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If you’ve spent any amount of time going through bodybuilding magazines or talking to “expert” gym rats then you already know the mainstream advice…

  • do X sets of Y reps (3 sets of 10, 5 sets of 5, etc.)
  • use free weights not machines
  • more time in the gym will give you better results
  • etc., etc…

The scary thing is that not only do you hear this type of advice from magazines who have a financial interest from their advertisers and uneducated gym goers…

But a lot of trusted organizations pump out bad advice that’s based on limited, or no scientific evidence at all.

At least that’s the argument made by James Fisher and James Steele in their peer-reviewed article which appeared in scientific publication Mecina Sportiva.

The article is very academic, so I’ll provide a link to it at the at the end of this article, but here are some of the key takeaways from their research along with my comments:

How to Build Muscle with Single Set Workouts

single set workouts

1. Monitor Progress with a Training Journal

This one should be obvious, but I’m surprised at how few people do it.  Most people have a set “routine” that they memorize and just duplicate over and over.

You should be continually monitoring your what you’re doing and seek to improve each time at the gym.

But how do you remember what you did last time and beat it? With a training journal!

2. Train to Momentary Muscle Failure Rather Than Using Predetermined Number of Reps

I actually found this interesting because you constantly hear conflicting advice.

Half the people will tell you to train to failure, while others will say to use a predetermined number of reps and sets (ie 3 sets of 10).

According to the research, the best practice is to stop lifting because you can’t lift anymore; not because you hit an arbitrary number that you decided you were going to stop at before the set started.

This is something that I’m guilty of; constantly stopping at the magical number of 10 reps even though I know I could have lifted more.

3. Lift at 80% of Your 1 Rep Max

Pretty self-explanatory and an easy way of solving the “I could have done more than 10 reps without failing” problem.

4. Machines or Free Weights – Doesn’t Really Matter

So the first three points may not have been that controversial, but this one should stir up some reactions.

According to the research, there is not enough scientific evidence to support the benefits of lifting with free weights over machines.

They also note that lifting with free weights actually had more adverse effects in the form of injuries and improper form and technique.

When I first started lifting in college I started with machines.

Once I built up core strength I went to free weights and today I work out exclusively with body-weight exercises and dumbbells.

5. No Fast Paced / Ballistic Type Movements

With the popularity of ballistic type training (think clapping pushups) this one may ruffle some feathers too.

Obviously, experts always point out the importance of using good form, but how many people do you actually see doing it?

I always see gym goers changing form, or moving at a faster than normal pace just to “get out that last rep”.

Lifting should be done at a consistent pace, without changing form or using speed to do it.

Note: you’ll probably find that you fail at a lower rep than normal without cheating, that’s a good thing!

6. Single Set Exercises 1 – 2X Per Week

Probably the most shocking to come out of the report, the researchers found that doing a single set of an exercise 1 to 2 times per week was just as effective as doing high volume training.

Sticking to the principles outlined above, I can really see this being possible.

No more using, “I don’t have time” as an excuse not to get in shape.

7. Workout When You’re Mentally and Physically Ready

I’m a true believer in this.  Working out at peak performance is just as much (if not more) and mental game than it is a physical one… especially when you’re pushing that last rep.

How many times have you given up and dropped the bar knowing that if you really pushed harder, you could have gotten out that last rep.

Overtraining is another barrier to success that we all know about and can be attributed to high volume workouts (see point number 6).

Cannon’s Conclusion on Single Set Workouts

Though much of this can be counter-intuitive, I think a lot of it is accurate and backed by science.

I’m a huge advocate of training and nutrition based on scientific evidence and am looking forward to more research relative to these points from the authors (note: this was James Steele’s first peer-reviewed published article).

Let me know if you agree/disagree with the finding and what you think in the comments below.

Also, here is a link to the article published in Medicina Sportiva titled: Evidenced-Based Resistance Training Recommendations

Chris Cannon
Chris Cannon

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