It’s Time to Reconsider the Three Set Approach

By on February 26, 2021

In many cases, if you are doing three sets of an exercise, you are not making optimal use of your time in the gym. In this post, I’m going to argue that there are more interesting and effective ways you could be training and how this can agree with the research.

Why Three Sets of Ten?

The first question to ask, is why so many people still train using three sets of a given exercise.

Curling Barbell

The answer is simple. By allowing a rest period, the trainee is able to perform the same set of movements again, with equivalent effort. This allows the individual to maximize the amount of muscle damage, metabolic stress, and mechanical tension, resulting in greater growth.

Thus, many argue that three sets are necessary to maximize potential growth. Two is a minimum. One is unlikely to have much benefit. This has been the prevailing view since the early days of bodybuilding and there is some evidence to back up this view.

There were significant differences when training the quads via leg extension for three versus two sets.

For example, one study found that there were significant differences when training the quads via leg extension for three versus two sets. The group that did three sets developed and average 19.4kg one rep max, whereas the two set group only managed 12.6kg on average (study). That’s quite a big difference!

The Overload Principle

This adheres to the long-standing overload principle. It makes sense that increasing the volume in a workout would act as a bigger stimulus, resulting in greater strength gains.

See also: How to Build Actual Size and Performance With Advanced Bodyweight Training

Another study was more careful to keep the overall training volume exactly the same. It achieved this by splitting participants into two groups: one group that trained the upper body with three sets and lower body with one set, and another group that did the reverse.

While there were no differences in upper-body strength gains (interestingly), the lower body group saw significantly greater results when trained with three sets per exercise (study).

Genetic differences in squat technique

I have my own theories as to why this might be. The lower body is trained constantly simply by moving and thus contains a higher number of slow-twitch fibers. It probably, therefore, needs greater stimulus in order to trigger hypertrophy. It’s important to note that the subjects were all untrained individuals, too.

However you look at it, the bottom line is that training with sets of three yielded greater results.

Case closed, right? Hmmm. Hmmm, I say!

Training With a Single Set

Even more damning, is that Dorian Yates – famous for his one-set to failure method of training – actually never did just one set. Rather, that term refers to the idea that only one of his sets was taken to failure. He actually did several warm-up sets first.

That said, Dorian maintains that it was just one set that counted. As he told David Robson for Bodybuilding.com:

“I always trained like that (High Intensity with its emphasis on few sets and maximal effort) so there wasn’t a huge difference. I just cut back a little bit from ’92 onwards. Generally, before that I was doing two sets to failure. A lot of people get confused because it has been put out in the magazines that Dorian does one-set training. I never did one set per exercise: what I did was one set to failure.

“I did the warm up sets before that and how many I did would depend on the exercise and where it was in the routine. The idea was to warm up and prepare that muscle for the maximum set because that was the one that counted, where you are overloading it and you are putting stress on your body that it is not used to and it is going to react by growing slightly bigger and stronger: that’s the idea.”

Dorian Yates

Still then, the takeaway is that one set was enough to cause maximum muscle fiber recruitment and damage. And this makes sense: as you fatigue slower twitch muscle fibers, the larger twitch fibers are forced to spring into action. Henneman’s Size Principle means that large motor units aren’t called into action unless they are needed. But as the weaker ones drop out, the body has no option but to start using the bigger ones. And we see this as the arms and legs begin to shake during the movement; this is because the larger motor units are not as capable of fine adjustments.

See also: Nervous System Training: Muscle Fiber Recruitment and Rate Coding Explained

There are still issues here, though. For example, metabolic build up will mean that those faster twitch fibers aren’t utilized quite as effectively as they would be with a one rep max. And the rate of force production may simply not be there.

Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty System

BUT if you’re using a heavy weight that will bring you to total failure after around 6-8 reps, this may not be the case. Indeed, this is precisely what Mike Mentzer, who introduced us to the “Heavy Duty System” believed. Mentzer was actually a key inspiration for Yates, and his thoughts on the topic are as follows:

“Carrying a set to a point where you are forced to utilize 100 percent of your momentary ability is the single most important factor in increasing size and strength.”

Mike Mentzer, High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way

The problem with studies comparing different set and rep splits might be that participants didn’t train to failure, or didn’t use enough weight. If you train with 75% of your 1 rep max and stop just before absolute failure, then perhaps you DO need two or three sets. But if you go to failure or even use intensity techniques to go past failure, then one set might well be enough!

Of course, we could also argue that Dorian and Mike might have been, chemically, a bit extra.

More Creative Options

With all that in mind, we might begin to question the importance of training for three sets.

I LOVE high rep calisthenics and I have seen gains in both strength AND size by using good-old fashioned push ups and pull ups.

But I also like pushing myself with heavy and complex movements. And there’s a really great way to combine these things: with a mechanical drop set.

Here’s the kind of routine I typically do:

Goblet squat jumps with 20kg for 10 reps > goblet squats with 20kg for 20 more reps > 10 reps of jump squats > 50 reps of air squats > 1 minute quasi-isometric air squat

(A quasi isometric is an exercise performed extremely slowly.)

See also: Advanced Isometric Training: Ballistic and Quasi Isometrics

All of this is performed with ZERO rest (except maybe a 15 second intra-set rest). What I’ve done here is to train rate of force development, explosiveness, and fast-twitch fiber recruitment with those first 20kg jump squats. Then, when those start to become a bit sketch, I switch to simple squats with weight. As my legs start shaking, I put down the weight and perform jump squats, then regular air squats. But I’m already fatigued, so my legs are shaking and my own bodyweight feels closer to 70% of my 1RM. After 30 or so reps everything is completely fatigued and my legs are swollen with blood. This is a mechanical drop set.

Functiona Training With Sandbag

This trains pretty much everything in one go and boosts work capacity, too. It’s fun, quick, and challenging. And quite honestly, it’s enough for my purposes.

In this scenario, you are doing just as much volume as someone else who does three sets. But you’re doing it all in one go. And you’re building multiple different properties at once.

Of course, I’m not a powerlifter. If your interest is in max strength on the squat, then you’ll need something that looks a little different. But again, you could perform, say 4-6 reps using 80-90% of your 1RM and then switch to 75% while focussing on bar speed. Like Dorian though, I recommend you use a warm-up set here.

The Other Option

But even if you still believe that a single set is not enough – no matter how intense – there is STILL no reason to do three sets of squats or biceps. At least, not if your interest is in performance.

Powerlifting is a proficiency. The squat or deadlift is a skill. If you want to get better at those things, then training those movement patterns repeatedly is highly beneficial and recommended.

Sandbag Twisting Lunge

But if you’re interested in general performance and all round health, then training traits is more important than strength. In that case, you should be focused on variety, in order to become better prepared, and in order to

And here’s the thing: you can still keep the focus on the same muscle group for three sets.

For example: instead of doing three sets of lunges, how about:

  • One set of lunges
  • One set of lunge walks
  • One set of back lunges

We’ve got the same target muscle groups here every single time, but we’re training in a variety of movement patterns and we’re keeping things way more interesting! You could throw in weighted step ups too and train balance and proprioception along the way.

Same Muscles, Different Movement

Instead of training with three sets of push ups, how about:

  • One set of push ups
  • One set of lizard crawls
  • One set of one arm press ups

The pecs are getting just as much attention and will grow just as fast. But now you’re ALSO training mobility with the lizard crawls, anti-rotation with the one arm press-ups, and more.

Mobility training does not need three sets. You can see benefits from holding a position for 30 seconds.

So, why not throw in a few Cossack squats and gain that hip mobility with no loss of strength? Why not throw in some unilateral work and increase your core strength?

In short, more variety makes for a more well-rounded athlete/individual. Not necessarily at the expense of strength gains.

And it’s way more interesting and fun.

If your training is mind-numbingly dull, you’re not doing it right.

Who has time to stand on the spot doing 30 curls?

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

3 Comments

  1. Rom says:

    Man you are a genius!!!
    Love this article, I knew you have a site but didn’t know its so good

  2. Dorian says:

    This is one of the first few articles I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog and am overjoyed you cite sources! Thank you!

  3. Rivaz says:

    Bro I did that leg workout with KB swings and it fucking killed me.
    Could you maybe do a workout with more examples of mechanical dropsets similar to the squat one in this post?

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