How many sets?

3 sets of 10, 5 sets of 5… Fuck it, let’s go for 10 sets of 10! When you look at the wide variety of prescribed amount of sets in different programs it’s easy to get confused. Years ago I pondered this and the very concept of what it means to do a certain amount of sets. Let’s dig in.

First of all, if you’re one of those who like to turn to exercise science to figure things like this out you will be very disappointed. At least if you read the science with an open mind (which appears to be hard for people to do). There’s simply no definitive answer to if more sets are better than less – or even if more sets are better than ONE set! Studies have been inconclusive and contrary to what some people will have you believe so have meta studies, sometimes leaving out research that doesn’t support their idea of what the results should show.

The problems with exercise science are legion and thus way too many to get into here but I certainly will at another point.

In this article I will take a more philosophical and historical approach. As I said before, I once decided to ask myself the question: why do you do two sets? That of course begged the question why do you do three sets? And four sets? And… Well, you get the point. It seems like that would be the most basic question that should be asked but I couldn’t remember ever reading or hearing a clear reason. I jumped head first into my library and found… Not much. Not much at all. The text books didn’t seem to worry about it as much as I did, instead resting on traditional programs. The problem with that is that there are many traditional program that prescribe very different amount of sets.

Sets in the Soviet training manuals

In the Soviet litterature there are guidelines for weightlifters. They found that athletes of a certain class should perform a certain amount of lifts in a year. When they reach another class the amount of lifts are different. They also have guidelines for how many repetitions should be performed at a certain percentage of an athletes 1RM (one repetition maximum) and how many of the lifts in a year should be performed at a given percentage. With that in mind you can calculate the amount of sets. The now famous Prilepin’s chart is sometimes used to simplify all this. Prilepin studied a number of lifters and figured out what would be the minimum, the maximal and the optimal amounts of sets and repetitions to be performed in order for progress to be made.

Prilepin’s suggestions on the number of lifts to be performed in total at a given intensity. Source: Managing the training of weightlifters (Oleshko, Laputin)

Cool! Let’s do what Prilepin says! That might not be a bad idea but I wouldn’t take his data as gospel for anyone. He was actually questioned by his Soviet peers already back in the day. Medvedev for instance said that he disagreed with certain aspects of his chart based on that it came out of studies of junior athletes. With that said, Prilepin’s chart makes perfect sense within his system. If you’re going to accept Prilepin’s chart as the gold standard you should either use the same system or a system built around it. That’s not necessarily bad but it’s not what many people are doing. Note that doing more or less than the suggested amount of lifts would, according to Prilepin, lead to lack of results.

The typical Soviet-style training usually ends up being around 4-6 sets per exercise. You can easily reach those numbers by looking at Prilepin’s chart, or studying the programs of Medvedev and Poleataev for instance but you have to keep in mind what the rest of that system looks like. Very broadly speaking it’s based on sub-maximal effort lifts at around 80% intensity for fairly low amount of repetitions compared to what many of you might do. There’s no strive for ”rep PR’s” in the system, which is why Prilepin suggested 2-4 reps at 80% and not 5 or 8. To get a training effect from so few repetitions at such intensities multiple sets are necessary. 1×2@80% simply won’t cut it. One all out set of as many repetitions as you can manage is a completely different story but that’s not how weightlifters trained in the Soviet Union.

An American approach

Turning our eyes to the other side of the Atlantic. Ed Coan, arguably the greatest powerlifter ever (but don’t you dare speak his name or you will be burned at the stake by the IPF), was once asked about the Russian programs and he said that he never needed to do that much, so why should he? Indeed. In the programs of Ed Coan and others of similar systems you frequently see around two top sets of the main lifts. Why do 4-6 if it isn’t necessary?

Arthur Jones, a great mind in training regardless of what you think about HIT, famously advocated 1-2 sets per exercise, suggesting that very few could handle three and no one should ever do more than that. Mike Mentzer, the philosophical offspring of Jones, stripped it down to one single set.

Again, we need to put these claims into perspective. Ed Coan and the like would work with higher repetitions for at least a large part of their cycles compared to the Soviets. Plenty of assistance exercises would be performed (not that the Soviets are forreign to that concept). In the case of Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer, their whole idea was that the set needs to be taken to absolute failure, which is a whole other animal than the sub-maximal lifts advocated in what is now Russia.

It should be very clear by now that the number of sets performed are highly system dependent and also to a degree repetition dependent. The underlying philosophical idea of the training system utilized will serve as a guideline to how many sets should be performed.

What does a set mean?

Back to my philosophical pondering years ago. I actually reached some conclusions that I later put into practice. Perhaps I should remind myself of them more often.

  • One set. You need to do one set to get a training effect. That much is obvious.
  • Two sets. Two sets are typically preferable, even if you go very close to failure. The reason is that the second set is many times better than the first given enough rest and avoiding absolute failure.
  • Three sets. If you can do more than two sets with the same amount of repetitions you clearly didn’t push yourself to the limit in the first two. Therefore a third set indicates that you have actually dominated a weight.
  • Four+ sets. These are just sets for the sake of volume. You haven’t been working close to your limit and for whatever reason you believe that working with sub-maximal weights for multiple sets are the way to go.

When I figured this out I created a cycle where either weight or exercise was changed after two sets. That way I felt I could push myself to the limit every set instead of holding back like I’d do with more sets with the same repetitions and weight. It’s a very valid approach that you should try at some point.

How do you apply this information?

Will more sets, not taken to failure lead to more muscle growth than less sets? The science is unclear. Will more sets, not taken to failure lead to more strength than less sets? The science is unclear. This goes to show you that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But keep the following things in mind.

  • The way you approach the amount of sets, their intensity and amount of repetitions are based on the system of training you’re using.
  • While there’s not necessarily a directly inverse relationship between the two, lesser amount of sets generally mean you need to push yourself harder in each of them. Things might change with a very high frequency approach but that’s a topic for another day.

Good luck.

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