“When one considers that the dominant intellectual approach of the growing number of self-styled “experts” in the bodybuilding field is characterized by approximation, contradiction, equivocation and evasion, it is little wonder that an entire generation of bodybuilders – many of the top champions included – finds itself bewildered and without rational guidance. However, let me assure those who refuse to allow the flame of their passion for a more muscular body to die, who, having some awareness of the role of facts, logic and reason in their lives: There does exist a science of bodybuilding – and it can be understood by anyone willing to exercise the required mental effort.”
Mike Mentzer, The Science of Bodybuilding, HEAVY DUTY I
So what happened? Well, this happens to coincide with another dilemma/problem I was trying to figure out. Back in 2008 or so, Dan Carter was the undisputed best player in rugby! When they showed his stats, (you know, height, weight, etc.), he and I are pretty close to the same size. And don’t get me wrong, he’s fast! But in a straight race, I believed I could keep it close, so how was he the best rugby player in the world and I was just an OK player for a Division 2 club in the States? Could it be that he was a better “rugby” player? I am ashamed to admit that I was very late to the party. It is important to be strong enough and fast enough to play these sports, but after that, it’s skill, it’s knowing your sport in and out. (Wayne Gretskzy was not the best athlete, but he’s the great one!) I finally clued in, so I spent less time in the weight room and more time on the rugby field perfecting my lines and just learning the game. I was also fresher getting to practice, and able to work harder at practice, which led to better “rugby” conditioning and I was much more refreshed going into the games on Saturdays. I no longer felt like hammered… you know. And to top it all off, I was the strongest I had ever been up to that point. Finally, everything clicked! Less was more. Even in rugby training. If we had to run a 400m, I didn’t pace myself, I ran the first 200 as hard as I could and then would dog it at the end (combination of being super tired from blasting the first 200m and wanting to recover before the repeat). It worked though. I am no world-class player by any stretch, but after the shift, I was now playing the best rugby I had ever played… and it felt great!
But the frequency was still something that troubled me. I really believed that to miss more than a week would see a reduction in strength and a step back. That was all about to change the following summer. I had a holiday planned where I would be in Canada, by myself, for almost three weeks. So when I got to the mother country, a day or two later I hit the gym at the local aquatic center and did my high-intensity workout (with some strip sets mixed in). I went to the leg press machine they had and put it on the stack and went to lift. I could only do three–no biggie. I continued on my strip sets and left my legs so exhausted that it was a few minutes before I could get out of the machine. Then my road trip began. Camping, fishing, drinking, more travelling, camping (did I mention the drinking?) and some water skiing. Needless to say, I did not do much in the way of “working out” while on my two-week bender. When I finally got back from the road trip, I went back to the gym for a training session before I left Canada to head back to the States. When I got to the leg press, I put it on the stack to see if I could at least move it the previous best of 3 times, if at all… I did it 20 times before my legs gave out! Oh, and all my other lifts that day went up as well. I had finally convinced myself that missing a week would not be the end of the world and, in fact, actually help! So, now I train once a week, my workouts last about 25 minutes, and I spend most of my days feeling good and not beat-up–unless I tackle with my face, which is not the preferred tackling technique by any stretch of the imagination.
I hope this long-winded tale helps; hopefully many of the athletes who read this will be able to relate in some facet. And for those starting out, I will finish with this: McMaster University has put out some great studies, which are easy to find online. Some conclusions they have drawn: 3 sets seems to cause/allow more protein synthesis for a longer period of time, but it was not conclusive whether this led to overall greater hypertrophy or strength gains. The university has found more conclusively that lifting heavy to failure or lifting lighter loads to failure have an equal effect in increasing muscle hypertrophy. The only difference was the heavy-loads group increased their 1-rep max greater than the light-load camp (who also increased their 1-rep max). Likewise, both groups increased muscular endurance, but the light-load camp increased their endurance more. So, the take away in this case for me is if you have some joint concerns, using lighter loads will still–despite what the old guard has to say–trigger some great gains, but if you would like to get really strong, you might prefer going with the heavier loads and fewer reps for the 1-rep max increase. And lastly, since the 1-set vs 3-set continually seems to battle it out, I will say this: Even if three sets per body part get you stronger faster, is it as sustainable over the long run for the average working parent or weekend warrior? I don’t think it is. If you like it and prefer training with multiple sets, that’s fine, I won’t tell you not to, but if time is a concern or overtraining, then 1 set is a terrific option… and I’m speaking from experience. And just so you know, Arnold won a lot of competitions and he did a lot of sets and spent a lot of time in the gym. Dorian Yates won even more competition,s and he’s been in the 1-working set camp almost his entire career. So someone might say one way is not “better” than the other, but I know what worked for me, and it has saved me a lot of time to write posts like this.
Recommended readings on this topic.
McGuff, Doug and John Little. (2009). Body by Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Anderson, Owen. Recovery training: too much hard training can devastate your muscles and implode your immune system. Retrieved from http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/recovery-training-too-much-hard-training-can-devastate-your-muscles-and-implode-your-immune-system-510
Bass, Clarence. Intensity, What Is It? Intensity, Failure, Rep Range, Muscular Endurance, Specificity (web log article). Retrieved from http://www.cbass.com/IntensityResistanceTraining.htm
Bass, Clarence. Light Weights Build Muscle—Study Provides Proof
Complex Study, Simple Training (web log article). Retrieved from http://www.cbass.com/LightWeights.htm
Bass, Clarence. More Support for Effort-Based Training
Even Light Resistance Builds Muscle—If Lifted to Failure (web log article). Retrieved from http://www.cbass.com/Effortbasedtraining.htm
Christopher G.R. Perry, George J.F. Heigenhauser, Arend Bowen, and Lawerence L. Spriet. (2008). High intensity aerobic interval training increases fat and carbohydrate metabolic capacities in human skeletal muscle [Abstract]. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 33(6), 1112-23.