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The Fastest Workout

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

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

"For the average person who wants to look good in a swimsuit or run around with the kids on the weekends, one set is a very valid option," says Hass. One-set proponents hope the latest findings will inspire more people to lift weights. These days, after all, strength training is considered practically a necessity for good health.

Lifting weights kicks the body's metabolism into a higher gear, making weight maintenance easier. It also helps to prevent osteoporosis by slowing the natural rate of age-related bone loss and muscle wasting. A study in the February 2000 issue of Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association even suggests that weight training can help lower blood pressure.

Some Say That More Is Still Better

Although experts agree that one-set training works in the short term and is probably sufficient for general fitness, not all strength researchers fully endorse the idea. "Everyone wants a quick fix, but you have to look at the long haul," says William Kraemer, director of the human performance laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Kraemer's research on trained athletes suggests that after four to six months, one-set exercisers tend to plateau, whereas multiple-set exercisers continue to gain strength.

But nobody has studied novice or recreational lifters over the long term, so questions remain about how long average Joes and Janes can continue to benefit from one-set workouts. The experts at the American College of Sports Medicine straddle the fence, saying that one set is sufficient for healthy adults, but "multiple-set regimens may provide greater benefit if time allows."

For his part, Kraemer advocates "periodization," a technique where you change your program -- including the number of sets and repetitions -- every two to four weeks. For example, you might start with one set of 10 to 12 reps, then do two sets of 8 to 10 reps, then two or three sets of 6 to 8 reps, then three to five sets of 3 to 5 reps. Not only is this type of program more effective than one-set training because it challenges your muscles in more diverse ways, Kraemer says, but it's also less boring. "When you do the same thing over and over, you don't look forward to it. It's like eating apple pie every night."

While Hass agrees that a multiple-set program of this type can build more strength than a standard one-set routine, he doesn't think most people have the time or inclination to follow such a regimen. His scaled-down program, he says, is simply more realistic for most time-pressed Americans who struggle to do any strength training at all.

Even Kraemer's results, in fact, bear this out. When his "periodization" study ended, he says, most of the three-set subjects were eager to cut back their routines. "I'd see them in the gym and most of them were happy to go back to one set," he says.

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