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The Fastest Workout

Why simple strength-training exercises may be all you need.

WebMD Feature

May 8, 2000 -- As an actor who hustles to a dozen television and film auditions a week, John Lehr doesn't have much time for the chest-press machine, the leg-curl gizmo, or any of the many other weight-training contraptions at his West Hollywood health club. But neither can Lehr afford to skip the gym altogether. "I don't want to be one of those muscleheads with biceps exploding out of their shirts," says Lehr, 34, "but, in my line of work, looks count for a lot. Besides, 40 years from now, I don't want to end up hunched over like Quasimodo."

So, on the advice of a trainer, Lehr recently began an unconventional strength program: He does only one set of each exercise (albeit a grueling single set), a routine that takes him just 20 minutes three days a week. "I spend less time at the gym than some guys spend looking at themselves in the locker room mirror," says Lehr, who also jogs three mornings a week. "But my body is starting to firm up -- you can ask my girlfriend."

Study Says One Set Works

Can one-set training really get you results? Or is the idea too good to be true? Although the issue continues to foster debate among exercise experts, a new study provides further evidence that a minimalist routine can get the job done -- at least in the short term. In the 13-week study, published in the January 2000 issue of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 21 men and women performed one challenging set of nine exercises three days a week; 21 additional subjects powered through the traditional three sets. By the end, both groups showed the same gain in strength (about 12%) and muscle (about 2 pounds). Earlier research showed similar results with novices, but this was the first study to look at recreational lifters who had been strength training for at least a year. The key to getting the most from just one set? Lift heavier weights.

There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Make That Single Set Count!

Experts emphasize that to gain benefits from one-set strength training, you can't sleepwalk through your routine. You must "lift to failure." In other words, you must lift heavy enough weights that your muscles give out after 8 to 12 repetitions (reps). "No matter how much yelling or screaming you do, you shouldn't be able to raise that weight one more time," says Chris Hass, the study's lead author, a researcher in the department of exercise and sports sciences at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

For people (often women) who fear that such high intensity will cause them to bulk up, rest assured: Doing 8 to 12 reps to failure won't turn you into a Schwarzenegger look-alike. To develop significant size, you need to lift much heavier weights -- heavy enough to exhaust your muscles after just 3 to 5 reps -- and do a more elaborate, complicated routine, says Hass.

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