Single Set Training: A Surprisingly Effective Weight Lifting Strategy

Quick Summary

  • The validity of performing multiple sets at the gym is not as solid as you may think.
  • Single set training can build equal muscle strength and muscle size when compared to performing multiple sets.
  • Increasing muscle size and muscle strength can be achieved with just one session at the gym per week.

single set training

Single Set Training Basics

Almost every single workout program from the modern age includes the use of multiple sets at the gym. For example: 5 sets of 6-8 reps.

Alex Savva does it. Arnold used to do it. Jim Stoppani does it. Sagi Kalev does it. Does it work? Yes.

The purpose of this article isn’t to contest whether or not performing multiple sets can get you results – the empirical evidence is plentiful.

I’m here to show you that performing just one set of each exercise can get you the same results.

(Calm down, the citations and studies are in the next section.)

This can save you from slaving away at the gym for hours every week. I only go to the gym once a week for less than 40 minutes. That’s it. And no, I never said it was easy. In fact, it somehow seems harder.

I complete 12 exercises during my weekly single set training workout. Each one is a single set of high intensity strength training.

Every exercise is completed to absolute muscle failure. It’s tougher than it sounds.

This combination has several advantages:

  1. Massive time savings that allows you to do other fun life things.
  2. The same results that you’d get from spending six hours a week at the gym.
  3. Lower risk of injury and longer, more effective lengths of recovery.

Let’s talk about it.


Berger And All His Fans

In volume 36, issue 5 of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, R N Carpinelli makes a fantastic case against the multiple-set training method.

His extensive research suggests that over cross referencing by the fitness industry, physiology textbooks, and training reviews are based on a single study by Dr. Berger in 1965.

His conclusion is the result of tracking the references and citations of dozens of pro multi-set studies and by talking to Dr. Berger himself.

“The prevalent recommendation, which appears in exercise physiology textbooks and strength training reviews, is to perform multiple sets (at least three) of each exercise. However, there is very little evidence to support the preponderant belief that multiple sets are superior to a single set. Fig 1 illustrates the labyrinth of cross referencing by physiologists who recommend the execution of multiple sets. The only evidence cited to support their multiple set training philosophy is one strength training study by Berger, which is perhaps the genesis of the unsubstantiated belief that multiple sets are required for optimal gains in strength.” 1)

If Carpinelli is correct, than the entire premise of the multiple-set training method may be overstated and should at least warrant further studies.

His publication in the Journal is a fascinating read and cites 85 scientific sources – a total must read.


Single Set Training Is Just As Effective As Multiple Sets

You may be surprised to discover that many scientific studies are in support of the single set training method, including exercise expert Doug McGuff, MD.

In his book, Body By Science, McGuff and co-author John Little use decades of fitness coaching experience and 118 citations of scientific study to explain the muscle growth process. 2)McGuff, Little. Body By Science. McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print

They show that single set training to failure provides the exact same benefits as multiple sets.

“While many exercise authorities claim that multiple sets of a particular exercise should be performed (typically, three sets of ten repetitions), the scientific literature suggests that one set performed in the manner that we advocate [to failure] is all the stimulus that is required.”

After citing four studies studies in the next three paragraphs, McGuff concludes:

“The bottom line is that a single set taken to a point of positive failure is a sufficient stimulus to trigger the growth and strength mechanism of the body into motion. Additional sets produce nothing but more time spent in the gym.”

This shows that the second and third sets made no impact on the strength gained by the participants in the study.

Did you catch that last part? Anything beyond a single set to failure is a waste of your time.

The only difference in adding more sets beyond one is the additional of time and effort invested – with no higher return.

Another study shows, just as McGuff explains in his book, that the difference between one and three sets amounts to nothing.

While one group in the study performed one set, the second group performed three sets.

Both groups experienced significant strength gains, but neither outperformed the other.

“The central finding and value of the present study resides in the similar amount of strength gain elicited by both training organizations of upper-body exercises 1 set and 3 sets…Both training groups improved significantly (20.7%) in terms of muscular strength (P < 0.05) with no differences being observed between the one set (21.98% increase) and three set group (20.71% increase) after the training interventions (P > 0.05).” 3)

You can see from this study that the second and third sets provided no benefit whatsoever. Dr. McGuff’s research shows that no additional benefits occur after the first set all the way up through ten sets. 4)McGuff, Little. Body By Science. McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print


Single Set Training, Once Per Week

A study comparing training performed once per week and twice per week found no differences in total strength gained.

“Strength values for subjects who reduced training to 2 and 1 days·week-1 were not significantly different (P > 0.05) from post-training strength values. These data suggest that muscular strength can be maintained for up to 12 weeks with reduced training frequency.” 5)

This falls perfectly in line with Dr. McGuff’s findings, which state that a muscle takes somewhere between 6 and 18 days for a muscle to recover and grow larger than before your last workout. 6)McGuff, Little. Body By Science. McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print

Training too frequently will never allow your muscles to reach a larger and stronger state – they need time to rebuild.

Single set training all your muscle groups in one session allows for maximum recovery potential between workouts.


It Doesn’t Work Without Total Muscle Failure

Let’s be clear about one thing.

Light weights, low effort, and a that’s-probably-good-enough attitude won’t mesh with the single set training method – total muscle failure is the only way a single set training approach works.

Let’s be even more clear. If you stop before you absolutely can’t lift the weight anymore, you stopped too soon.

In Body By Science, McGuff also differentiates several differences between traditional lifting measures such as reps and time under load.

You might remember a post about high intensity strength training a few weeks ago. This is the same idea.

Rather than basing your success or progress on how much weight you can lift, you should be more concerned with how much tension you create in the muscle during the concentric phase (lifting) and eccentric (lowering). 7)McGuff, Little. Body By Science. McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print

High intensity strength training is perfect with this, as each phase will take you 5-15 seconds, depending on how slowly you can move the weights.

You should be able to reach muscle failure in under 90 seconds. Anything longer means you’re not using heavy enough weights. I personally aim for muscle failure between 60 and 90 seconds, and that seems to work fine.

McGuff also suggests that you should progress through your various exercises at a pace that your heart rate and breathing are fast enough that you wouldn’t care to carry on a conversation.

Just remember that if you quit before you reach actual muscle failure, you won’t get the results you’re hoping for.

I also want to include another warning (I know, I do this a lot). There is no workout program in the world that will get you excellent results on its own.

A ripped physique, true health, and sustained vitality are mainly the results of proper eating habits. In fact, I’d say food intake is 80% of the battle. Hard work in the gym is just 5% of the battle. So make sure your priorities are straight.

My personal results have been fantastic using the single set training method. But I attribute that to a total health approach centered around an enjoyable ketogenic diet.

No amount of work in the gym is going to get you ripped and healthy with a diet of burgers, fried foods, soda, and cereal.


Single Set Training – Summary

It would be a shame to discover you’ve been wasting hours of unnecessary time at the gym. Isn’t there anything else you’d rather be doing with your time?

And for those of you who simple love the gym and lifting, I don’t see any problem with that – you’re not hurting yourself by performing multiple sets. They just may not be necessary. 

Better yet, put some time into small muscle groups and improve your physique instead of doing multiple sets on the same muscles.

In any case, remember these points:

  • Everyone telling you that you must do multiple sets needs to do more reading and at least be aware of the single set approach and its benefits, because…
  • Performing a single set of an exercise at the gym can build equal muscle strength and muscle size when compared to performing multiple sets.
  • Increasing muscle size and muscle strength can be achieved with just one session at the gym per week.

I know I’ve said a lot of controversial things in this article (come on, I cited research!) and I’d love to chat with you about it.

Meeting new people is one of my favorite things about this website! Leave me a comment below or send me a personal email at

Chat soon.



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