It’s “generally accepted gym wisdom” that 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps is what you need to do for hypertrophy, and 4+ sets of 1-6 reps is the recipe for strength.

More than just “Bro-Science”, these are the rep ranges you will be taught as fact if you certify as a trainer with the American College of Sports Medicine, one of the most respected certifying bodies in the world of fitness and strength training.

It’s a college with medicine in the title. Their recommendations must therefore be based on hard science… no?

HIT me baby, just 1 time?

Though the 3 x 10 and 5 x 5 paradigms are by far the most popular resistance training protocols in use, proponents of HIT – High Intensity Training – have been claiming (since the 1970s) that in fact, just one single set of each exercise is all that is necessary to promote muscle and strength gains, providing that this set is performed to complete muscular failure.

I first came across the concept of HIT in 2010 after reading Body by Science by Doug McGuff.

Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus Resistance Machines and Pioneer of Single Set HIT Training

Up until reading that book, I’d been a disciple of “Functional Training”, multiple sets, and never training to failure, as “Training to Failure was Training to Fail” (Pavel Tsatsouline).

Though the concept of HIT training at first glance appeared to be the polar opposite of the type of training I’d been doing up until that point with good results, I decided to approach it with an open mind, look at the research, and experiment with it myself.

Here comes the science bit

Before getting to my own personal views and experiences, let’s take a look at the science on the topic.

First up, we have the official recommendations from the ACSM, which in turn form the basis of the course material for their trainer certifications.

The ACSM’s “Position Stand” is based on the paper “Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults”1

In brief, the ACSM’s Strength Training Guidelines recommend:

  • Free weights are superior to machines
  • Multiple sets produce greater strength and mass gains than single sets
  • Higher rep ranges are better for hypertrophy, lower reps for strength
  • Higher volume training produces more hypertrophy
  • Training frequency of 2-3 times per week for novices, 4-5 for advanced is optimum
  • Rest periods of 3 minutes between sets for strength
  • Repetition speeds of 1-2 seconds concentric, 1-2 seconds eccentric

This all sounds pretty familiar to me – it’s essentially what I was taught many years ago when I first qualified as a PT.

These recommendations have come under heavy criticism, however, for not being based on suficient evidence.

For example, Fisher, Steele (who’s research into back pain I’ve mentioned a few times), Bruce-Low and Smith did their own analysis of the available research in 2011 and published their findings in “Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations”2 and Carpinelli et al in 2004 in their paper “A Critical Analysis of the ACSM Position Stand on Resistance Training”.3

Both papers seriously take to task the recommendations of the ACSM – and not just in terms of their recommendations for rep and set schemes. If you’re interested in effective, evidence based strength training, I strongly recommend you read both of these papers in full.

In summary however, they concluded:

  • Free weights are superior to machines Insufficient Evidence
  • Multiple sets produce greater strength and mass gains than single sets Insuficient Evidence
  • Higher rep ranges are better for hypertrophy, lower reps for strength Insuficient Evidence
  • Higher volume training produces more hypertrophy Insuficient Evidence
  • Training frequency of 2-3 times per week for novices, 4-5 for advanced is optimum Insuficient Evidence
  • Rest periods of 3 minutes between sets for strength Insuficient Evidence
  • Repetition speeds of 1-2 seconds concentric, 1-2 seconds eccentric are optimum Insuficient Evidence

They argue that it is the intensity of resistance training which is important, and that the evidence simply does not support the ACSMs recommendations for training with multiple sets, nor for the superiority of free-weights over machines, nor any of their recommendations regarding rep ranges, speeds, volume or frequency!

The above papers all look at a large range of factors however, so what about research specifically investigating single vs multiple set training?

The multiple set proponents point towards a meta-analysis published by JW Krieger (one of the authors of the ACSM position stand paper) in 20104, which, after looking at 8 different studies comparing the effects of single vs multiple sets concluded “multiple sets are associated with 40% greater hypertrophy-related effect sizes than 1 set, in both trained and untrained subjects”.

So clearly single set training sucks – by adding more sets you get 40% more muscle, no?

Er, well no. Not quite, in fact not at all.

James Fisher does an excellent job at dismantling Krieger’s conclusions in his paper “Beware the Meta-Anaylsis: Is Multiple Set Training Really Better than Single-Set Training for Hypertrophy?5

I would urge you to read the whole paper, as of course Fisher is the author on several papers which find no benefit of multiple set training over single set training, so there is certainly the possibility of bias, but in brief –

The meta-analysis looks at 8 different studies.

6, yes that’s 6, out of 8 of the studies found no differences whatsoever between single or multiple sets on hypertrophy.

The remaining 2 studies did find that performing 3 rather than just 1 set of resistance exercises led to increased hypertrophy in the legs in untrained males, but no difference to upper body exercises.

So in summary, the ACSM, a large and internationally respected body, informed by legitimate and internationally respected scientists conclude that multiple sets are the way to go, regardless of the trainee, their goals, or training modality.

This recommendation however, is hotly contested by many other scientists, also legitimate and internationally respected, who’s papers are also published and peer-reviewed in legitimate and internationally respected journals.

So what are we to do?

Pick your side…

So with no clear consensus in the scientific community, how do we decide which is best – single or multiple sets for hypertrophy and strength gains?

Cherry Picking, great fun for all the family! Hans / Pixabay

You must choose a side, and defend it vehemently in the comments section below, cherry picking studies which fit your argument, and hurling ad homenin abuse at anyone who contradicts your point of view…

Of course I’m being facetious, but this is what you will see happening all across the web.

My personal thoughts –

It depends!

Ah, how we love black and white answers. It would be so nice and neat if there were a definitive answer – either multiple set training is more effective, or one single set always gives the same results.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the lack of consensus in the scientific community, this is not the case.

Personally, I think whether single or multiple sets are superior depends upon:

  • The exercise and equipment being used
  • The training goals
  • The genetics and training experience of the individual

Specific Strength vs Raw Strength

I was introduced to the concept that “Strength is a Skill” through the books The Naked Warrior and Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline.

These books totally redefined my approach to strength training, and following the guidelines within, I massively improved my performance on the exercises to which I applied the training philosophy.

In the books, Pavel recommends training with low reps, multiple sets, and never to failure.

Training to Failure is Training to Fail – Pavel Tsatsouline

The argument behind this rationale, is that the performance of any movement of strength or power, be it a deadlift, a vertical jump, throwing a javelin etc, requires a high degree of neuromuscular coordination.

The more you practice the movement, the better you become at contracting the right muscle fibres at the right time in the right sequence.

The strength gains that you see from following such a program come from improved technique and efficiency.

Training to failure, results in poor form. These faulty movement patterns, argues Pavel, can interfere with the ingraining of the optimal movement patterns, thus hindering progress and improvement.

This all makes a great deal of sense to me, however, I also think it is only part of the story.

“You shall gain but you shall pay with sweat, blood, and vomit, Comrade.”
― Pavel Tsatsouline

“Strength is a Skill” is very catchy, but I think a more accurate adage would be “Strength has a Skill Component” or “Skill is an Aspect of Strength”. (Yes, good job I don’t write slogans for a living…)

A 50kg person can hugely improve their deadlift by following the Power to the People program, and would be able to easily out lift another person of the same weight, or even quite possibly of 10 or 20kg heavier who hadn’t done the same training.

Chances are though, that an untrained 100kg individual (with the same body composition), could outlift the 50kg lifter with no training whatsoever, and if they were to follow the exact same training program, would be able to lift significantly more in every session.

Skill and training aside, larger muscles have a greater potential for strength and power – This is precisely why we have weight categories in strength and power sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting, fighting sports and so on.

Who SAID you were Strong?

So this is where the catchy phrases get even less catchy.

Before I said, that “Strength is a Skill” should really be “Strength has a Skill Component”.

Well, actually, it should probably be – “The ability to perform a specific strength movement has a specific and non-transferrable skill component” (I don’t think Madison Ave will be calling any time soon).

For those of you not familiar with the SAID principal, it is an acronym for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand” and is one of the most important concepts in sports science.

The principal states that the body adapts very specifically to the demands imposed upon it (duh!), thus if you train deadlifts, your body will adapt (physiologically and/or neurologically) to become better at deadlifting specifically.

It is my opinion, that it is a misunderstanding, or at least under-estimation of the SAID principal, which has led to the current obsession with “Functional Training” and “Cross-Training” programs which now abound (and which I myself followed and taught during many years).

I don’t want to go into too much detail here, as I’ve already written about why Functional Training is a Myth, but suffice it to say, that the concepts behind these training modalities are highly flawed.

Once you’ve invested £50,000 in Equipment and painted “Functional” on the Wall, it’s going to make accepting 1 Set with Resistance Machines as superior difficult to swallow…kokkarina / Pixabay

The idea is that developing “functional strength” in the gym, through working complex, multi-joint strength movements that also challenge co-ordination and stability, will translate into strength outside of the gym, be it in day-to-day life, work or sport.

What it overlooks, is that it is really only physiological adaptations – i.e. increased muscle mass, tendon thickness, bone density etc – which have the potential to transfer from one strength task/movement to another.

Though there may be some skill aspects which transfer from one movement to another (i.e. the ability to maintain a lumbar curve under heavy load in a deadlift and a squat), this is at best very limited, and only to very similar movements.

Whatsmore, some scientists argue that there is even the potential for interference between similar but subtly different movement patterns (for example, perhaps counter-intuitively, baseball players who tried to improve strength by swinging heavy bats, actually ended up with slower swings).

Muscle Doesn’t Come Cheap

So when you impose a strength demand on your body, it has two potential methods through which to adapt, in order to better handle the situation in future –

  • Physiologically: by increasing lean muscle mass, or
  • Neurologically: by increasing skill and efficiency in the movement

As we’ve already noted, an individual following a lower rep, multiple set deadlift training program, who avoids training to failure, can make considerable gains in deadlift strength, without gaining lean body mass.

In biological terms, muscle is a costly affair. It requires a great deal of energy to both build and maintain extra muscle mass.

Neurological adaptations on the other hand, are much cheaper, as they do not require the building and maintenance of new tissue, and also tend to make movements more efficient, and thus less energy demanding.

Now, I’m moving into the world of speculation here, but it would make sense to me, that the body would look to make “cheaper” neurological adaptations before “costly” physiological ones.

I.e. it would squeeze all the juice possible out of the existing system by updating the software, before resorting to the more expensive option of upgrading the hardware.

This theory would appear to be supported by the ability of people to make large strength gains in movements such as the deadlift, without making significant, if any, gains in lean muscle mass.

Complex vs Simple Movements

Following on from the reasoning above, it would make perfect sense, that more complex movements leave much more room for neurological adaptations than simpler movements.

The more muscles the body has to activate in sequence to move and stabilise different joints across the body, the longer it is going to take for the body to find and reinforce the optimal movement pattern with which to perform the movement.

Each time you train the deadlift, for example, this movement pattern is being refined and honed, and your performance in the deadlift increases. Your “raw strength” however, likely remains mostly unchanged, as you’ve not made any huge gains in lean tissue.

I like the deadlift, it’s great for improving your ability for lifting heavy objects from the floor, and can certainly help develop general strength and power, but is it the safest and most effective method for the latter?skeeze / Pixabay

Before you jump in, I’m not saying that training the deadlift can’t/doesn’t build muscle, nor that training it can’t help improve performance in other tasks such as vertical jump6, it can most certainly do both, what I’m questioning is whether it’s the safest and most effective method.

On the opposite extreme, take a very simple movement, such as a bicep curl on a machine. In a movement such as this, the body only has to contract the prime movers of one joint maximally. The path of the movement is guided by the machine, so there is hardly any coordination or stabilisation required.

Due to the lack of complexity in the movement, there are very limited gains the body can make through neurological adaptations. It therefore has no option but to put its hands in its pockets, and splash out on some new muscle.

This difference between adaptations to different types of resistance training is widely recognised of course, my argument, however, is that they are wrongly labelled, and therefore people choose the wrong method for their goals.

We currently define them as:

  • Strength Training/Functional Training
  • Hypertrophy Training/Bodybuilding

The commonly held belief, is that the former gives you “real world strength” whereas the latter just gives you pumped up muscles – nice for looking at in the mirror and showing off to your other gym buddies, but in the “real world” you still have to ask your mum to take the lid of your jar of almond butter.

I now, however, strongly believe this is a falsely held belief.

Muscle vs Skill out of Context

Let’s imagine a hypothetical experiment.

We take 2 twins, biologically identical.

We test their 1RM deadlift, and measure their lean body mass, and find they are both identical.

We then have Twin 1 follow a deadlift program, and Twin 2 follow a full body hypertrophy program using machines.

Both spend the same amount of time in the gym (2 x 45 mins sessions per week).

At the end of the experiment, we re-test their 1RM and LBMs.

Twin 1 has increased his deadlift 1RM by 30% and gained 1kg of LBM.

Twin 2 has increased his deadlift by just 15% but gained 3kg of LBM.

As yet, nothing new or surprising, this is what pretty much everyone would expect to happen.

OK, so they’re not twins, it’s a mirror, but use your imagination! Unsplash / Pixabay

This is where the experiment gets interesting however – we now put them in a cage, and make them fight.

Not necessarily to the death, but just to see who wins. Or if you prefer, we could just have them compete in a decathlon – It doesn’t really matter, the point is, to have them complete in another discipline which requires strength and power, but with a different skill set to that which was trained in the gym. I.e. not the deadlift.

My money is on the now beefier 3kg heavier Twin 2 kicking now relatively skinny runt Twin 1’s backside.

While Twin 1 is specifically stronger at the movement he’s been practising, Twin 2 has more “raw strength” or “potential strength”. When the two compete in a discipline in which neither has a skill advantage, where they can only perform to say 50% of their muscular potential, the more muscular twin’s 50% is greater than the slimmer twin.

So what has all this got to do with Reps, Sets and Failure?

OK, so the quick answer, in my opinion would be:

  • If you are training complex, full body movements with free weights that require a high degree of skill and co-ordination, train with multiple sets, and avoid failure.
  • If you are training simple, single joint movements with machines, train to failure, and more than 1 set is most likely superfluous.

Here we see how we arrive at the position of the two opposing groups within the strength training world, and why I had to digress above into what at first may have appeared to be a different topic.

The ACSM believe that free-weights are superior to machines when it comes to strength training for athletes. Their position stand on multiple set training vs single set training, is therefore built on top of this prior belief. (IMO, and that of Fisher et al and Carpinelli et al, a largely false belief).

The advocates of HIT training for hypertrophy who generally use machines and less complex movements are very likely correct when they say 1 set is all they need. This doesn’t mean it applies to all methods of resistance training, however.

But what about Press Ups?

There are an almost infinite number of strength exercises out there, spread all across the complex to simple continuum.

At the far limit of the complex range we have the Olympic Lifts, or the latest wacky creation of your gym’s “Functional Strength Coach” where they have you balanced on one leg on a bosu ball whilst woodchopping (That was the most ridiculous thing I could think of, but of course there’s a video of it on you tube!).

Olympic Lifting – The best training method for Olympic Lifters skeeze / Pixabay

Personally, I have no desire or inclination to practice either of these exercises. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t though. If you want to get better at Snatching, or Single Leg Bosu Woodchops, go for it. Train regularly, not to failure, and with multiple sets. One day you might get to the Olympics. Well with the snatch. It remains to be seen if the Single Leg Bosu Woodchop will be one day included in the games. Just don’t kid yourself that training either of these exercises is the best way to improve your athletic performance in another discipline.

At the opposite end, we have bicep curls, leg extensions and so forth on machines. Here you can blast a muscle to total failure, without risk of injury or learning bad form. This seems to be sufficient to give the body the signal necessary to invest in growing some extra muscle to better handle the demand next time. Extra sets are more than likely unnecessary, and could even be counter productive!

Don’t forget, however, that if you go down this second route, in order to be athletic, you’ll still need to practise your sport. Having muscle is no guarantee of success. You’ll get your ass whupped by someone half your size in the ring or on the field if they are considerably more skilled than you.

This leaves an awful lot of exercises somewhere in the middle, however – compound exercises, with free-weights, bodyweight, or machines.

Let’s take for example an upper body horizontal pressing movement: This could be a dumbbell bench press, barbell bench press, a press up, or a chest press machine, roughly in descending order of complexity.

One set or multiple sets? To failure or not to failure?

How, Why and Where Do You Train?

The following are some variables to think about, which may influence your decision one way or the other, but at the end of the day, there’s no definitive right or wrong answer.

  • Your Goals

Do you want to get better at a specific compound strength exercise – i.e. increase your bench press, or become a press up champion?

Well you need to practice, practice, and practice. Lots of sets of low reps with high resistance, but never training to failure.

If, on the other hand, your primary aim is to improve performance at a sport, or simply to stay fit, healthy, mobile and strong for life, one set to failure is most likely all you need.

  • Your Equipment

If you just want to generally strengthen your chest, shoulders and arms, the equipment you use isn’t really important, though of the three in this example, a chest press machine or bodyweight pressups would be my recommendation over a barbell.

Both of these exercises have much lower injury risk that the barbell bench press, and though there is undoubtedly a technique element, it is lower than that of the bench press.

Machines have the advantage that they can be micro-adjusted to the optimum resistance for your current strength level, and have little to no technique aspect. The downside of course, is that you’ll generally have to spend time and money going to the gym to use them, and in the gym there may be queues, thus further wasting time.

Bodyweight exercises have the advantage that you can do them pretty much anywhere, and for free. Unless you’re living in a particularly athletic household, it’s unlikely you’ll have to queue for the doorway pull up bar…

Bodyweight Training requires little to no equipment, yet provides endless possibilities skeeze / Pixabay

The potential downside is that if you’re carrying excess weight in the form of fat, rather than muscle, or if you have very little strength to begin with, bodyweight exercises can be overly challenging.

That’s not to say it’s not possible, it just requires a little more imagination. If a press up is too tough, you’ll need to try incline press ups, or press ups on the knees, or negatives. Other exercises such as pull ups and pistols might be more challenging still. There are some great guides available, however, such as Convict Conditioning, which have progressions from total beginner, to calisthenic king.

One could even see this “challenge” as a positive, as this progression from one exercise to another can provide great intermediate targets to keep you motivated along the way, and of course increased variety.

All this is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t build muscle using free weights, just make sure you do so safely, not getting trapped or crushed under a weighted bar!

  • Time, Motivation and Priorities

I think perhaps another reason that the ACSM recommends multiple sets, is because the guidelines are written by fitness professionals, who spend all their time working with professional athletes.

If you are a professional athlete, and your performance and results are of utmost priority, you have ample time to train, and small gains in strength can make a difference to your success, it makes perfect sense to take the extra time to perform multiple sets in your resistance training sessions.

If, on the other hand, strength isn’t such a critical factor for performance in your sport, and/or you have limited time to dedicate to training, just performing one set per exercise in your resistance training sessions, will leave more time to dedicate to skill based training and/or rest and recovery.

Similar guidelines would also apply to non-athletes – if building muscle is of high priority to you, you are not short on time and you enjoy your sessions in the gym, then there’s certainly no harm in performing multiple sets (no studies have shown decreased gains from more sets).

On the flip side, if building muscle is just one of many priorities you have in a hectic life filled with work, family commitments, socialising, and other hobbies and pastimes, rest assured that you are going to get all the health, and most, if not all of the performance benefits from just one set of each movement.

Final Thoughts

So if you read this post, hoping for a definitive answer as to whether you should perform single, or multiple sets, or to failure or not, I hope you’re not too disappointed!

Despite my hypotheses above, there’s really no definitive right or wrong answer, whatever your goals or exercise and equipment selection:

  • If you choose to do just 1 set, you are saving time and effort, but risk not fully maximising your gains.
  • If you choose to do multiple sets, your are assured maximal gains, but are risking spending 2-3 x more time in the gym than is perhaps necessary.

Ultimately, the decision needs to come down to your priorities – Time or Gains?

Personally, I currently choose to perform 1 set to failure of bodyweight exercises at home for my strength and conditioning training.

This takes the minimum possible time from my week, leaving me more time for Playing Capoeira and Outdoor Sports, spending time with friends and family, learning languages and musical instruments, reading and relaxing.

To be honest, even if I knew 100% that taking the extra time to go to a gym, and perform multiple sets with machines or free-weights was going to give some kind of enhanced results, I still don’t think I’d want to detract any more time from the rest of my schedule, let alone as those gains are not guaranteed!

That said, I also perform multiple sets of certain skilled bodyweight gymnastic movements, such as handstand press ups, planche progressions, levers etc, because I want to improve in these specific movements.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and or questions – please post any below in the comments section!

1- (PDF)
Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Written for the ACSM by Kreamer et al

2 – – (PDF)
Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations. Fisher J, Steele J, Bruce-Low S, Smith D (2011)

3 – (PDF)
A Critical Analysis of the ACSM Position Stand on Resistance Training. Carpinelli R, Otto R, Winett R (2004)

4 –
Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Krieger JW (2010)

5 – (PDF)
Beware the Meta-Anaylsis: Is Multiple Set Training Really Better than Single-Set Training for Hypertrophy? Fisher J (2012)

6 –
Barbell Deadlift Training Increases the Rate of Torque Development and Vertical Jump Performance in Novices
Thompson, Brennan J, Stock, Matt S, Shields, JoCarol E, Luera, Micheal J, Munayer, Ibrahim K, Mota, Jacob A, Carrillo, Elias C, Olinghouse, Kendra D.

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