Weight-training is not just for bodybuilders who want to bulk up. Everyone needs some sort of resistance training to increase strength and muscle definition. Cardio alone won’t do it. In fact, long cardio sessions can actually reduce muscle size as both fat and muscle tissue are broken down to fuel long aerobic workouts. Having less lean body mass puts you at a metabolic disadvantage, and you won’t get the benefits of looking toned and taut.
Now that you’re convinced you need to step off the treadmill and spend some time in the weight room, how much resistance training do you need to do to build muscle strength?
How Much Strength-Training Do You Need?
To build strength, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing one set of at least 8 strength-training exercises that target each major muscle group. Each set should include 8 to 12 reps and should be done 2 or 3 times a week. To build strength, you would use a weight challenging enough to make the last few reps difficult.
Is a Single Set of Each Exercise Enough?
Sounds pretty straightforward, but is one set of each exercise really enough to build strength? Whether you can build maximal strength-building doing only a single set of each exercise is an issue fitness experts have long debated.
Some experts believe you don’t get additional benefits from doing multiple sets of each exercise. They believe one set with a weight that’s heavy enough to fatigue the muscle after 8 to 12 reps is enough to build strength and definition.
Other experts disagree. They point out that muscles respond to weight-training in a dose-dependent manner. Up to a certain point, putting greater stress on the muscle causes greater adaptation and strength gains. They don’t believe a single set of each exercise is enough to fatigue the muscle sufficiently, and you need to do 2 to 3 sets of each exercise.
So who’s right?
In 2009, a meta-analysis of studies looking at single versus multiple sets was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. In this study, researchers controlled for variables that may have confounded previous studies. Turns out more sets are better than one, at least up to a point. They found that doing 2 to 3 sets of each exercise boosted strength by 46% over doing a single set.
So are you wasting your time if you only do a single set of each weight-training exercise? It depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to build maximal strength and definition, the best way is to do 2 or 3 sets of each exercise using a weight that challenges you.
Muscles also respond to progression, meaning you have to continue to challenge them to build strength. That’s why you stop making gains after months of doing the same exercises using the same weights. If you’re doing only a single set of each exercise, your muscles will benefit from the additional challenge of doing multiple sets.
One Set or Several?
Most evidence suggests 2 to 3 sets of each exercise to get maximal strength gains. If you’re short on time and can only do a single set of each exercise, use the heaviest weight you can safely lift, and do the movements slowly with focus to really fatigue the muscle.
Another time-saver is to do compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time. This will allow you to do fewer total exercises so you can do multiple sets to really challenge your muscles. Examples of compound exercises are dead-lifts, push-ups, squats, lunges, pull-ups, chest presses, and shoulder presses. Doing multiple sets of any of these exercises will help you get strong fast and burn more calories too.
The bottom line? You’ll get some benefits from doing single sets if you use a weight that challenges you, but to maximize your gains, 2 to 3 sets is better. This is the same philosophy we use in our new Total Body Tri-Sets video where you will do three sets of every exercise.
J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1890-901.
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