seems to be well read, and effectively self taught on the subject. Not being an academic, he is more willing to construct an overall theory of how things work, even when there are gaps in understanding.
Here is a recent example that I found to be quite thought provoking:
After a workout, muscle fibers experience hypertrophy as well as a temporary period of sustained fatigue (reduced strength) due to excitation-contraction coupling failure, myofibrillar damage, and central nervous system (CNS) fatigue. While it often assumed that the mechanical tension that produces hypertrophy also causes fatigue, this is untrue. The excitation-contraction coupling failure, myofibrillar damage, and CNS fatigue are all caused by the activation of the muscle fibers, and the resulting influx of calcium ions into the muscle fiber.
Consequently, hypertrophy and fatigue result from different processes.
Therefore, methods that enhance fatigue will not necessarily produce superior muscle growth. Indeed, the optimal strength training program likely involves the largest possible dosage of mechanical tension for the smallest dosage of muscle activation and calcium ion-related fatigue. This can be achieved by workouts with a low-to-moderate volume of moderate-to-heavy loads, avoiding failure, and avoiding intensification techniques that involve lifting while very fatigued, such as forced reps and drop sets.”
There is some stuff in that which will be reassuring to HIT believers, and some things what won’t as easily accepted.
The latest article by Christian Thibaudeau. I have the outmost respect for Thib, as he always seem to keep an open balanced approach for what actually works, thus avoiding polarization. Common sense, you might say.
He even goes into cadences, which is my stronghold.
Yeah well to me 5 sets is still low volume lol…
I have to agree with @pettersson and Thibaudeau here, I think it’s mostly effort that dictates growth. Of course I think there are certain methods better suited for certain goals, and certain individuals. But that there are many way to skin a cat. Mentzer or Yates, HIT, ultra low volume. Nubret, Schwarzenegger, crazy volume. And they all looked great
Arnold said it. “You must shock ze muscle”. After a while, the body gets familiar with the load, cadence, reps and sets. Make a big change once in a while to shock ze muscle.
I really Chris Beardsley’s stuff too. His “effective reps” model is quite good at explaining what training studies show.
According to his model, the last 5 reps of a set to failure (30-85% RM) stimulate muscle growth. So if you do 3 sets to failure you accumulate 15 “effective reps”.
He recommends doing 3 sets of 5-15 reps to failure and from there to use a double progression scheme (first reps, then weight). He suggest to up the number of sets when you can’t increase your rep number because your workout is not causing an adaptation response, which is the contrary of what Mike Israetel suggests, who advises to up the number of sets when you can increase your rep number which means that you are recovering good enough between workouts and that you probably could use more volume.
One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is that seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of the mechanical tension stimulus. By this I mean is that by using your 30% RM or your 85%RM to failure you subject your muscles to the same amount of mechanical tension because muscle fibers themselves are responsible for creating the mechanical tension stimulus that initiates the muscle growth process. The logical conclusion is that there is not much sense in using a linear periodization model (unless you are a powerlifter). Using a double progression scheme is also faulty because you are not increasing the amount of mechanical tension nor the amount of reps under maximal tension. You are just repeating the same stimulus once and once again.
At the moment I’m not aware of means to increase the amount of mechanical tension that muscle fibers create, so you are left with basically two options:
To increase the amount of “effective reps” per set via neuromuscular adaptations, something Scott Abel used to said with his Innervation Training methodology.
Increase the amount of “effective reps” by plain and simple doing more sets. This is what Mike Israetel recommends.
So maybe there is some truth behind accumulation blocks for hypertrophy and volume increases are the only way to create more stimulus…
I suspect this studies suck, Literally you can find studies that prove anything and the contrary of anything…
It’s all about context, and PROPER understanding of the training principles IMHO.
As CT stated “Everything works but nothing works for a long time”.
This is a good article. I like the points he makes: nothing is sustainable forever or even tolerable.
I’ve been alternating rep speeds/temps for a while now. Sometimes I do a 3-4 negative where as other times a faster, more rhythmic way. I don’t care much for doing 3-4 sec positives though…just feels like I am limiting myself or holding back too much.
The question is how do you know when the body gets familiar with the load and it’s time for a change?
Well, for me it’s kinda programmed into PCs 8 - 12, since, when I get to twelve reps with the DBs I switch up to 11 lb heavier DBs to start at 8 again. Dan John wrote about this also, only going up in relatively big weight jumps, and not trying to creep up with small or micro plates. I imagine for real size and strength lifters it would be when proress stalls. But Arnold would describe an almost playful, fartlek approach, where he’d go into the gym and just do massive drop sets, just to scare the bejazus out of his muscles. I like the odd 30 sec pause before 50% reps as per PC. If it means I get another rep closer to 12 next week, then I’m winning.
I’ve read where some people say they never do the same workout in a row as if to trick the muscles into growing ? If I recall Brian Johnston changes his workouts quite often hardly ever doing the same thing twice in a row and he seems to know what he’s doing! I guess the down side of doing that is jumping to a new exercise and not knowing what weight or reps to use so it’s hard to chart progress? I would think doing something different all the time would be a fun way to workout instead of plodding through that same routine every time.