Train with a high volume using heavy loads to get strong quickly and avoid the law of diminishing returns. A recent study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology shows why less is not more when it comes to training by comparing the effect 1, 4, or 8 sets of heavy squats on strength and body composition.
Surprisingly, there’s still controversy over whether one set of exercise will produce results. This study shows that you will get much better results with a greater number of quality sets. The study had trained males perform a 6-week training segment followed by a 4-week peaking program that included ballistic exercises. Participants trained twice weekly and performed only squats for the lower body with either 1, 4, or 8 sets using a weight of 80 percent of the 1RM to failure on each set with three minutes rest between sets.
The 8-set group gained much more strength than both the 1-set and 4-set groups, increasing 1RM strength by an impressive 37 kg by the end of the study. In comparison, the 1-set group increased 1RM by 17 kg and the 4-set group improved by 22 kg. Also significant, the 8-set group gained 18.5 kg in 1RM squat strength after only three weeks, showing that a greater volume is the way to go if you need to get strong fast. At the end of the 6-week strength program (before the ballistic phase started) the 8-set group increased squat strength 10 percent more than the 1-set group, a difference that increased to 12.3 percent greater maximal strength at the completion of the study.
There was no significant evidence of hypertrophy or major changes in body fat, although all groups improved body composition slightly. Researchers suggest strength gains were from neuromuscular adaptations and enhanced protein signaling pathways. Naturally, strength and size gains could be supported with pre- and post-workout amino acid supplementation to further support muscle building.
Take away the understanding that all things being equal, you will have better strength results with more sets and a higher volume. Additionally, you need to plan if you want to see continued results and not just go through the motions. Use some form of a periodized programs to continually elicit adaptations—you can’t just haphazardly train different volumes, loads, and tempos and expect to get impressive results. Take the time to plan—or use this one from PICP coach Derek Woodske: The Twelve Week Training Program for SQUATS
Marshall, P., McEwen, M., et al. Strength and Neuromuscular Adaptation Following One, Four, and Eight Sets of High-Intensity Resistance Exercise in Trained Males. European Journal of Applied Physiology. November 2011. 111, 3007-3016.