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.
"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.
John Lehr, for one, intends to stick to his abbreviated program. "I'm auditioning for voice-overs," he says. "Not for Mr. Universe."
Suzanne Schlosberg, a freelance writer based in Santa Monica, Calif., is author of The Ultimate Workout Log, second edition (Houghton Mifflin 1999), and co-author of Fitness for Dummies, second edition (IDG Books Worldwide 2000).