Workout Tips

How Many Sets is Enough

From HIT (high-intensity training) to high-volume, what science says about the number of sets for growth.

josh bryant thumbnail by CSCS, MFS, PES
How Many Sets is Enough

How many sets do you do per exercise? One? Ten? Somewhere in between? Most fall somewhere in the middle but there are the outliers at either end that are loyal to that choice, almost to a fault. Research and anecdotal evidence have shown that ultra high-volume training can only be done for short periods before overtraining (or injury) occurs. But what about one-set training?

Six-time Olympia champ Dorian Yates was a fan of this kind of training – warming up then taking one disturbing set to failure – but suggesting one set works best for everyone is a violation of the Principle of Individual Differences.  

Those who favor this type of training, known as high-intensity training (HIT), seem to have an issue with rest of the scientific world on the Principle of Individual Differences. Furthermore, when training with a high level of intensity all of the time, both the GAS (general adaptation syndrome) and SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) principles are violated.

High Volume Findings

The American College of Sports Medicine Journal in 2002 published “A Meta-analysis to Determine the Dose Response for Strength Development.” Looking at the results, in a number of different studies, scientists determined advanced trainees need to perform an average of four sets to make the same gains that a beginner could make with one set. A number of studies show that high-volume, multiple set protocols cause a much more favorable hormonal response contrasted to single set protocols. Recently, science has questioned the role of the acute hormonal response and its role in hypertrophy, but a 2010 meta-analysis entitled “Single vs. multiple set of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy” shows the superiority of multiple sets for hypertrophy, echoing the findings of “Quantitative analysis of single vs. multiple-set programs in resistance training.”

Bottom line is HIT done all the time can be tough on the central nervous system and does not provide adequate work to maximize hypertrophy. Champions do more work and science agrees.


Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES, is the owner of and co-author (with Adam benShea) of the Amazon No. 1 seller Jailhouse Strong. He is a strength coach at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and holds 12 world records in powerlifting. You can visit his website at