Sarcopenia, or muscle loss, is one of the hallmarks of aging. By the
time you reach your seventies, you will likely have lost 20% of the
skeletal muscle mass you had in your 20's. The loss of muscle mass
reduces your resting metabolic rate, which makes it increasingly
difficult to burn fat.
Result: middle age spread.
In addition, the enervation of remaining muscles also declines with age,
leading to reduced coordination. Decreased strength and coordination in
turn lead to increased risk of falls, and reduced ability to perform
even simple tasks of daily living (such as getting out of a chair, or
Science News Online
August 10, 1996
Calorie Restriction Reduces Age Related Muscle Loss
16 June 1997
However, individuals like Clarence Bass demonstrate that muscle loss can
largely be prevented by a low calorie density diet and a program of
resistance training. He has a better body at 60+ than I do at 28. See
the photos at:
He also has a number of interesting articles on his web site
http://www.cbass.com/; I've included one of them below. I highly
recommend the site.
New Evidence On Sets Controversy
The ink was barely dry on last month's "One Set Or Many?" article when
thought provoking comments across the spectrum began to arrive. What's
more, newly released research answers the two main criticisms of
studies showing no significant difference in strength or size gains as
a result of doing one set compared to multiple sets.
One man scoffed that the "one-set-to failure" theory was devised by
Arthur Jones to sell his expensive Nautilus machines to gym owners who
had to have a high turnover of members to make any money. "[They]
could not have someone using a $2000 pullover machine for 5 sets of 10
reps," he contends. According to this man, "The bottom line
... rationale for short workouts was $$$$$."
>From the other side, a fellow wrote that abbreviated workouts have
been "especially helpful" to him, because they "allow time for other
pursuits while sacrificing nothing in effectiveness."
A third man, obviously a skeptic, complained: "The one set wonders
don't think to mention their warm-up sets."
The same man recommended that I read Arthur Drechsler's discussion of
the sets controversy in The Weightlifting Encyclopedia (see our
Products section under Recommended Books). I did. Artie makes some
sophisticated points that we all would be well advised to keep in
Drechsler observes that whether one set or multiple sets are optimal
often depends on what you're trying to accomplish. For instance, if
you are training for an event that requires repeated bouts of effort,
multiple sets may be indicated.
Another approach, however, would be to rely on sports specific
training - and not weights - to develop endurance. If you're training
for football, wind sprints or scrimmaging is probably the best way to
develop the stamina to play hard in the fourth quarter. Remember that
specificity is the guiding principle in all athletic training.
Artie Drechsler also reminds us that individual differences come into
play. "...Some athletes may benefit from a greater training stimulus
[more sets] that other athletes," says Drechsler.
I agree. Another e-mail made essentially the same point. It read:
"Maybe [the fact that] Bill Pearl and Arnold Schwarznegger could do
more volume and continue to get stronger and bigger is [the reason]
why they left most of the rest in the dust."
Drechsler goes on: "Obviously there is a point where more training
does not increase the training stimulus." Right, and that may be one
all-out set for some and 3 or 4 work sets for others. "Know thyself,"
as the Oracles preached.
The number of reps in a set also has a bearing on the appropriate
number of sets. Artie explains: "Since weightlifters need to perform
relatively low reps in training (and especially in competition) they
will typically need to employ more set to achieve their ends than
someone who is performing five, ten, or twenty reps in a set."
Explaining further, Drechsler says, "There is now scientific evidence
that more muscle fibers are activated on a maximum set of five reps
than on a maximum single. From this it follows that a maximum set of
high reps is more likely to stimulate a maximal training effect than a
Right again. I've often said, if you want to do a second maximum set
of 20 reps in the squat, there's something wrong. You either didn't go
hard enough in the first set, or you're nuts.
New Studies Answer Critics
Artie Drechsler's points may help to explain why research on the set
question is inconclusive. As my earlier article said, a review of
literature by Carpinelli and Otto found that 33 out of 35
strength-training studies showed no significant difference in strength
or size gains as a result of doing one set or multiple sets. (Sports
Medicine. 25(7): 1998) The two main criticisms of these studies,
according to Dr. Carpinelli, are that they were too short, and that
the participants were often untrained. The suggestion is that seasoned
trainers might benefit from doing more sets.
Dr. Carpinelli now reports in the October 1998 Master Trainer that
those "valid criticisms" are addressed in a series of studies by
Michael Pollock, M.D., and his colleagues at the University of
Florida, and another research group.
Five studies by Dr. Pollock's group were presented at the annual
meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. Four of them
address the duration issue; they extend for six months compared to
only six to 12 weeks in the earlier studies.
Two of the studies (Medicine and Science in Sports and
Exercise. Supplement 30(5); 116 & 165, 1998) examine strength and size
increases as a result of one set or three sets of 8-12 repetitions to
muscular failure three days a week. Strength was assessed for both one
rep max and reps at 75% of pretraining max, in the bench press, row,
arm curl, leg extension and leg curl. Muscle thickness increases were
measured by ultrasound in eight locations covering the upper and lower
The researchers found almost identical increases in upper and lower
body thickness for both the one-set (13.6%) and three-set (13.12%)
groups. Increases in one rep maximum were also essentially the same,
for all five exercises, but the principle of specificity asserted
itself on one exercise when it came to maximum reps or endurance. Both
groups showed significant across-the- board increases in endurance,
but the 3-set group showed significantly greater improvement in the
bench press. At 25 weeks, the one-set group averaged 22 reps in the
bench press compared to 27 for those doing 3-sets.
The third 6-month study by the Pollock group (Medicine and Science in
Sports and Exercise. Supplement 30(5): S163, 1998) focused on
increases in knee-extension strength in three different modes: one-rep
max, isometric peak torque and training weight. Again, there was no
significant difference between the one-set and three-set
groups. One-rep max increased 33.3% and 31.6% for 1 set and 3 sets,
respectively; isometric increases were 35.4% versus 32.1%; and
training weight increases were 25.6% compared to 14.7%
Even though the researchers apparently didn't find it significant,
note that the one-set group gained slightly more strength in the first
two modes and substantially more in training weight (25.6% versus
14.7%). It seems to me that specificity is at work again. When you do
only one set there's nothing to keep you from doing your absolute
best; but when you plan to do three sets it's natural to hold back and
pace yourself. I believe that's probably why the one-set group gained
more strength. They triggered more muscle fibers than the 3-set group,
where pacing probably reduced intensity somewhat.
The fourth study by the Pollock group (Medicine and Science in Sports
and Exercise. Supplement 30(5): S274, 1998), also 6 months long,
showed significant increases in circulating insulin-like growth
factors (IGFs) in both one-set (34%) and three-set (30%) groups. Dr.
Carpinelli, who teaches the neuromuscular aspects of strength training
at Adelphi University (Long Island, New York), says, "IGFs are
multifunctional protein hormones, whose production in the liver and
other tissues is stimulated by growth hormones." They are important
because, "They stimulate glucose and amino acid uptake, protein and
DNA synthesis, and growth of bones, cartilage, and soft tissue."
The researchers concluded: "The elevation of IGFs is no greater with
high- than low-volume resistance training." That's noteworthy, because
it's generally believed that high-set training results in more growth
hormone secretion. (See Growth Hormone Synergism by Douglas M. Crist,
Ph.D., 2nd Edition, 1991; you'll find this book listed in our Products
section under Recommended Books.)
The final study by the Pollock group (Medicine and Science in Sports
and Exercise. Supplement 30(5): S115, 1998) addresses the training
experience issue. As you'll recall, some have suggested that
experienced trainers might benefit from higher volume. In other words,
after you've been training for a while, you need increased volume to
continue progressing - more is better. According to this study, those
people should think anew.
The researchers recruited 40 adults who had been performing one set to
muscular fatigue, using nine exercises, for a minimum of one year;
average training time was six years. The participants were randomly
assigned to either a one-set or three-set group; both groups did 8-12
reps to failure three days per week for 13 weeks.
Both groups significantly increased their one-rep maximum strength and
endurance. There was no significant difference in the gains made by
the two groups in the leg extension, leg curl, bench press, overhead
press and arm curl. The researchers concluded: "These data indicate
that 1 set of [resistance training] is equally as beneficial as 3 sets
in experienced resistance trained adults."
Another research group, K.L. Ostrowski and colleagues, tested "the
effect of weight training volume on hormonal output and muscular size
and function" in experienced trainers. (Journal of Strength and
Conditioning Research. 11(3): 148-154, 1997) Thirty-five males, with
one to four years weight-training experience, were assigned to one of
three training groups: one-set, two-sets, or four sets. All
participants did what I would call a periodized routine; they changed
the rep range every few weeks. They did free-weight exercises four
times a week for ten weeks using 12 reps maximum (week 1-4), 7 reps
max (week 5-7) and 9 reps (week 8-10). All sets were performed to
muscular fatigue with three minutes rest between sets. The only
difference between the three programs was the number of sets.
As in the Pollock group studies, no significant differences in results
were found. The authors concluded: "...A low volume program ... [one
set of each exercise] ... results in increases in muscle size and
function similar to programs with two to four times as much volume."
Significantly, regarding hormone output, they concluded: "High volume
[four sets of each exercise] may result in a shift in the
testosterone/cortisol (anabolic/catabolic) ratio in some individuals,
suggesting the possibility of overtraining." In other words,
high-volume training not only doesn't produce better results, it may
also lead to overtraining.
The Bottom Line
After considering this new evidence, Dr. Ralph Carpinelli sums-up:
"The lack of scientific evidence that multiple sets...produce a
greater increase in strength or size, in itself, provides a rationale
for following a single set training protocol."
That seems to be where we are today based on the latest peer-reviewed
scientific evidence. Unless you're training to accomplish a task that
must be repeated over and over, there appears to be no good reason for
most people to spend hours in the gym doing set after set. Volume
training works, as my last article concluded, but in most cases the
strength and size gains are no better than result from warming-up and
performing one hard set.
The choice is yours.
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