A Few Questions
Let me ask you three simple questions:
- How many sets are you doing in your average workouts?
- How hard are you training?
- What kind of intensity techniques are you using?
Without even knowing the answers to those questions, I can guarantee that more than 75% of you are overtraining.
If I had to take a guess, I’d say that most people do between 18-30 sets per workout. What are you accomplishing by doing so many sets? Are extra sets making you stronger? Are they making you bigger? Are they getting you leaner? Are they helping you to recruit more motor units? Are you stretching the fascia? Inducing hyperplasia?
Simply put, is your training program getting anywhere? If not, you’re overtraining. If so, you’re still probably overtraining.
One Intense Set
Try this: Go to the gym and after a thorough warm-up, do one set of either a squat or deadlift. Don’t hold anything back. Use the heaviest weight you can use, with perfect form, for six to ten reps.
Now (I’m stealing this from Mike Mentzer) imagine someone is holding a gun to your head and will pull the trigger if you don’t do one more rep. I guarantee you’d be able to squeeze it out. Now, if you don’t get at least another rep or two, the gunman will shoot every member of your family. You will get two more reps and now your set is done and you can rack the weight.
Now tell me how many more sets you can do with that kind of intensity. Thirty? Twenty five? Fifteen? I highly doubt it. Most people will be completely wasted after about eight sets done in this fashion. So what’s the point of doing thirty half-ass sets when you can get the job done with a third of that volume?
Am I saying you should work that hard on every set or even at every workout? Absolutely not. But I know a lot of people aren’t training anywhere near as hard as they should be. If they were, there’s no way they’d be able to do all that nonsensical and useless volume.
The Fastest Way to Make Progress
For those who don’t know, there are a few different ways to make progress in your workouts: you can increase the load (lift heavier weights), you can increase the density (do more work in the same timeframe), and you can even do the same amount of work in less time. Unless we’re training to increase anaerobic fitness or increase work capacity, only one of these methods really makes sense: increasing the load.
I don’t give a shit how many supersets you add and how low you decrease your rest periods and how many sets you can pile into a 45 minute workout; I can guarantee if you’re still using the same weights today that you were five years ago, or even five months ago, then you aren’t making progress.
You simply can’t get bigger and stronger without lifting heavier weights. You can set the stopwatch and do all your little supersets and drop sets until you’re blue in the face, but a 225 pound squat is still a 225 pound squat no matter how you do it. The fastest, easiest, simplest way to make progress without turning training into rocket science is to add weight to the bar. That’s it.
People want to make every excuse under the sun and will try every system they can find to get around this simple fact. One of my favorite excuses is to say that what I’m suggesting is impossible because no one can continue to get strong forever and continually add weight to the bar. If that were possible, they say, then the world would be filled with 1000 pound bench pressers.
What, as opposed to all of the 315 pound benchers out there right? Right. I mean, how many times do you ever see a single human being in a public gym bench press 315 pounds?! One guy out of 100 maybe? Give me a freaking break!
Yes, this is true: no one can continue to get stronger infinitely. But who (name me two people you know personally) has ever maxed out their strength levels? No one! Not a single solitary soul! Why don’t you see tons of strong guys in the gym every day? Because most people have no idea how to train and make progress.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s try a little experiment. Let’s assume I go into the gym today and do a particular exercise with all the weight I can handle for one set to failure (not a death set to nervous breakdown failure, just clean, concentric failure where another rep in perfect form would be impossible) and get ten reps with it.
Now I come back into the gym and hit that exercise again in four to seven or even fourteen days (however many it takes in my rotation for that particular exercise to come around again), and I can now do eleven or twelve reps with it. What’s changed?
It’s a new muscle. That’s what has changed. Last week I was physically unable to squeeze out more than ten reps, but today I can get eleven or twelve. I didn’t really improve my neural drive because I wasn’t training in that rep range. If I did only one to three reps we could say that I can now do an extra rep or two because I improved the ability of my nervous system to recruit more motor units; I made my nervous system work more efficiently in essence. This is how many athletes get stronger and stay in weight class sports.
But I didn’t do that; I was training in a hypertrophy range. So if I can do more reps with the same weight, it’s a new muscle. Maybe not so much “new,” per se, but it is changed, different. It has rebuilt itself and made itself bigger and stronger to handle the demands placed upon it. If that continues to happen each and every week for fifty two weeks a year, I’d obviously be significantly stronger at the end of the year. And since that strength was gained in a hypertrophy range, I’d also be significantly bigger.
Is Less Really More?
I think what I’m saying is pretty basic stuff and we can all agree on it. But now let me ask you this: if I was able to induce changes and create a new, stronger, bigger muscle from one set, then what’s the purpose of doing more than that? What does the second set and the third and the fourth do?
If I do three sets instead of one, will I be able to come back in a week and do three more reps instead of just one more? Probably not. What about if I did nine more sets after the first? Will I be able to go from ten to nineteen reps next week on the particular exercise in question?
Now before some of you start thinking that Mike Mentzer came to me in a dream last night and because of this I have finally lost my mind, I want you to know I’m not advocating anything in particular here, and I’m not saying you should never do more than one set. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s five, but I bet it’s probably less than you’re doing now, and that’s my point.
If I can achieve my goal of getting stronger and therefore bigger in just one or two sets, what are all the other sets helping me achieve? If someone can explain to me what the benefit of high volume training is, I’d be more than appreciative. Hundreds have tried, but I’m still not buying it.
Scientific mumbo jumbo about repeated efforts and motor units doesn’t fly with me. I live in the real world and have been a part of more training sessions than at least 99% of the planet. I know the “science” and I don’t care. Until I see something stand the test of time in the trenches, I’m not convinced.
“Well, Arnold did a ton of volume.”
Yeah, but that doesn’t convince me of anything. Some people succeed in life, in spite of what they do, not because of it. If I were to ask any of these bodybuilders why they do fifteen sets per body part, I’d be anxious to get an answer that would actually make sense and persuade me that there’s something I’m missing.
Like I asked earlier, are you stretching the fascia, inducing hyperplasia? What exactly are the benefits of all the volume? And please don’t tell me you’re hitting the muscles from a variety of angles, blah, blah, blah. That subject has been debated to death. Even if it’s true that you do need to hit a wide variety of angles, which I don’t care to argue, my question remains the same: why so much volume? Why not one or two sets at each angle then?
Can you honestly give me an explanation you believe in, as to why you’re doing that many sets? And if you want to use the “what about bodybuilders?” argument, let me throw it right back in your face. What about one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, seven time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates? He did nothing that ever resembled high volume and was absolutely enormous and strong as a bull.
But looking at pro bodybuilders is stretching it to the extreme. What about normal people? Why do you do four sets of an exercise versus two? Because there’s an invariable relationship between sets and reps? No, there isn’t. Well, sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t, but that’s another topic for another article.
If the goal at hand is hypertrophy, what exactly is more volume accomplishing? Is it recruiting more motor units? I think so. Is that going to lead to greater strength gains? I don’t know. Maybe up to a certain point, but probably not. Some individuals may tolerate more volume and others less. I’m still not convinced that anyone, even if they have superior recovery ability and can tolerate more volume, actually needsmore volume, though.
Hypertrophy dogma tells us we need to do a certain amount of damage to the muscle and break it down, then let it rest and build itself up stronger before training it again. Well, if I do twelve sets for chest today and next week come back to the gym and my bench has gone from 100 pounds for ten reps to 100 pounds for eleven reps, why would that be any different than if I only did one to three sets for chest and still made the exact same progress? What exactly would be the difference?
For one, if I did the higher volume workout, I would’ve severely depleted my amino acid pool and glycogen stores, which would take away from my recovery ability. With the high volume I might get extreme levels of soreness (DOMS) which has been shown to decrease insulin sensitivity, so if I eat as many carbs as normal I may actually get fatter. My cortisol will go up and my testosterone will go down. And lastly, I will have just shortened the life of my training career.
Let me explain that last statement. Your shoulders, knees, hips, etc., only have a limited number of sets in them for your entire life. Eventually they’ll just wear out. It’s just impossible for this not to happen; the body isn’t an indestructible machine and will eventually break down. It’s the natural process.
How many sets this is, nobody knows. But for the sake of this example let’s just pick a nice round number and go from there. Let’s assume that your shoulder has 10,000 sets of pressing in it for your entire fifty-year training career. (I plan on training that long and I hope you do too). We can hit fifteen of those a week and fast forward to our first shoulder surgery a lot faster than we’d like, or we can hit maybe two to six sets a week of heavy pressing and perhaps train healthily and injury free forever.
Now maybe you’re a reckless lunatic who lives fast and hard and works as a stuntman and plans on dying young and doesn’t really care about the future or think like that because you know you may die tomorrow. I’m completely fine with that and share many of your sentiments. I’m just giving you something to think about, and letting you know that all that destruction may not be worth it anyway if the results are exactly the same in the end.
My Best Advice for Building Muscle Size
Get continually stronger in a hypertrophy range and your body will be forced to grow. If you can do this with one, two, or three sets, then I don’t see what the extra volume is actually providing.
I just want people to think about what they do and why. I don’t have all the answers, but I know one thing for certain: Most people could and should be doing a whole lot less than they are now.
So the next time you go to the gym, just do me a favor and question everything you do. Do you know exactly why you do eight sets instead of two? Can you explain why you’re doing any of what you’re doing? Or are you just blindly following what everyone else does and getting nowhere fast?