VOLUME: By Fred Hutchinson

Dr.Darden mentioned

A Single Set Story

Back when I began lifting in the mid-70s at the tender age of 12, the only training system I or anyone else in this one-horse town knew about was 3 sets of 10 for each exercise. We never trained to failure, but just used weights that seemed comfortably heavy. If course, there were many other training systems around even then, but news travels slowly. My friends and I made good gains this way which probably says more for teenage hormones than exercise methodology.

By the mid-80s I was in school in the Big City and for the first time came upon the single set, train to failure idea, promoted mostly in Ellington Darden’s books. These books were certainly convincing and seemed to make sense, so I tried it. Wow! I had never had the kind of muscles that “pumped” when I worked out, but now even a single set made each muscle group practically burst. My strength shot up, muscles seemed bigger every day – oh man, i thought, I’m going to look like Sergio Oliva!

Here’s an example of Darden’s stuff:

Needless to say, I never became a threat to Sergio. After about two or three months of this strain 'til you puke lifting, my strength stagnated and then started back down. Now, if you’re familiar with single set advocates, you know that they attribute lack of progress to only two things: overtraining or not trying hard enough. So I experimented with layoffs; they didn’t help. And goodness knows, I tried harder and harder, using every high-intensity technique you can think of, as well as grimaces of effort which often stunned the university weight room into silence. Nothing.

So gradually I drifted back into more moderate training with multiple sets of each exercise, and resumed my usual pattern of on-again, off-again progress. But my experience with single sets stuck with me, and I wondered about it for years; it worked well for a while, so why didn’t it keep working? It wasn’t until years later that I found the answer.

In the mid-1990’s I bought a book by Leo Costa called Big Beyond Belief: Serious Growth III.

Here: http://www.rogerhardin.com/downloads/BigBeyondBelief-eBook.pdf

Mr. Costa had become somewhat infamous a few years before with his first Serious Growth manual which I also have, which advocates three-times-a-day lifting. In Big Beyond Belief, Leo related a typical scenario of the multiple set lifter switching to single sets which exactly followed my own experience: dramatic gains for a short while followed by stagnation and loss. I had never seen anyone else discuss this, so I was favorably inclined toward his explanation of why it happens. More to the point, I patterned by own training system after Leo’s and found that it worked.

There are really two fundamental concepts at the heart of Leo’s program. The first of these is that weight training does not simply stimulate your skeletal muscles; rather, your entire system is involved and feels the stress. Anyone who has vomited or gotten a diarrhea attack after a heavy lifting session can see the truth in this. And while the effect on your internal works is seen solely in a negative light by the heavy duty advocates, Leo says it is not quite so simple. According to Leo, your body’s internal systems can be either depressed or made more efficient by training, neither result is permanent, as your ability to adapt to stress changes continually.

The second concept of great importance is that of “lag time”: the fact that while your body is in a continual state of adaptation to stress, these adaptations take some time, usually measured in several weeks. The example which Leo gives is that of going on a diet, which most of us can relate to. When you restrict calories, your metabolism continues to function as Norman, er, normal for a week or two, so you lose weight; but by about the third week, your body adjusts to the fewer calories and lowers your metabolism to compensate, and little or no fat is lost. Sound familiar?

Leo says that weight training works the same way: when you go on a new routine, the body has to struggle to adapt and as a result must overcompensate. But after a few weeks, the body gets comfortable with the training and doesn’t have the same compulsion to change.

So in a nutshell, the training routine must take into account that the body will, in a relatively short period of time, adapt to almost any stimulus; and that when adaptation occurs, progress stops. In other words, the body must continually be kept off balance and uncomfortable to keep making gains in strength or muscle size. Leo makes the case that the most effective way to do this is not by cycling poundages or taking layoffs, but by varying your training volume in a predetermined way; in simple terms, doing more or fewer sets over time.

A quick aside about repetition ranges. Leo says that bodybuilders should vary their repetition ranges, but in Big Beyond Belief, he says the strength athlete should only use a range of 1-3 reps. However, it bears pointing out that in his earlier Serious Growth, he advocates varying the rep count for strength athletes as well: over the course of three workouts he suggests using 4-5 reps per set the first day, 3-4 rep sets the second day, and 1-2 rep sets for the third workout. Personally I haven’t experimented with varying the rep count – which is really another way of saying varying the poundage – but some of you might want to try both systems and compare the results.

Yeah, and did I fall for that one hard … swallowed the hook, line and sinker !!

Dr. Ralph Carpinelli (along with other researchers) has shown the “single set” advocates to be correct. It comes down to genes. Volume will provide little if any benefits to the trainee nor will supersetting and all of the other variants. If you’re in the military, law enforcement or a sport that requires volume training for the endurance carry over, then it should probably be followed.

Mr. Costa’s claims, I’m sure would be quickly dismissed by Carpinelli. Anyone remember all of his new & cutting edge programs? The one I’d read was his “Bulgarian” program – anybody from a local gym jump on the workout, go on to win the Mr. Olympia using it? Turn into a breakthought Olympic weightlifting champ? (Never mind the fact the Bulgarians were probably jacked to their eyeballs…)

Further, I’m not sure I’d be following Mr. Costa’s advice on health and fitness…he suffered multiple strokes several years ago. Even his before and after pics would have most asking what he was using before he suffered the stroke.

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I thought he was a big fat ass who just lifted. He should have done cardio.

I’m not going to get into a debate over the number of sets required for optimal adaption. But what was just described in the quotes is a perfect way to spin your wheels unless you are using anabolics. For the natural trainee load must be increased over the time if you expect to grow. And guess what, using a heavier load is the novel stimulus Leo and the writer agree is necessary. Changing reps, exercises, etc. is all well and good but if you are benching 225 for 8 reps this year and are still benching 225 for 8 reps this same time next year you will not be any bigger.

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This isn’t necessarily true. If you’re doing 225 x 8 at 2 seconds down/2 seconds positive and a year later you’re doing that same weight 10 seconds down, 10 seconds up, you’re going to be a pretty strong dude at that point. Capable of benching 315lbs? Dunno…possibly with a little work.

“Bigger”? Most people peak in terms of size, naturally, within in around five or six years of embarking on their journey with the iron. After that, you’re either adding more size via things like creatine or intramuscular bodyfat unless you’re juicine…I’ve seen guys getting “bigger” than me in the gym via smoothing out, their abs are gone. That isn’t legit bigger. And once you’re hitting 35 - 40, you’re fighting sarcopenia.

Finally, adding heavier loads ad infinitum doesn’t add size. Why? Strength is more a skill than anything…gross and fine motor skills. You learn how to lift more effectively. When I was hitting my PRs, I wasn’t getting all that much bigger but I was certainly lifting more efficiently – found the groove, found the right angle. You don’t need “size” as you become more effective at lifting. (BTW, I hit several PRs at 40 – around the time sarcopenia is supposed to be starting. Again, I got better at the lifts.)

But it still comes down the genetics as Carpinelli has written in his papers.

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Not sure about that. I could easily be lifting more on a very abbreviated consolidated routine and yet lose muscle and look worse as happened in the past. There is a huge neurological and skill component involved with ‘strength’. There are ways I can optimize size vs strength.

If you stimulate growth, you will get stronger. But if you get stronger, you will not necessarily be bigger. Tension cycles with muscle fatigue/inroad should be the main focus for growth IMO. Not raw poundages

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Agree with BBF and HH32 . One of the oldest problems / questions guys always had was
" I’m getting ‘stronger’ but not any bigger … "

Ken Leistner squatted over 400 for over twenty reps and weighed 165. With the ‘get stronger and you’ll get bigger’ approach , you’d expect someone able to squat that kind of weight for that number of reps to have thighs like Tom Platz … yet he didn’t.

Brian Johnston gave the best explanation on why ‘strength’ gains doesn’t always equal size gains years ago when he introduced his Zone Training.


Just look at some of these scrawny furniture movers…small thin guys who KNOW how to use skill and leverage for their advantage to lift some very heavy stuff. When I moved some years back, two small guys like this were my movers. I almost felt like asking them if they needed help. lol But they shocked me lifting stuff with ease. Weight lifters and power lifters can do similarly.

For the longest time I followed the protocol of always trying to lift more , being progressive with the poundages even to the point of making my own ‘plate mates’ of 1 and 1.5 pounds to add to the bar instead of 2.5 or 5’s .

I stuck with that for awhile before realizing that I was so determined to get that extra rep this week with another 2 lbs, that I’d find someway to do it … a little swing, jerk, etc. which certainly wasn’t going to be reflected in my physique.

It was just after this that I discovered Johnston’s postings and methods on Darden’s old board and it all made sense and opened up a whole way to progress and stress the muscle without just adding more plates to the bar.

Even Darden has said that its not always about weight, but the quality of the each rep

I think Leo is spot on. Periodization has been very helpful for me to make continued gains in size and strength. Leo himself is supremely jacked as well.

In the early days, at least, HIT training programs basically employed simple progression models: Do a workout, recover and adapt, increase something (weight, reps, time under load). When the increases stop, try to bump of the intensity of failure, or extend recovery time or reduce the number of exercises. This, of course, only works for so long. At that point, you declare you have reached your genetic potential.

In the broader Strength and Conditioning world, simple progression models are viewed as something that works for beginners. You cross the threshold into the world of “advanced” programming when simple progression ceases. Now you are supposed to design progression around longer training blocks: it takes the accumulation of stress over several workouts to see advances. No one expects to get stronger after every workout, but rather after a week of workouts, or a month of workouts. Of course, this requires consistency and patience. And even if it works, the rate of progress is much slower than what a beginner will get. (All Hail Newbie Gains!)

These days, I think some HIT theorists will sort of acknowledge this: they throw in not to failure training sessions, advise you to focus on the quality of the set, and advise that progression after each workout should not be expected. But, for the most part, the formal incorporation of longer training cycles into the HIT paradigm doesn’t seem very common.


And dont forget, along comes age…therefore, strength increases and muscle mass comes at a much slower rate and recovery will take longer

IMHO…increase of strength is more important than muscle mass as we enter our senior years

muscle mass is important, just not as important

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From what I read, declines in the performance of the nervous system are part of the mechanism of sarcopenia and dynopenia. Your central and/or peripheral nervous system starts to have trouble firing the highest threshold fast twitch fibers. Once not used, those motor units go away, or get recycled (reenervated) as slower twitch fibers. So perhaps training in ways that maximally tax the nervous system is better for slowing down that process???

What that might involve is unclear. But I’ve seen a number of papers which advise keeping intensity of load high (>75% 1RM) for seniors. There is also some research looking at the value of power training or explosive lifting for the same purpose.

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Al- I’ve seen the opposite for age and muscle fibers, dis-use tends to cause fibers to become faster, IIa’s become IIx. Then once you start using them again, they produce MHC’s for a bit slower fiber (like IIa). Andy Galpin talks about the IIA to IIx changes in one of his podcasts, here is a study that mentions similar (less T1 more T2 fibers)


Inactivity appears to induce a fiber-type transfor-
mation within specific muscles. Within a short period
of inactivity, the number of type I fibers in the
antigravity muscles decreases, whereas the number of
fibers containing fast-type myosin increases. This
change in fiber-type composition with inactivity is
demonstrated with histological staining for fast
ATPase and slow ATPase fibers. After seven days of
inactivity, the soleus and adductor longus muscles
have an increase in percent of dark ATPase (fast)
fibers, 11 and 26%, respectively.53

Fiber-type transformation associated with inactivity
occurs also in humans. In humans, there is a de-
crease in the type I fibers and an increase in the
type IIa fibers in the vastus lateralis following inactiv-
ity.27 Following a 17-day period of inactivity, a signifi-
cant inactivity-induced decline in the percentage of
fibers expressing type I MHC and a corresponding
increase in fibers coexpressing type I/IIa or IIa MHC
is reported.

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I’m aware of the research on transitions between IIa and IIx that occur with periods of disuse. But I don’t think it provides an explanation for why sarcopenic adults have lower numbers of type II fibers overall. When you lose II fibers, the possibility for them to convert between IIa and IIx no longer exists (for the now missing fibers). And I suspect that you would agree that disuse is not a viable strategy for preserving muscle tissue.

The paper you’ve referenced does discuss the issue that concerns me:

Motor unit remodeling is the natural cycle of turnover of synaptic connections occurring at the neuromuscular junction by the process of denervation, axonal sprouting, and reinnervation of the muscle. In young adults, turnover occurs without any alteration in the fiber type or amount of innervation reaching the fibers.46 With age, however, it is common to observe an aggregation of type I fibers.46,77 This age-associated change reflects some denervated type II fibers becoming reinnervated by axonal sprouting from adjacent innervated type I fibers. The reason for altered motor unit remodeling is unclear; it might result from faster axonal growth in slow motor units, or their ability in establishing permanent connections with both type I and II muscle fibers. It has been suggested that the type II fibers, which become reinnervated by slow motor unit axons, actually become type I fibers with respect to physiological and biochemical properties.46 The fast motor unit axons degenerate when they no longer innervate muscle fibers

Some papers suggest that it is the growing inability of the nervous system (central or peripheral???) to be able to fire the highest threshold units due to aging that leads to the initial de-innervation of those fast twitch fibers.

of course disuse isn’t a way to preserve, IIx are practically useless for most activities anyway. I would suspect if this occurs during sarcopenia in older adults, it’s probably a case of the much smaller muscles having a much lower total force, requiring very high recruitment levels for daily activities that are of a nature requiring ST muscle fiber properties. Muscle fibers respond to the neural inputs as far as fiber typing so I’d theorize that years of using the FT fibers ‘as ST’ probably stimulates the transition. It looks like from what that says, the fibers aren’t ‘lost and gone’ they are transformed.

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Dr Andy Galpin says same

That was always the case with legs in my family. Grandfather, father, me and son. Large muscular arms not a problem. I squatted 405 with 21.5 inch thighs. Calves no better. Double pre exhaustion, powerlifting, it doesn’t matter.My son has 18" arms, squats large weights but still bird legs. Genetics.