Most advice on getting in shape centers around the “best way” to do this or the “fastest way” to do that.
Trying to make progress as fast as humanly possible is fine if training is a big part of your life. But there’s not a one-to-one relationship between the amount of work you put in, and the results you get back.
That is, if you double the amount of exercise you do, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re going to see results twice as fast.
This is particularly true in the world of resistance training, where there’s always a lot of rumbling about the amount of work required to optimize your gains.
But not everyone wants to push for optimal. Some folks are happy to do the least amount of work they can get away with, just as long as they’re moving in the right direction.
What’s the minimum amount of training you can do, and still see results?
In many cases, a single work set, with a high intensity of effort, performed 2-3 times a week, will get the job done.
There was a study published back in 2019, which looked at how training volume (the number of sets per exercise) affects gains in strength and size .
Three groups of trained subjects lifted weights three times a week for eight weeks, doing seven exercises per workout. One group did a single set of each exercise, hitting failure between 8 and 12 reps. The second group did three sets. The third group did five sets.
The group doing more work gained the most muscle. But even the single set group saw gains in muscle thickness, albeit to a lesser extent than the 3-set and 5-set groups.
On the strength side of things, there was no statistically significant difference in results. That’s despite the fact that the single set group trained for just 13 minutes, compared to 70 minutes in the five-set group.
A few caveats to keep in mind:
The subjects weren’t elite strength athletes, but had been lifting weights for a minimum of a year. If you’re highly trained, you’re going to need more than just one set if you want to keep on getting bigger and stronger.
And a single work set is going to be preceded by a number of submaximal warm-up sets, which themselves can contribute to your results. Turning up to the gym and doing one all-out set, with no preparation or warming up, isn’t a great idea.
In short, if you don’t have the time (or the inclination) to train in such a way that you’re maximizing your progress, one hard set per exercise, performed 2-3 times a week, should be enough to keep the gains coming.
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Christian Finn, M.Sc.
Founder of Muscle Evo