Is One Set Better Than Multiple Sets in Exercise?

How Many Sets Should You Really Do?

Man lifting weights in fitness center
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It's hard to believe that there's still so many controversial opinions about exercise but, when it comes to strength training, there are plenty of conflicting opinions. There's the free weights v. machines controversy, and don't forget the protein issue that never seems to get resolved.

And of course, there's the question of how many sets you should do to get the most results. Some recommend doing anywhere from 3 to 5 sets for maximum gains, while others say just the opposite, that one set is just as good as two.

So, who's right?

One Set vs. Multi-Set Training

The conflicting opinions about how many sets is best stems from the overload principle. Research suggests that, in order to gain strength and size, you have to overload your muscles--push them beyond their present capacity.

From this theory, we know that intensity is to key to strength gains. So, can you get the kind of intensity you need from one set? Some folks think it doesn't matter if you fatigue your muscles in one set or several sets -- as long as your muscles experience a sufficient level of exhaustion.

Some studies, including Strength training. Single versus multiple sets published in Sports Medicine, suggest there is no significant difference in strength or muscle mass as a result of single versus multiple sets.

However, another study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning concluded that trained exercisers get more strength gains out of multi-set training as opposed to one set training.

These different studies suggest that beginners can get solid strength and muscle gains with one set training, providing you're challenging your muscles with enough weight.

People who are experienced with weight training may need more sets to improve strength and muscle gains.

The Basics of One Set Training

Whatever your fitness level, one set training can be a good choice because it's:

  • Great for beginners - Beginners will get the most out of one set training and it's the perfect way to start, learning how to do the moves with good form while avoiding overdoing it.
  • Time efficient - It takes less time to do one set of each exercise as opposed to 3 or more sets, so you can easily squeeze in a short workout, even when you're short on time.
  • Enhances compliance - People are more likely to stick with an exercise program when they don't have to spend hours in the gym.
  • Easy to change your workouts - You can easily substitute new exercises when you get bored or when you body stops responding.

Making Your Workout Efficient and Effective

If you decide to go with one set training, you actually have to work a little harder to make sure you get everything out of each and every rep. Focusing on what you're doing can ensure that every second of your workout counts.

  • Make it a quality workout - Take your time during each rep and focus on the muscle that you're working.
  • Focus on the exercise - Do every single repetition with perfect form: no jerking, bouncing, slumping or cheating.
  • Use heavy weights - To fatigue your muscles, you should be lifting enough weight that you can only complete the desired number of repetitions (somewhere between 8-15). If at the end of your set you can keep going, that's a sign that you need to increase your weight.
  • Go slowly - Using momentum means that you're not recruiting all of your muscle fibers. For each repetition, count to 4 during the lifting and lowering phase of the movement.
  • Think maximal effort - Remember, you're only doing one set, so go all out while staying within your own limitations and capabilities.
  • Warm up - Get your muscles ready by doing at least 5-10 minutes of cardio or by doing light warm-up sets of each exercise.
  • Rest - Rest at least one day between strength sessions.


Carpinelli RN, Otto RM. Strength training. Single versus multiple sets. Sports Med. 1999 Jun;27(6):409-16.

Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Ball SD, et al. Three sets of weight training superior to 1 set with equal intensity for eliciting strength.. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):525-9.

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