There are a thousand and one ways to arrange your workouts. You could literally drive yourself insane trying to figure out which is the ultimate.
- Vince Gironda
MANIPULATING TRAINING VOLUME
by Fred Hutchinson (2003)
The optimal number of sets of each exercise you do has been a source of constant debate. We have the single set advocates, of course, and then devotees of just about every combination you could think of:
3 x 10, 5 x 5, 8 x 8, 10 x 10, and who knows what else.
I recall a few years back one intrepid bodybuilder doing hack squats for 20 x 20! All this debate is useful, but it usually falls short by insisting that one number of sets is better than the others. Perhaps all of these guys are right -- just not all at the same time.
What I would like to discuss in this article is a concept that I haven't seen discussed in detail:
Deliberately varying the number of sets to keep the gains coming.
While poundage cycling is widely known, if controversial, set cycling doesn't seem to have gotten nearly as much attention.
Of course, just about everyone has varied the number of sets in his program at one time or another. Typically the trainee will increase the number of sets when he has more energy, and cut back when feeling tired. Herein lies the kernel of a very effective training system, if you recognize what's happening.
Before we get into our story, let me give you a hint: if you wait until you're feeling tired to cut back on sets, it's too late.
A Single Set Story
Back when I began lifting in the mid-70s at the tender age of 12, the only training system I or anyone else in this one-horse town knew about was 3 sets of 10 for each exercise. We never trained to failure, but just used weights that seemed comfortably heavy. If course, there were many other training systems around even then, but news travels slowly. My friends and I made good gains this way which probably says more for teenage hormones than exercise methodology.
By the mid-80s I was in school in the Big City and for the first time came upon the single set, train to failure idea, promoted mostly in Ellington Darden's books. These books were certainly convincing and seemed to make sense, so I tried it. Wow! I had never had the kind of muscles that "pumped" when I worked out, but now even a single set made each muscle group practically burst. My strength shot up, muscles seemed bigger every day -- oh man, i thought, I'm going to look like Sergio Oliva!
Here's an example of Darden's stuff:
Needless to say, I never became a threat to Sergio. After about two or three months of this strain 'til you puke lifting, my strength stagnated and then started back down. Now, if you're familiar with single set advocates, you know that they attribute lack of progress to only two things: overtraining or not trying hard enough. So I experimented with layoffs; they didn't help. And goodness knows, I tried harder and harder, using every high-intensity technique you can think of, as well as grimaces of effort which often stunned the university weight room into silence. Nothing.
So gradually I drifted back into more moderate training with multiple sets of each exercise, and resumed my usual pattern of on-again, off-again progress. But my experience with single sets stuck with me, and I wondered about it for years; it worked well for a while, so why didn't it keep working? It wasn't until years later that I found the answer.
In the mid-1990's I bought a book by Leo Costa called Big Beyond Belief: Serious Growth III.
Mr. Costa had become somewhat infamous a few years before with his first Serious Growth manual which I also have, which advocates three-times-a-day lifting. In Big Beyond Belief, Leo related a typical scenario of the multiple set lifter switching to single sets which exactly followed my own experience: dramatic gains for a short while followed by stagnation and loss. I had never seen anyone else discuss this, so I was favorably inclined toward his explanation of why it happens. More to the point, I patterned by own training system after Leo's and found that it worked.
There are really two fundamental concepts at the heart of Leo's program. The first of these is that weight training does not simply stimulate your skeletal muscles; rather, your entire system is involved and feels the stress. Anyone who has vomited or gotten a diarrhea attack after a heavy lifting session can see the truth in this. And while the effect on your internal works is seen solely in a negative light by the heavy duty advocates, Leo says it is not quite so simple. According to Leo, your body's internal systems can be either depressed or made more efficient by training, neither result is permanent, as your ability to adapt to stress changes continually.
The second concept of great importance is that of "lag time": the fact that while your body is in a continual state of adaptation to stress, these adaptations take some time, usually measured in several weeks. The example which Leo gives is that of going on a diet, which most of us can relate to. When you restrict calories, your metabolism continues to function as Norman, er, normal for a week or two, so you lose weight; but by about the third week, your body adjusts to the fewer calories and lowers your metabolism to compensate, and little or no fat is lost. Sound familiar?
Leo says that weight training works the same way: when you go on a new routine, the body has to struggle to adapt and as a result must overcompensate. But after a few weeks, the body gets comfortable with the training and doesn't have the same compulsion to change.
So in a nutshell, the training routine must take into account that the body will, in a relatively short period of time, adapt to almost any stimulus; and that when adaptation occurs, progress stops. In other words, the body must continually be kept off balance and uncomfortable to keep making gains in strength or muscle size. Leo makes the case that the most effective way to do this is not by cycling poundages or taking layoffs, but by varying your training volume in a predetermined way; in simple terms, doing more or fewer sets over time.
A quick aside about repetition ranges. Leo says that bodybuilders should vary their repetition ranges, but in Big Beyond Belief, he says the strength athlete should only use a range of 1-3 reps. However, it bears pointing out that in his earlier Serious Growth, he advocates varying the rep count for strength athletes as well: over the course of three workouts he suggests using 4-5 reps per set the first day, 3-4 rep sets the second day, and 1-2 rep sets for the third workout. Personally I haven't experimented with varying the rep count -- which is really another way of saying varying the poundage -- but some of you might want to try both systems and compare the results.
Now back to sets. Leo suggests a three-week period of gradually increasing set volume, followed by a three-week period, or maybe a little longer, of low set work. In Leo's terms, what you're doing here is using the high volume work to create an emergency state in your body, with a subsequent heightening of your ability to adapt to stress, and then taking advantage of this ability with low volume which your body finds easier that usual to deal with.
While Leo does give actual numbers of sets in his programs, I found that even his low volume period was a little too much for me. What is high and what is low depends on your age, your vitality, how many days per week you lift, and so on. So instead, I suggest you determine the set volume for yourself, keeping in mind the principle involved. This is really pretty simple.
For the high volume phase, what is a lot of sets for you?
The best guideline I can give is this: Determine through trial and error the number of sets you can perform without losing your enthusiasm and energy, and that leaves you feeling, at the end of the high volume phase, a little bit dragged out but not seriously overtrained. Note again that the high volume phase is not the very highest from the start; you build the volume gradually until you're doing an amount of work that you can tolerate for a few days -- an amount of work you would not want to continue for very long.
Here's how I structured the first high volume phase I tried: The first week I did 2 sets of each exercise, the second week I did 3 sets per exercise, and third week I did 4 sets per exercise.
For the low volume phase, again, what is low volume for you?
For me it's single sets: So for three weeks I did just 1 set of each exercise, training close to but not quite to failure.
The above program worked quite well for me, with nice steady strength increases, but eventually I went to two week cycles: Two weeks of high volume, followed by two weeks of single sets. This is the system I prefer now. Whether I adapt faster than normal, or simply get bored easily, I don't know. After you've run through this system a few times, you'll gain an appreciation for when you should increase and decrease volume.
Keep in mind these two suggestions:
Don't stay on the high volume phase so long that you begin to feel too tired, and don't stay on the low volume phase so long that your gains begin to slow up.
I know that some people will object at this point and say that this training works for strictly psychological reasons; that the relief of switching to low volume, coupled with the fact that you always hold back a little with multiple sets but work harder on single sets, leads to gains. First, even if it is all psychological, who cares so long as it works? But having said that, and never one to discount the psychological element, I honestly believe that this program works for genuine physiological reasons as well. Think again of our dieting example.
I have tried to do justice in this article to Leo Costa's theories, but naturally I have my own take on them and have had to be brief. I don't know if his books are still available but if you can locate copies [see link], you will find much food for thought.
While his books are aimed at bodybuilders, the underlying principles are adaptable to any form of weight training.
I won't argue with anyone who is pleased with using a particular number of sets all the time. But if your gains have been uneven or nonexistent lately, give this program a try. If you've been doing multiple sets for a while, begin this program with a phase of gradually increasing volume. Again, remember not to stay on any phase too long: Don't stay on high volume so ling that get that overtrained feeling, and don't stay on low volume so long that your gains slow down.
Experiment and develop your training intuition. Good luck!
Enjoy Your Lifting!
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