The One-Set Challenge

6 Critical Steps to More Muscle


3 Minutes of Pain and Enlightenment

Ever have a huge transformational experience in the gym? I have. In fact, I had one just a few weeks ago. I'd like to share it with you in the hopes that you'll benefit from it as much as I did. Here's what happened:

I wanted to get a quad workout in, but my time was severely limited – I literally had only 15 minutes. As a busy coach, I'd been working on my ability and willingness to get quick workouts in during the occasional 20-30 minute breaks I have between clients.

Squats were out of the question – too many warm-up sets. I decided upon the Cybex leg press instead. To eliminate warm-ups of any kind, I opted for a load that would take me close to failure somewhere between 15-20 reps, rather than my habitual 8-10.

And finally, to make the single set I was planning to do maximally effective, I surgically optimized my technique to produce as much quad fatigue as quickly as possible. As I settled into the machine, I steeled my will for what was about to come.

As I initiated the set, I focused on making each rep as difficult as possible, using tactics I'll describe shortly. Despite this, upon reaching the eighth rep or so, I was still feeling relatively strong. "Sheesh, how many more reps am I going to need to do?" I wondered.

It wasn't long before I got my answer. Seemingly out of nowhere, at about rep 10 or 11, I was suddenly drowning in lactic acid and overwhelmed with intense muscular fatigue. Despite this, I managed to eke out a few more insanely painful reps until I finally stopped at 15. And I can honestly say I stopped because I was becoming legitimately concerned about my time here on Earth.

As I exited the machine, I quickly found that my legs weren't quite up to the task of supporting my bodyweight. I momentarily buckled as I quickly grabbed a nearby machine for support.

Fast-forward 24 hours: My quads honestly felt obliterated to the point of genuine concern. The soreness was absolutely unreal. This was highly unusual for at least three reasons:

  1. I'm a very experienced lifter and coach. I've been training for over 30 years and I can deadlift 455x10. I understandably tend to think that I know what I'm doing.
  2. Due to a variety of factors (including a few serious knee surgeries), I NEVER feel my quads during or after training.
  3. This particular quad workout – originally intended to be a quick "better than nothing" session – took a grand total of three minutes, including loading and unloading plates.

If, as an experienced coach, I was capable of having such a huge learning experience late in my career, chances are it's likely to have even more value for you. Here's what matters most in training, and how to get yourself to do it.

Leg Press

I only had a few minutes that day and wanted to do something very time efficient. I opted for the Cybex leg press since my prior experience with that machine is that I need little to no warm-up sets (as opposed to other great exercise options, such as barbell squats).

Another benefit with any type of leg press option is that it allows you to push ever so close to momentary muscular failure without risking your personal safety.

So right off the bat we've got two things going in our favor: We're able to work very, very hard, and we can do so in relative safety. But what else might we do to make this little quad session both quick and very, very difficult?

Most recent scientific investigations strongly suggest that nearly any number of reps will build muscle with relatively equivalent effectiveness, as long as you take your sets to, or at least very close to, momentary muscular failure.

That means we have lots of options regarding reps per set, but which is the best? If time efficiency is important to you, choose a rep count that limits or even eliminates the need for warm-up sets.

For me, on the leg press at least, 15 reps does the trick. Reaching momentary muscular failure by (roughly) rep 15 requires no warm-up sets. Depending on the specific exercise, you might be able to do a few more, or need to do a few less. But either way, find and exploit your most efficient rep brackets.

If you primarily have body-composition goals, find the hardest way to lift the weight (rather than the easiest, which is what we often revert to instinctively).

Lifting tempo is a BIG part of this, and it's much more involved than simply moving the weight slowly. All resistance training exercises have a unique resistance curve. Your job is to find a tempo that perfectly matches this. A few tips:

  • Lower the weight in a slow, punishing way. Muscles are stronger during the eccentric/negative phase than the concentric/lifting phase, so offset this advantage by moving slower.
  • Pause briefly at the end of the eccentric phase. This simple tactic squelches the momentum that's been built up as you lower the weight, and it also nullifies the "stretch-return" phenomenon that would otherwise make the subsequent concentric phase easier.
  • Spend less time where your leverage is good and more time where your leverage is poor. On the leg press, the straighter your knees are, the better your leverages are, and hence, the less tension your muscles experience. Minimize your time here. Conversely, the more flexed your knees are, the more tension your quads experience. Spend (relatively) more time there.
  • If you feel momentum accumulating (which makes the rep easier), slow down to make things more difficult.

For any given weight and rep count, more ROM will be more taxing than less ROM. By using greater ROM, you can get more muscle-building benefit with less load and fewer reps. This subject is intrinsically connected to lifting technique, so let's move on to that next.

Let's return to the leg press to illustrate a few important concepts about exercise-specific technique refinement. For quad development and low-back safety, we want greater ROM from the hips and knees, not from the lumbar spine. Therefore:

  • Place your feet relatively low on the platform. This will allow greater knee ROM and therefore better quad stimulation.
  • For each individual lifter, there exists an optimal stance width and toe angle that will facilitate maximal ROM. For example, when your stance width is too narrow, your thighs will run into your torso earlier than they would otherwise, limiting ROM.

Moving to the other extreme, if your stance is too wide, adductor tension will both limit your ROM and allow the adductors to share the load, which we don't want.

Bottom line: Find the foot placement that allows the greatest hip and knee ROM.

  • Focus the resistance toward your toes rather than your heels. This punishes the quads further by making it more difficult for the hamstring to contribute to force development.

Obviously, every exercise has its own specific technique requirements for optimizing its muscle-building potential. I'm simply using the leg press to illustrate the overall concept. For each exercise you use, work on refining your technique similarly and your workouts will be more efficient as a natural result.

Now it's time to get to work. Even if you fully exploit the five steps above, failure to exploit the final sixth step shortchanges your efforts.

Put simply, the closer to momentary muscular failure you take the set, the greater muscle-building benefit that set will have. This means the harder you work, the fewer sets you'll need for a maximally beneficial workout.

This idea is very simple to understand, but very difficult to apply. Here's how to work harder:

  • Focus more on going hard and less on how many sets you do. While there can be value to high-volume approaches, doing a lot of work is the best way to guarantee you WON'T work as hard as you otherwise would.

Note that performing a large number of sets does in fact compensate for leaving several reps in the bank, but which approach is more efficient: going balls-out for one terrifyingly difficult set, or working "pretty hard" for 4-5 sets?

  • Continually seek more reps than you've ever done with any given weight. If your lifetime PR with 225 on the bench press is 12, constantly be on the lookout for an opportunity to hit 13 or more.

Interestingly, the true value of the coveted progressive overload principle is that it requires you to work progressively harder and harder over time. It's not so much the added weight that produces results – it's the increased effort required to lift those heavier weights that really pays the bills.

  • Constantly seek to optimize your recovery. The better you eat, the better you sleep, and the less stress you're exposed to, the more likely and willing you'll be to push yourself to your true limits.
  • Optimize your immediate environment for maximal work output. The gym where you train, the time of day you go, the people you train with, and the goals you're working toward are but a few of the many environmental factors that all influence your willingness to work hard when you need to.
  • Master your internal climate. We're all prone to becoming sidelined by negative external circumstances: Your training partner bailed on you, your girlfriend is pissed because you forgot that today is the anniversary of your first date, you forgot to pack your squat shoes, yada yada.

As each new workout looms closer, expect the worst and resolve to just kick ass anyway. If it turns out that things go better than your worst expectations, great – enjoy your good fortune.

  • Stay focused on what matters most, which is intensity, or the willingness to suffer in the pursuit of your goals, above all else. If that requires only doing one set, so be it. If it requires less weight than what might sooth your ego, whatever. If it means your next exercise might suffer a bit because you torched yourself in the first exercise, fine.

You get the point.


Growing more muscle requires, first and foremost, making that muscle suffer. If you don't do this, nothing else matters. Yes, of course, you must then recover properly to facilitate the next workout, but let's not put the cart before the horse. Let's make sure we have a REASON to recover in the first place, okay?

With that in mind, I have a personal challenge that I strongly urge you to accept, and I want you do this the very next time you hit the gym:

  1. Pick an exercise that will safely allow you to work maximally hard on a muscle that you tend to find unresponsive. For me, it was the leg press for quads. For you it might be a Hammer incline press machine for pecs, a weighted back extension for hammies, or something else entirely. Just make sure it's as intrinsically safe as possible so you won't be able to use lack of safety as a convenient excuse.
  2. Pick a slightly higher rep range than you typically use to minimize/eliminate your warm-up and to allow a bit of lactate accumulation.
  3. Using a technique optimized for personal suffering, simply perform one all-out set, coming as close to mechanical failure as you dare. In all seriousness, make this the hardest set you ever did. EVER.

That's it! Simple, yet difficult.

Once you've done this, you'll have a restored optimism about your growth potential. You'll now understand that the underdeveloped muscle you just trained really can be improved. You'll also realize that workouts needn't be as long as you assumed – as long as they're hard.

And finally, you'll feel a (perhaps surprising) sense of personal pride in what you just did. Do this challenge – not for me, for you. Take this opportunity to teach yourself how to work TRULY hard. It'll take less than two minutes, and it has the potential to completely alter the course of your future as a lifter.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook