A question of efficacy
Which has the potential to stimulate the better hypertrophic response: one set of an exercise or multiple sets? This is a classic question that has been stimulating both debate and research in the field of exercise science since at least the 1960’s.
For any activity in which we endeavor to succeed it is good to have a firm grasp of what works, what doesn’t work, and what works most effectively.
Since man and woman first lifted heavy objects and realized that they could improve not only their strength but also their muscular size the question arose: how many times should I lift it? …And repetitions and sets were born.
For individuals who exercise to build muscle today, from bodybuilders through to professional and recreational athletes too, there is a plethora of set schemes to choose from, from the eloquently simple to the intricately complex. For the stated goal of stimulating hypertrophy the majority of individuals will perform somewhere between one and four sets of an exercise.
How do we decide how many sets to perform?
The number of sets an individual performs of an exercise is typically dictated by one of four things (or a combination of them):
- What their peer group does
- What they have read
- What a coach or trainer has instructed them to do
- What feels instinctively right to them
To help answer our original question of which number of sets is best for hypertrophy, lets look more closely at what we do when we enter the gym.
The practical application of exercise
In resistance exercise, we perform different exercises to target, temporarily fatigue, and stimulate the various muscle groups of the body. These movements are based on joint actions (or combinations of joint actions) and therefore the muscles that are primarily responsible for causing those actions are the muscles we aim to engage in an exercise. For example the hammer curl exercise is based on the joint action of elbow flexion, and targets the brachioradialis.
At this point our primary concern simply needs to be: are the exercise movements we select biomechanically correct, safe and effective at targeting the desired musculature and keeping it adequately loaded? These appropriate exercises are typically performed with free weights, bodyweight and machines.
Repping the sets
Once we have chosen the exercises we are going to use to target the various muscle groups, we need to decide how we are going to perform those movements. Considerations include how many times, or for how long are we going to lift and lower the load (a repetition) through the selected exercise movement?
- Are we going to rest between each repetition excursion (singles)?
- Are we going to lift and lower for multiple repetitions consecutively (a set of repetitions)?
- Are we going to perform some consecutive number of repetitions (a set), pause and then repeat the process again (another set), perhaps even several times more?
The reality is we could apply an exercise in an infinite number of ways, using various combinations of repetitions and sets.
As mentioned above the vast majority of individuals who train regularly with hypertrophy in mind, probably perform between one and four sets of each exercise in their routines. Let’s focus the lens more clearly on how these repetitions/sets may actually be executed in the gym.
Three differing approaches
Many individuals perform their repetitions with a cadence of around 1/1 – that’s one second to lift the weight and one second to lower it. Others use a cadence of around 4/4 – four seconds up and four seconds down. Some even use a cadence of 10/10 – ten seconds to lift the load and ten seconds to lower it.
- Those using the 1/1 cadence will often aim to complete about 10 repetitions in a set. They will also usually perform multiple sets of each exercise- four sets of each exercise would be typical.
- Those performing a 4/4 cadence will often aim to complete somewhere between 8-12 repetitions in a set. They will likely aim to achieve momentary muscular failure by the end of the set, which will usually be the one and only set they will perform of the given exercise.
- Those using a 10/10 cadence will often aim to complete 3-5 repetitions, using a single set approach in which that set culminates in momentary muscular failure.
Is it a question of ‘low volume’ and ‘high volume’?
The 10/10 and 4/4 cadence, single set exercisers are employing an approach that is often referred to as being high intensity because of their goal in deliberately seeking to achieve momentary muscular failure. Due to the fact that only one set of each exercise is performed it is also considered by most to be “low volume” training.
On the other hand for the 1/1 cadence, multi-set exercisers momentary muscular failure is not usually the primary goal. Rather achievement of the prescribed number of repetitions is: e.g. 10 reps in each set. Of course this doesn’t preclude the fact that in the multiple set approach momentary muscular failure may sometimes occur during the quest to complete the four sets of 10 repetitions.
This approach to exercise is often referred to as “high volume” training- after all these individuals perform four times as many sets of each exercise as the single set exercisers.
The “high volume” exercisers may perform four times as many sets of each exercise but are they really performing a greater volume of exercise at all? Let’s sharpen our focus again. Perhaps there is a more accurate measure of volume than number of sets performed.
Time under tension
Let’s look at how much time the practitioners of each approach keep the targeted musculature under tension during their performance of an exercise.
Four sets, 1/1 cadence
The four set, 1/1 cadence exerciser will attain a maximum of ~20 seconds of tension time in one 10 rep set.
If they manage to get 10 reps in each set they will achieve a cumulative time under tension of ~80 seconds. Of course the total time under tension can be slightly less than 80 seconds, e.g. if the exerciser were to get 10 reps, 10 reps, 9 reps, 7 reps across the four sets then total tension time will be ~72 seconds.
Let’s say over the four sets an exerciser will typically accrue 65-80 seconds of tension time.
One set, 4/4 cadence
The 4/4 cadence individual’s 8-12 repetitions in her single set of an exercise will provide for 64-96 seconds time under tension.
One set, 10/10 cadence
The 10/10 exerciser’s goal of performing 3-5 repetitions in his single set of the exercise will provide a total time under tension of 60-100 seconds.
Similar volumes, similar outcomes
What stands out most boldly in the break down above is the similarity in total tension time between all three protocols. Perhaps it is no surprise that the body of research comparing the hypertrophic effectiveness of single sets against multiple sets shows no clear winner. Or put more positively, both single sets and multiple sets are winners when it comes to producing a hypertrophic response.
Selecting an appropriate exercise for the target muscle group, accumulating 60-100 seconds of tension time and closely approaching momentary muscular failure (if not fully achieving it), may well be the greatest possible stimulus for hypertrophy that can be attained from an exercise, no matter whether you did that over one set or four sets.
An important note for personal trainers: HITuni’s position is that a 1/1 rep speed is faster than appropriate for use with all populations and no one needs to move that fast to achieve hypertrophic goals. This is particularly the case when the same results can be achieved in a more controlled and safe manner represented by repetition cadences of 4/4 or slower.