Training muscle group with 3 sets more effective than with 1 set

Arthur Jones, the godfather of the High-Intensity approach to strength training, is probably turning in his grave. Sports scientists at Juntendo University in Japan have published the results of a human study which shows that strength athletes are better off training a muscle group with three sets than with one.

Less is more is the credo of the High-Intensity approach endorsed by people like Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer. In a nutshell: train as little as possible, but as intensively as possible. In the High-Intensity approach you train a muscle group preferably with just one set, and do as many reps as you can. It’s called the single-set principle.

Although several studies have shown that this method works, there are many more studies in which multi-set workouts give better results than single-set ones. Canadian researchers have demonstrated that three sets work better than one and American sports scientists reported a decade ago about the added value of a workout routine consisting of six sets. The Japanese study, which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, can be added to the stack.

The Japanese did an experiment with eight male subjects who were in their mid-twenties and untrained. The subjects trained their biceps twice a week for a period of 12 weeks, doing seated dumbbell preacher curls. After warming up, the subjects trained one arm by doing one set and the other arm by doing three sets. This enabled the researchers to exclude the genetic variation factor.

The figure below shows that the maximal strength increased most in the biceps that the men trained with three sets. The added value of the three-sets approach only became clear after eight weeks of training.



The figure above shows that the men’s muscle mass also increased more in the biceps they trained with three sets.

The post-workout lactic acid level rose by more in the three-sets biceps than in the one-set biceps. Reading between the lines the researchers seem to suggest that they have an idea about the mechanism behind this effect that would explain why three sets cause more hypertrophy than one set, but the article remains vague on the matter.

“Based on our results, we recommend that personal trainers and fitness professionals use 3 sets as a starting point for sedentary untrained individuals”, the researchers conclude.

Effects of training volume on strength and hypertrophy in young men.

Sooneste H, Tanimoto M, Kakigi R, Saga N, Katamoto S.


1Graduate School of Health and Sports Science, Juntendo University, Inzai City, Japan 2Department of Biomedical Engineering, Kinki University, Wakayama, Japan 3Institute of Health and Sports Science & Medicine, Juntendo University, Inzai City, Japan.


Sooneste, H, Tanimoto, M, Kakigi, R, Saga, N, and Katamoto, S. Effects of training volume on strength and hypertrophy in young men. J Strength Cond Res 27(1): 8-13, 2013-Knowledge of the effects of training volume on upper limb muscular strength and hypertrophy is rather limited. In this study, both arms of the same subject were trained in a crossover-like design with different training volumes (1 or 3 sets) to eliminate the effects of genetic variation and other individual differences. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of training volume on muscular strength and hypertrophy in sedentary, untrained young Japanese men. Eight subjects (age, 25.0 ± 2.1 years; body mass, 64.2 ± 7.9 kg; height, 171.7 ± 5.1 cm) were recruited. The subjects trained their elbow flexor muscles twice per week for 12 consecutive weeks using a seated dumbbell preacher curl. The arms were randomly assigned to training with 1 or 3 sets. The training weight was set at 80% of 1 repetition maximum for all sets. The 3-set protocol increased cross-sectional area significantly more than did 1 set (1 set, 8.0 ± 3.7%; 3 sets, 13.3 ± 3.6%, p < 0.05). Furthermore, gains in strength with the 3-set protocol tended to be greater than those with 1 set (1 set, 20.4 ± 21.6%; 3 sets, 31.7 ± 22.0%, p = 0.076). Based on the results, the authors recommend 3 sets for sedentary untrained individuals. However, this population should incorporate light training days of 1 set into their training program to prevent overtraining and ensure adherence. The findings are relevant for the sedentary, untrained young male population and must be interpreted within the context of this study. PMID: 23249767 [PubMed - in process] Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23249767

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