One of the most common beliefs in weight training is that only one set needs to be performed for optimal results, an idea that was first popularized by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. Many research studies have proved this idea to be false. In fact, multiple sets are always superior for trainees, with the possible exception of beginners with no weight training experience. But this begs the question “How many sets will produce optimal results?” This is the question that James Kreiger addressed in his meta-analysis published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2009). 23:1890-1901.
A meta-analysis is a study that looks at a collection of research studies as one entity and makes conclusions based upon the data from the cumulative research. Kreiger found 14 studies that compared single-set protocols to multiple-set protocols, and held constant other variables that could affect results, such as training intensity and training frequency. What he found was that 2-3 sets produced 46 percent greater gains in strength than one sets, but that 4-6 sets produced 13 percent greater gains than 2-3 sets. Based upon these findings, we can conclude that 3 sets per exercise should be performed when the most bang for your buck approach is considered. However when levels of maximal strength are imperative, such as in weightlifting or throws, the extra sets are worth the effort.. Therefore, additional sets produce a condition of diminishing results that may not be worth the effort depending on the training goal.
You also have to consider that most sets studies rarely involve the 1-3 R.M. range, hence the number of sets for that rep range could be underestimated. It is not uncommon for leading coaches in the sport of powerlifting and weightlifting to use between 12-20 sets for that intensity zone. Again, the law of diminishing returns would apply to that intensity zone.
Copyright ©2011 Charles Poliquin