How Many Weightlifting Sets Is Enough?

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How much weight do you need to lift to get stronger? A new study suggests it isn’t as much as you think — but more is still better when it comes to muscle size.

In the study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, and summarised by its author here, 34 young men with weight training experience all did the same workout three times a week for eight weeks. The exercises were chest press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, seated row, squat, leg press and leg extension, each done for eight to 12 reps per set.

The only difference among the lifters was that some did one set of each exercise, while others repeated each exercise for three or five sets. The surprising result: By the end, the guys that had done single sets were just as strong as those who had done five. That means their 13-minute workout was just as effective as the 68-minute version.

But if you want good looking muscles, it’s worth staying in the gym for the longer workout. The more the men lifted, the bigger their muscles got. (This agrees with previous research; the strength question is murkier.)

There are some caveats on the study. First, if you do shorter sets, such as three to five reps, you’re probably not lifting enough to get the one-set benefits, so keep doing multiple sets.

And second, five sets of each exercise is a lot of work. If you keep up that kind of schedule in the long term, you could find yourself overtrained — basically, tired all the time and struggling.

The bottom line: If you’re just looking to build strength, do one set of eight to 12 reps of each exercise in your workout, and enjoy your extra free time. But for maximum muscle — hey, who doesn’t want to look good? — do some extra sets.


Comments

    But if you want good looking muscles, it’s worth staying in the gym for the longer workout. The more the men lifted, the bigger their muscles got. (

    Wait, so do I understand this rightly, no matter which regime they used they wound up basically the same strength. But if they did more hours they looked cosmetically better (assuming you like big muscles)? That seems counter-intuitive. You'd think bigger muscles = more strength.

    Or is this a case of not really being bigger muscles, but losing more fat. Therefore the muscles, though the same size, look bigger?

    On a different note, when I've been training I've done warm-up sets and working sets. The warm-ups start with more reps but lower weight and change inversely as you approach the working weight. eg: Chest press @ 20kgx10, 30kgx5, 40kgx3, 50kgx1 then 2 or 3 working sets of 8-10 at 60kg. And if the working sets are pushing limits then their reps are lower.

    I'd love to see that type of routine compared to the others. Be interested to know whether it's actually more/less beneficial or exactly the same.

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