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Set-ling the Debate on Number of Sets

Create: 08/07/2010 - 01:15

Set-ling the Debate on Number of Sets

From Journal of Pure Power’s (JOPP) January ’10 issue, we’d like to share with you for free some insightful research that our editor, James Krieger, MS, ACSM-HFI, conducted and had published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Naturally, in true JOPP fashion, our research review is in plain English, not convoluted scientese few people understand.

Since the first day of lifting weights, athletes wanted to know what the best number of sets per exercise might be. Since personal opinion and conjecture only offers an unsubstantiated and unscientific guess, whereas science offers a 95% guarantee that the findings will positively impact your training, our editor reviewed all applicable research in this area and thus provides you with the proverbial bottom line.

Since nobody knows more about this issue than James, he has graciously agreed to monitor this posting and address your questions and comments.

Download Set-ling the Debate

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Dan Wagman, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
Publisher/Editor in Chief
Journal of Pure Power
Where Science = Peak Performance

Consultant
Body Intellect Sports Performance Enhancement Consortium
Propel Yourself Into Excellence

Comments

Submitted by northernhiro on
how was a "set" defined? A set with a load above a specified % of 1 rep max? A set taken to a specified RPE? A combination of load and RPE?

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=northernhiro]how was a "set" defined? A set with a load above a specified % of 1 rep max? A set taken to a specified RPE? A combination of load and RPE? [/quote] A set is defined as continuous repetitions to volitional fatigue. Most of the sets in the research involved 7-10 repetitions per set.

Submitted by Tom Eiseman on
Dan, I have a question. How did they measure the 46% increase in strength? Was it according to their one rep. max.? I think if I do 3 sets instead of one, I am increasing endurance and that is an increase in strength. So the rep. scheme, warm-ups, how often you train and what intensity all come into the equation. Best Regards, Tom

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=Tom Eiseman] I think if I do 3 sets instead of one, I am increasing endurance and that is an increase in strength. [/quote] Strength was measured as 1-RM in all studies, so the improved performance from multiple sets is not due to an improvement in endurance. I should also note that a study just came out showing 3 sets to produce superior increases in muscle protein synthesis and anabolic signaling compared to 1 set.

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=Tom Eiseman]Tom Eiseman Sorry James the question is for you. Thank you, Tom[/quote] It was a 46% greater change in effect size. Effect size is a way to standardize changes in strength among different studies. It is the mean change in 1-RM, divided by the standard deviation of the group. So if a group increases its 1-RM by 25 pounds, and the standard deviation is 25, then that gives you an effect size of 1.

Submitted by Tim Henriques on
It is also likely and possible that perhaps doing a single set is good for a certain exercise or muscle group (say deadlifts) and doing multiple sets is better for other exercises or muscle groups. This doesn't seem to address that issue.

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=Tim Henriques]It is also likely and possible that perhaps doing a single set is good for a certain exercise or muscle group (say deadlifts) and doing multiple sets is better for other exercises or muscle groups. This doesn't seem to address that issue.[/quote] The analysis was divided into upper and lower body exercises and multiple sets were found to be superior for both.

Submitted by mastermonster on
Buddy McKee. Proudly sponsored by Titan Support Systems Inc. and 'Monster Barbell' Training Log: wannabebig.com / Pro Journals. "Mastermonster's Quest for the Records" James; just for clarification. Are we talking about 3 'working sets', not including warmup sets? (I assume we are) Just to be sure no one misinterprets. My own experience would cause me to agree the 3 sets being optimum. I do think that rep schemes vary for different purposes though. On my 3 comp lifts, I do singles to triples (mostly singles) once I'm at post warmup phase. On my assistance excercises, I do sets of 8-12 (average would be 10 to near failure) to maximize the hypertrophy of the muscle group I'm targeting. The goals are different for my comp lifts and my assistance lifts. Would your research tend to agree with my aproach or not? Thanks.

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=mastermonster]James; just for clarification. Are we talking about 3 'working sets', not including warmup sets? [/quote] Yes [quote] Would your research tend to agree with my aproach or not? Thanks.[/quote] Yes, I would agree that my research tends to agree with your approach.

Submitted by Ken Ufford on
What about how many reps per set? I understand 2-3 is better than 1 set. I also understand that they have not done enough study to know if 4-6 is as good as 1 to 3 sets . But isn't the amount of reps really key. Like 3 sets of 10 vs 5 sets of 3? It left me kind of wanting to know more but I already knew that multiple sets were probally better than just one set? Just wondering about the reps?I Ken Ufford

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=Ken Ufford] What about how many reps per set? [/quote] Unfortunately the research wasn't designed to answer this question. The majority of the studies used 7-10 reps per set. Thus, the results may not apply to other rep ranges. Research by Wernbom indicates 30-60 repetitions per training session as optimal for hypertrophy. At 10 reps per set, that's 3-6 sets which is in line with my research. But that's hypertrophy and not strength.

Submitted by Tom Eiseman on
James, Thank you for your responses. One more question. Some of the best deadlifters like John Inzer deadlift heavy three times a week and others like Jo Walker deadlifted every three weeks. Are there any studies on the subject of optimal number of reps. per week and the optimal recovery time between workouts. Jon Kuc use to stop deadlifting three weeks before the meet. Tom Eiseman

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=Tom Eiseman]James, Thank you for your responses. One more question. Some of the best deadlifters like John Inzer deadlift heavy three times a week and others like Jo Walker deadlifted every three weeks. Are there any studies on the subject of optimal number of reps. per week and the optimal recovery time between workouts. Jon Kuc use to stop deadlifting three weeks before the meet. Tom Eiseman[/quote] Research on training frequency is suprisingly sparse. And it will also depend upon your goals (strength vs. hypertrophy). Research supports higher frequencies (each muscle group 2-3 times per week) for hypertrophy. There's not as much research on training frequency in terms of pure 1-RM strength.

Submitted by Jeff Hackett 1 on
There is no perfect amount of sets, reps or frequency. Everyone is different and a person will change over time. I used to work out twice a day 6 days a week, with 10 sets per body part and did the same exercises 3 times a week for my first few years. Now I train once a week, one set per exercise and just do singles and 5-12 reps. Some do great on westside while others do better on periodization and I have my progressive system. Bottom line is everyone is different and you have to find what works best for you. Jeff Hackett. ULTIMATE SIZE, STRENGTH, AND STAMINA www.fitstep.com www.extremeselfprotection.com

Submitted by Mike Tuchscherer on
Sure there are individual differences and people must account for that in their training. You hear people say "find what works for you" a lot. But it drives me nuts when people say that and act like you just keep stabbing in the dark until something works out. If you look at strength in the right way -- pair enough knowledge with the training problems you have -- you can actually take a lot of guesswork out of it and training becomes much more effective. Less trial and error. More trial and gain. Mike Tuchscherer Reactive Training Systems

Submitted by Jeff Hackett 1 on
[quote=Mike Tuchscherer]Sure there are individual differences and people must account for that in their training. You hear people say "find what works for you" a lot. But it drives me nuts when people say that and act like you just keep stabbing in the dark until something works out. If you look at strength in the right way -- pair enough knowledge with the training problems you have -- you can actually take a lot of guesswork out of it and training becomes much more effective. Less trial and error. More trial and gain. Mike Tuchscherer Reactive Training Systems[/quote] It is not about stabbing in the dark its trying a SYSTEM and seeing if it works for you. To say one system fits all is foolish. I was taught the pyramid system and found it worthless should I have stuck with that? I tried periodization and that worked for a few years but I had to try something else because it wasn't working anymore. I tried westside and that didn't work for me either so I came up with my own system that works for me. J Hack.

Submitted by mastermonster on
Buddy McKee. Proudly sponsored by Titan Support Systems Inc. and 'Monster Barbell' Training Log: wannabebig.com / Pro Journals. "Mastermonster's Quest for the Records" Thanks James; for the responses!

Submitted by Mike Tuchscherer on
My question to you would be WHY did those systems not work for you. What I'm suggesting is that if you understand two things 1) what your body needs to improve and 2) which training methods address those needs... you won't be stuck with "try it and see if it works". You'll be able to target training directly to each athlete's needs. Mike Tuchscherer Reactive Training Systems

Submitted by Jeff Hackett 1 on
[quote=Mike Tuchscherer]My question to you would be WHY did those systems not work for you. What I'm suggesting is that if you understand two things 1) what your body needs to improve and 2) which training methods address those needs... you won't be stuck with "try it and see if it works". You'll be able to target training directly to each athlete's needs. Mike Tuchscherer Reactive Training Systems[/quote] I am not stuck trying and seeing if my training works I have an effective system of progression and cycling. The pyramid system failed because I was doing way too many work sets before my max out set and it stunted my strength but it worked great for my wrestling coach. Periodization failed after a few years because once I reached a certain strength level that I got unconditoned to heavy singles and couldn't get any better with that. Westside failed because the conjugate system made me weaker because I respond best to doing the same exercise and not different ones. Also speed training did nothing for me as well. I think you are missing the point and that is everybody is different and no one program will work for everybody. Plus the same thing will not always work for the same person. That would be like saying there is one diet for everyone when there different diets that people can group themselves into. I am not saying everyone is totally different but most people can find a system that works for them. J Hack.

Submitted by Jonathan Kariv on
2 questions. Firstly you give a point estimate of a 46% improvement. What kind of confidence intervals where associated with this point estimate? The 2nd one is that you mention checking for publication bias. Now my understanding of this is that you check that larger studies give lower p-values than smaller ones (as would be true if there is a significant difference but false if people are just publishing the 5% of studies that are significant by chance alone). But you say you are using 14 studies, isn't this a bit of a small sample to test for publication bias? To clarify that question I'm assuming you're doing a chi-squared test (or something with similiar requirements) and that you are hopeing for 5+ values (p-values/studies) in expectation in each block under H0. Why isn't this a problem?

Submitted by JamesKrieger on
[quote=Jonathan Kariv]2 questions. Firstly you give a point estimate of a 46% improvement. What kind of confidence intervals where associated with this point estimate? [/quote] Mean ES for 1 set was 0.54. Mean ES for multiple sets was 0.80. The 95% confidence interval for the difference was (0.15, 0.37). [quote] The 2nd one is that you mention checking for publication bias. Now my understanding of this is that you check that larger studies give lower p-values than smaller ones (as would be true if there is a significant difference but false if people are just publishing the 5% of studies that are significant by chance alone). But you say you are using 14 studies, isn't this a bit of a small sample to test for publication bias? To clarify that question I'm assuming you're doing a chi-squared test (or something with similiar requirements) and that you are hopeing for 5+ values (p-values/studies) in expectation in each block under H0. Why isn't this a problem? [/quote] I used a funnel plot regression method described by Macaskill et al (Statistics in Medicine, 20:641-654, 2001). It regresses treatment effect as a function of sample size. A significant slope indicates possible publication bias (i.e., smaller studies has larger effect sizes). But this was not observed.

Submitted by R. Wassmann on
Nice. Now this is real information verse all the other fluff that is out there in the mags I see at the gym. On the other hand, I guess they were made for people who are trying to get in shape verses this seems more geared towards athletes.

Submitted by Mike Tuchscherer on
We've already derailed this thread quite a bit, so this will be my last post on the matter. Feel free to contact me via email if you'd like to discuss it further. My point is that everyone says, "Do what works for you" but then you're left to trial and error to figure out what that is. Some people also seem to think that something works or doesn't work just because of a person's individuality. If I tried Program X and it didn't work, it's not because I'm "Mike T" and it just didn't work for me because I'm a unique little snowflake. There is a reason. The reason is that it did not address my physiological needs. As physiological needs change, maybe later down the road it will work. The point is this: If you understand physiological needs and how to address them, you'll take out most of the blind trial and error. You'll also be able to adapt the program as time goes on to continually meet your physiological needs. Let me give you an example. This is hypothetical since I don't know either you or your wrestling coach or what your needs are. You said, "The pyramid system failed because I was doing way too many work sets before my max out set and it stunted my strength but it worked great for my wrestling coach." Now, I wouldn't be able to tell without working with you directly, but it's possible that it failed for you because that system of training tends to address muscular cross sectional area deficiencies. It's also possible that it was too much volume for your recovery processes to handle or any number of other things. With the right knowledge, it's possible to figure out the likely reason. For now, lets say it was due to it addressing cross sectional area. If you needed, say, improved intramuscular coordination then that system may not address those needs in the best manner. Thus, you wouldn't make progress. However, if you knew that your limitation was Intramuscular coordination, you could build a training plan to address that specifically and it's likely that it would work well. The thing is that there are many many possible deficiencies and as such, the more knowledge you have, the more likely you will be able to successfully coach someone (yourself or someone else). Mike Tuchscherer Reactive Training Systems

Submitted by Martini on
"There was no significant difference between 2-3 sets per exercise and 4-6 sets per exercise" What about how many exercises per body part? Or is "exercise" synonymous with "body part" in the study?