When weightlifting, should I use a single set or multiple sets?
August 17, 2006 8:05 AM   Subscribe

What are the benefits of a multi-set weight training regimen vs. a single-set weight training regimen?

The weight training I've done in the past has always followed the HIT protocol: one set, 8-12 reps, mostly performed on machines. This has worked adequately for me in the past but I've gotten a little bored with it. I'm also frustrated with the training plateaus I encounter with this approach.

I'd like to try something different this time, maybe a multi-set regimen. Are there any benefits to doing multi-set training vs. single-set training? Please bear in mind that my goal is not bodybuilder-esque bulk and definition. I'm just a normal guy in his mid-30s who wants to look good and have a stronger, healthier body. Strength is more important than bulk.

And while I'm on the topic -- why would I use free weights instead of machines? All the muscleheads seem to favor free weights. Is there an actual training advantage in doing this, or does it just look more macho?
posted by jason's_planet to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I can't answer all the points here but I can say that there is a big difference in using free weights as opposed to machines. When you use free weights you have to use the muscles to balance the weight as well as to lift it and therefore you'll find that you can't life as much but you're getting more bang-for-your-buck as it were. You'll make better gains if you use freeweights I think and you'll get those muscles nice and toned. Machines are fine but it's important to switch things up.

As far as sets are concerned it's good to do supersets once a month or so. It's easy to get stuck in one routine and your body is very good at adapting to things so by doing supersets you shock the body into not being complacent. Then, after a week of supersets you can go back to your normal weekly routine and reap the benefits of switching things up. I'm not a personal trainer by any stretch of the imagination but these things work very well for me (and for me strength is also more important than bulk too.)
posted by ob at 8:13 AM on August 17, 2006

Oh, by the way Sly Stallone's book Sly Moves has a great training routine with supersets that has worked out really well for me and several friends. Some of my friends who have been working out for years say that they've never felt better using his routine (and I agree). There are plenty of other books out there, but this one has been great for me...
posted by ob at 8:17 AM on August 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should certainly vary your workouts. A big part of initial gains in lifting is simply neurological adaptation to doing something new. Varying your weights and sets and set orders and reps all help to break through plateaus as your body is forced to adapt to the different conditions. I really like exrx as a research based (versus myth based) site for weight lifting information, both about various regimins and specific exercises.

The strength gains elicited by multiple sets diminish after the first set. In other words, after a warm-up and then one good set there is some diminishing return. I think 75% of strength gains come from that first set. In my opinion, given this, it's better to add another related exercise.

As to free weights: they're better because 1) they recruit a bigger set of muscles, because they rely on muscles rather than machines to stabliize the weight as you move it; 2) there are more available exercises allowing one to vary workouts; 3) they require more concentration and therefore more committment to your workout (ok, that last might be a stretch, but you do have to be more careful).
posted by OmieWise at 8:19 AM on August 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah I second exrx -it's a great resource.
posted by ob at 8:22 AM on August 17, 2006

What is the effect of doing only one set, as far as stamina development is concerned?
posted by mhuckaba at 9:00 AM on August 17, 2006

Yeah, I second (or third?) the free weights. I worked out with machines for a few months and saw almost no progress. Then a really buff friend of mine convined me to try free weights, and wow! Big difference. I started seeing immediate gains in strength and size.

Be warned: when you try free weights, you probably won't be able to lift as much as you can with the equivalent machine exercise. That's fine. When you're learning new exercises, proper form is infinitely more important than stacking on as much weight as your body can bear.
posted by markcholden at 9:15 AM on August 17, 2006

mhuckaba writes "What is the effect of doing only one set, as far as stamina development is concerned?"

If you're lifting for endurance, the more reps the better, so one set would probably not be enough. In that case you're looking for 25 reps and 2-3 sets.
posted by OmieWise at 9:21 AM on August 17, 2006

@mhuckaba: Most weight training programs are geared toward building muscle strength and size. The one-set method is no exception. If you're trying to develop stamina, I've been told you should use low weight and lots of reps (never tried it myself). I've never actually known anyone to train with weights to develop stamina...usually people use cardiovascular exercise like running or biking.
posted by markcholden at 9:21 AM on August 17, 2006

There are a lot of schools of thought and your body might work better with one over another. Experiment.

If you're lifting for endurance, the more reps the better, so one set would probably not be enough. In that case you're looking for 25 reps and 2-3 sets.

If you could completely fatigue the muscle with hight reps in the first set, there's no need (or ability) to do more.

The same goes for lifting high weights at low reps. Most people aren't going to be able to fatigue a muscle with one set however, so we fall back on multiple sets.
posted by justgary at 9:46 AM on August 17, 2006

Best answer: Another good resource is T-Nation. It is a bodybuilding site, but they have some great lifting plans if you need some variety. Check out the article section, specifically Chad Waterbury's Hypertrophy plans. Remember that unless you train for it, you aren't going to bulk up like a bodybuilder. They work for years to get that big.

As for your question, I started out doing single set HIT but recently switched to a program using a modified plan by Waterbury and have noticed some great gains. I've also completely stopped using machines and now do all free-weight work, which I can highly recommend as being more interesting and giving you a better workout.
posted by Loto at 10:25 AM on August 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I didn't mean to write this much. It's just that there's so much misinformation out there.

Here's your answer:
Try some variation (even better.) Here are some types of variation that will certainly produce change, and still follow the basic concepts. Pre-exahustion, Breakdown sets, and Negative training. (see below where this paragraph is repeated)

Before much goes further here, I'm going to jot down some of what I've learned. In my past, I spent over ten years as a personal trainer, working with athletes, the elderly, exercise physiologists, orthopedics and physical therapists, (and occasionally spoke (seminar style) with sport strength coaches.)

Most, when presented with the common sense involved, used these principles. I'll also point out, that nowhere else in life, did I see so many educated people espouse so many 'beliefs' (rather than reason.) Physicians with less than five hours of education, giving patients regimens. 'Big guys' who had a genetic advantage (almost anything would have made them big...just like their fathers)

Don't ask the horse how he performs so well, ask the guy who trained him.

Much of what we utilize today in strength training comes from one guy - Arthur Jones, the Inventor of Nautilus. Literally, every machine that is Cam based, with a weight stack is a derivative of his works. He was a big advocate of High Intensity training. It's not that there weren't other innovators, it's just this one guy put together many of the pieces in one pie; cams, frictional problems, functional design.

His general philosophy on strength training was: How can I perform the most efficient workout in the minimum amount of time. Basically, this is the idea of training sensibly.

This boils down to: "Work hard rather than more work. And don't get hurt while working out"

Or - Safe, sensible, exercise.

For example, maybe plyometrics (explosive training - usually sport specific, like jumping up and down rapidly off a bench with weights to improve your high jump) work...maybe it doesn't. But what it does do is expose the joints/muscles to dangerous forces, exceeding what the body could normally produce. So, plyometric training should be avoided, because if you get hurt while training.

Back to the concept.

Stimulus (given rest) provides response. If you're working towards failure, in good form, there is minimal to no benefits to doing multiple sets. Now, several studies reenforce this (many, many studies go over multiple sets - because the physiologist based their research on the method of other physiologist.) Google Wayne Wescot and Ellington Darden. Bodybuilder know better? Back in the 70-80s a number of body builders such as Casey Viator, Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates, were, what we call now, "High Intensity" body builders.

Work hard. Rest.

Really, those are the core components of getting into better shape/stronger/leaner/etc.

Women can't build bulky muscles. People genetically follow their parents in general structure. Weight training can make a difference, but it's not going to take a skinny kid and make him into Schwartzenegger, genetics are probably 95% of the battle.

So, go ahead and do two sets if you like.
Just make sure you're working hard at both sets; more work doesn't equate with 'better' work. It's just more work. If you reach your anaerobic threshold (training under load for 60-180 seconds), where you cannot do another repetition in good form, you've created enough stimulus for change (given a nice window of rest).

More "stimulus" won't cause you to progress faster (you are tracking your workouts, your changes, your reps, right?). Two sets will tire you (and your concetration), but it won't cause faster changes.

The body doesn't know whether you use freeweights/nautlius/or you're running from a cougar. Stimulus = change

So, sure, do two sets, but understand they won't make much difference (vs. the quality of your work.) Don't throw the weights - slow controlled exercise.

Personally, I've been an advocate of Super Slow training (not for the feint of heart - it's a 20 second slow repetition. But very, very safe. No cheating. Not much fun. But very good)

Here's your answer:
Try some variation (even better.) Here are some types of variation that will certainly produce change, and still follow the basic concepts. Pre-exahustion, Breakdown sets, and Negative training.

Pre-exhaustion addresses a major flaw of much of 'freeweight' training. The problem is that there is the belief that bench presses build your chest. The triceps and chest work during any sort of bench pressing motion (freeweights or machines.) But, the triceps are smaller than the chest. What gets fatigued first? That's right, the triceps. So, all those sets of bench pressing? They're limiting their chest strength to their triceps (as well as over training their triceps). Now instead do some sort of rotary work (a chest fly or arm cross machine) right before the bench press. Now, during the chest pressing exercise, for the first time, the chest is going to fail first - truly working your chest. You're exhausting your chest directly in a rotary motion before a compound pressing motion. Your workout should be designed with pre-exhaustion in mind. Since it's likely you're training twice a week, do two different workouts.

You could do a super-set/breakdown set/etc where you use two pins in a machine...train to failure, immediately pull out the pin, and continue. This is psychologically hard, and as a bonus, produces a deeper inroad. But, you'll probably need greater rest (and you're likely to quit earlier, knowing you have more work to do.) This should be done a bit sparingly. The inroad (the amount you fatigue your muscles) is rather high - and requires greater rest.

The deepest, hardest, need-an-assistant sort of training I've done, is negative training. You can lower a weight greater than you can lift. For example, if you can't do ten chins, you could grab a stool, stand above the chin bar, and then lower yourself for ten seconds (be slow, be safe). When you can do ten of these, add weight around your waist. Negative only training is not fun in any sense of the imagination, but it (given a longer rest period) usually breaks through some plateaus. Use a spotter and compound motions (vs. rotary motions)

Last, I know you've been sold on the idea that exercise ought to be fun/social. Socially, play a sport. Fun? If it's fun, you're probably not working out hard.

Endurance activities are how you improve your stamina. Not weight training. You can't "lift" for endurance. If you can perform an exercise for greater than 180 seconds, it's involving your aerobic system. The guy who can do 100 situps needs to make them harder (more resistance) rather than increasing the reps. Please don't quote about slow vs. fast twitch fiber types. Slow twitch need more repetitions (towards 20+) vs. fast twitch that need less (8 or so). If someone wants more info (and some of the testing protocol) feel free to message me directly.

Freeweights have several major flaws:

They're not full range of motion, they do not produce oppositional force during exercise. They're also a skill.

Full range of motion - think of a standing biceps curl. When your arm is completely straight, the weight is pulling downward (due to gravity). To move the weight, the force your hand produces is horizontal ninety degrees out of phase with the force. As you curl, when your arm is parallel to the ground, only here will the dumbbell produce force in opposition of the direction of your pull. At the top of the repetition, again, it's out of phase.

Well designed strength training machines, produce not merely an oppositional force in all points of a rotary exercise, but they also have a Cam (the pea shape of this cam is where Nautilus got it's name, like a nautilus shell) which varies the difficult of work, based on the production of force from your muscles.

So your bicep works hard at the beginning, middle and end of the range of motion.

Full range of motion exercise is what's required to strengthen a muscle fully. It is possible to strengthen a muscle in a narrow range...and it will be stronger in that narrow range. If you use dumbbells and I take you to a machine, you'll be disproportionately weak in the beginning and end of the motion (where you've had less balanced stimulus.)

The argument that "Freeweight exercises "train" the supporting muscles", that you hear over and over...miss an important thought/point. One, why not work those 'supporting muscles' directly? Two, if you fatigue those supporting muscles (stimulate them), you'll find that they're weak for the exercise where they're meant to get direct stimulation. And it's certainly not full range of motion.

Freeweights are a skill: Literally. It's a practice move. Like your tennis swing. You need to learn how to balance the bar. This skill set doesn't have anything to do with being stronger. It's specific to moving a bar (and won't help you be more skilled at pushing a door, a linebacker or anything else). It will get you stronger, but you still have the skill interfering with the acquisition of strength.

Ever had a bad day at golf? Cause your swing was off? Well, that happens with freeweights too. That your skill is interfering with your desire to be stronger.

posted by filmgeek at 11:12 AM on August 17, 2006 [5 favorites]

Single set approach is definitely effective when trying to work on bulk, but for definition and increased strength, multiple sets are better.

You can't stick to just machines, as well, because their range of motion is hampered by it's need to hold stability. Let me explain via a muscle group:

Let's say you're trying to target your shoulders. If you're a beginner, I would recommend a simple mechanical shoulder press because it's easy, safe and effective at first. It makes sure your posture is supportive and isolates moderately effectively the muscle.
As you gain strength, your resistance to the machine matures, especially because it is not targeting the entire, gestalt muscle group in a fixed, prone position.

From there, I would graduate the person towards free-weights. The range of motion of your arms allows for a more penetrating effectiveness upon the muscle group, that isn't constricted by the machines bars/pulleys. Make sure you use proper form etc to avoid injury.

Finally, for an advanced lifter, I would suggest moving on to a more plyometric approach. For example, when doing shoulder press with dumbells, instead of using a back-supported bench, do it simply on a flat bench with no back support. It causes your secondary and tertiary muscles to be activated into positions that are more akin to real life strength (i.e. when an athletes benches 450 lbs, that doesn't really translate to real-world effectiveness, because it's been achieved in a flat and forced position. Great for aesthetics, but for practicality?). Shoulder raises, standing with weights, on 1 foot are another example of ways to work on plyometric balance etc...

I suggest moving you into phase 2: Get on the free-weights, vary your excersizes up every few weeks, increase sets. If you're serious about your lifting, you want to target 2 muscle groups each lift. Try to space out primary and secondary muscles for the added rest (e.g. don't bench and biceps on monday and do shoulders on tuesday; space out bench and shoulders...).
posted by stratastar at 11:18 AM on August 17, 2006

Best answer: re: Filmgeek

I think your perspective on things is largely right, especially with pre-exhaustion (you have to compensate for your secondary/tertiary muscles which will tire before your primary muscles) but I tend to disagree with a few of your points:

-In terms of freeweights and oppositional force, I don't believe that machines add a bonus in terms of oppositional pressure over freeweights in any excersize. If I'm doing a preacher curl on a machine or just with a clamped bar, I achieve the same oppositional force, but with the bar, I can adjust my range of motion, because the machine is a fixed apparatus. For oppositional force, freeweights are the best as long as you have a partner doing resistance excersizes (e.g. resistance curls where the person presses down, as you try to resist going down, and you have to push back up etc)....

Furthermore, the range of motion in the excersize may be less, but in a machine you are always constricted to one position, which leads only to aesthetic success and not tangible and accessible results.

I use the example of the athlete and plyometric excersizes with this:
If you can achieve a massive benchpress, that should translate to some empirical strength. For example, Bob benches 400, Jim benches 375, therefore Bob is stronger than Jim. However, Bob is only stronger than Jim in that certain fixed position. How many times would Bob engage Jim in any type of physical activitiy in a fixed position? Never, that's why flat bench is, although a well-targeting and machoistic excersize, for anyone interested in utilizing their strength, largely pointless.

I have forged excersizes with friends who do Mau-Thai and Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu that involve accessing one's strength in off-balanced situations; e.g. Benching on an excersize ball, doing shoulder workouts without back-support, without a firm base etc... The "core" muscles in your torso which can act as support for the primary targets, in my opinion, need to be accessed and worked on if aesthetics is not your main issue, but rather being accessible towards that strength.
posted by stratastar at 11:31 AM on August 17, 2006

Re Stratastar

Aesthetics. Well, realistically, There are football programs and olympic athletes that use primarily machines, and the strength isn't aesthetic at all there. (Reality note: there are some athletes who use no weight training at all and improve.)

Oppositional force. Gravity sucks. Really. If the force is not direct and oppositional to the motion, it's not providing direct work. Preacher curls are you trying adapt to this fact. So are partner resistance (albeit, partner based resistance exercises can be very good.) But if your partner is adapting to what's wrong with freeweights, then something isn't right there.

Range of motion is tremendously weighty (pun intended); imagine spreading your arms "wide" and only doing bench (for your chest, because it's wide). You're tremendously limiting the range of motion. Strength testing apparatus (not isokinetic like cybex, but a variety of static measurements through the range of motion) shows a dysfunctional strength curve. This curve can lead a person into a range of motion during a sport where they are disproportionally weak, and therefore likely to have a greater chance of injury.
In fact, in a bench press, your range of motion is still constricted to the "slot" of where you move the bar. Ditto with curls. The machine design is constricted to the functional movement of the exercise.

In other words, you should still practice your skill specific exercise, to improve at the skill (more in a sec about that.)

Example of two people benchpressing.
Generally heavier amounts of work under load indicates strength, it misses on a couple of issues.
What if Bob is 5'4" but Jim is 6'? Jim has longer moment arms that Bob does. Bob moves more weight bench pressing, but during a rotary motion, such as throwing an punch - since Jim's arms are longer, he actually hits with more force. This doesn't even include the difference of how a muscle connects to a bone, nor muscular belly length (which is genetic). So, realistically, you can only measure a person to their ability.
This is further complicated when you try to apply to sports: If the bench press (moving forward with the arms, using the chest and triceps) correlated to physical sports, say, such as blocking with your arms/chest in football, football coaches would recruit solely from powerlifters (being that they're excellent as throwing the weight)
Unfortunately, skill exercises are that...skill. And skills are freakishly specific. Sprinters who wear heavy shoes during practice, and then wear light shoes for the race, perform worse than just using the right shoes. It's almost identical - but it's different. And you know this if you throw kicks with/without pads in full contact kickboxing. It's pretty similar, but not the same. So, skills are really really specific.

As far as "core" exercises; hey it's great. But it's the hot fad over the last five or so years. Your friends and yourself would likely get similar 'core' benefits from chins + dips. I mean, I know benching off the ball is cool and tough, but it's really, really a difficult skill.

Side note: Mau-Thai? Really? Used to be a Bando Boxer here (Burmese). Many of my friends have been into Gracie as well for years.

posted by filmgeek at 12:59 PM on August 17, 2006

Re filmgeek: you seem really knowledgable on the subject; I'm not a professional lifter, just someone with devotion and connections to personal trainers. For me, it has been an inexact science, where I try to impart my basic understandings of physics/anatomy to my own personal experiences/skill sets. Having lifted seriously for only 3 years now, I am apt to learn something new every day and I'd love any suggestions you have to my workout (I could pm you my specific attributes/routines etc).

-as for your example of Bob and Jim, you're absolutely right about the discrepancies in things such as genetics, size, skill...what it comes down to is, to a certain degree, a lack of homogeneity in terms of numerics (which is why I hate the questions, "how much do you bench?").

-re "core", I just started encorporating it since I started lifting with a friend who is a personal trainer. I don't focus on it entirely, but it is a refreshing perspective and gets me out of the rut of the same excersizes which sometimes diminish effectiveness.

- Gracie is really popular amongst my friends, almost to a point where I worry about their mental sanity (they tend to get into fights a bit less reluctantly with their added confidence and ability, of course). It's a wonderful self-defense technique for any 1 v 1 situation and Mau-Thai really covers your basics in terms of striking. It's interesting, because if you watch MMA, the entire trend of the sport, which began 25 years ago as no-holds bar and a very diversified spectrum (boxers, grapplers, wrestlers, martial artists) has turned into a homogenized sport (Mau-Thai/Bando/Kickboxing mixed with ground game, usually BJJ- Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu). Loses some of its enamore, but shows the evolution towards effectiveness.
posted by stratastar at 1:57 PM on August 17, 2006

Alright, wise guys, explain the difference between "oppositional force" and resistance, using a barbell as an example. I always thought force was force.

btw, it's spelled "exercise", like exert.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:22 PM on August 17, 2006

Response by poster: Damn! This is impressive!

Wow, I'm still taking it all in. (Haven't made a decision about what program to follow yet, but this has given me a lot to think about.)

I'm really impressed with the quality of the responses here. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to respond so well to my question(s).

Again, thank you very much!
posted by jason's_planet at 7:55 PM on August 17, 2006

Mr Gunn,

I'll admit I'm not using the correct physics definitions.

Briefly, if your arm is hanging vertically and you put a dumbbell in it...the weight is, say, 50 lbs.

But your hand generates force (at that position) horizontally. Whatever "work" you have to do move that weight is not 50 lbs (as the weight is pulling downwards)...but you want the resistance to be opposite your direction of pull (which would be horizontal.)

Pretty much, for any rotary motion, freeweights generate force out of phase to the direction of the work, at all but one point in the range of motion. The 'sticking' point - where the resistance is opposite to your direction movement, is the point where you're working hardest.

posted by filmgeek at 7:30 AM on August 18, 2006

The work your hand is doing only matters to your hand. If you've got a dumbbell in your hand, and you are holding it down by your side, not matter what your hand is doing, your arm is working against a downward force.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:19 PM on August 18, 2006

Yes, but your biceps, while your arm is hanging, pull horizontally to start the motion, not vertically. The axis of rotation is your elbow. The resistance ought to be moving horizontally opposite of your hand. But it's 90 degrees out of phase.

If the 'weight" only mattered to your hand - I can lift 110 lb dumbbells...but not move them more than about 20-30 degrees. Why? Because my arm, as it begins it's vertical ascent has to oppose the downward pull of gravity.

posted by filmgeek at 6:06 PM on August 21, 2006

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