The subtitle of the post should be “…that doesn’t always lead to mass.”
The trainers at Efficient Exercise like to wax poetic about studies as they come out. I came across a study on exercise volume and hypertrophy & strength changes. The study is titled “Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males” and is found in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Click above for a preview.
The study used 32 resistance trained males in a 10 week study of the squat at 1, 4, and 8 sets per workout performed twice a week. The authors concluded ” The results of this study support resistance exercise prescription in excess of 4-sets (i.e. 8-sets) for faster and greater strength gains as compared to 1-set training.” Yup, that’s true. No beef there. But let’s look at the numbers.
So the numbers are cut and dry: the 8 set group saw an average increase in 37kg in their 1 rep max squat over the course of the 10 week study, compared to a 17kg increase from the 1 set group. Here’s the thing: when you compare the lean tissue changes, the result is much, much smaller. The 1 set group gained 2.03kg lbm over the 10 weeks, while the 8 set group gained 2.69kg lbm. So for the 8x increase in time spent training, and a 1 rep max 20kg higher over the same period, the trainees gained…only 0.66kg more? Really?
Strength is a skill and all of that time spent under the bar is practice. It just also happens to contribute to hypertrophy but not in a linear fashion. The fact is that if you want to get strong as fast as possible, more practice will get you with the movement pattern will allow a larger exertion to be controlled when performing that movement pattern. This is wrapped up in some of the mechanisms I discussed in the “Aging: What’s The Metric?” post: our muscles and nervous system get more efficient within the very narrow movement parameter that you’re practicing, meaning you can exert harder without leaving the groove.
The problem with these studies is that they cannot, due to funding, account for the long view of time. I’ve shown this crude sketch before but it’s relevant here.
While reaching one’s “absolute” potential is something very few are in danger of achieving, the fact is our progress slows down as we get closer to that absolute max. Understanding that each one of us has a limit, it must be asked that does doing more sets merely get us to that limit faster, only to coast longer? Given a time frame of say 5 years, would the 1 set group and the 8 set group be moving very nearly the same weight, all things being equal? I’d suggest that they’d be very close, with the reduced set group having spent less time in the gym and reduced occurrence of injury. There’s only so much recovery to go around and the tolerance for error becomes smaller under heavier loads.
Studies like this (there are many) should beg the question: what’s your goal? If you want to powerlift, more time under the bar is better (though 8x the sets only got a bit more than 2x the strength gain…4 sets is a nice compromise in that regard). If your goal is lean tissue gain, strength improvements are important, though a side effect of quality contractions under sustained load with sufficient metabolic distress and enough rest and calories…and picking the right parents! Finally, if your goal is robust health, improved function, and a better looking naked body, 1 set with a sound set of eating habits centered around real food is hard to beat. The time investment is paltry and the return is profound. That’s the reason why we at Efficient Exercise keep the number of sets of exercise low: you have the greatest return on time invested for the goals our clients are after.
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.