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