I’ve never been a fan of multi-set strength training. I suppose it was because strength training wasn’t my favorite to begin with and I liked the idea of getting it over more quickly. A single set of an exercise takes a lot less time than multiple sets, and the recommendation of the American College of Sports Medicine is that a single set of exercises that hit major muscle groups is good for health purposes. Bodybuilders will cite studies that show multiple sets are 40% more effective than single sets for muscle growth. However, the book High-Intensity Strength Training  shows various techniques for adding intensity to single set training that are also about 40% more effective than conventional single-set training, while still being much more time efficient than multiple set training.
I’m sure you’ve seen people hanging out in the weight room at the gym for a long period of time. They do a set of an exercise, than have to wait around several minutes for recovery before the next set . They often spend this time doing things like chatting with other people or playing with their phones (although, admittedly, there are more productive ways to spend this time, like Pavel Tsatsouline’s fast and loose drills). All the time between sets makes a workout take a long time, which has never appealed to me. To each his own. As I stated in my Getting started with resistance training post, multi-sets is effective and may be your cup of tea if you enjoy strength training, but single sets are more time efficient and may be better if you don’t enjoy it.
This is why I’ve always preferred single-set training, with high intensity techniques thrown in. My favorite is a variation of what’s called “breakdown” training *similar to “drop sets”): I do a single set, pause a couple of seconds to recover, than squeeze out a few more reps. In breakdown training, it’s recommended to drop the load a little before the extra reps, e.g. move the pin on a machine or grab the next lighter dumbbell. This is even easier with resistance bands, you can just not extend the band quite as much during the extra reps.
Then I discovered isometric training is very effective and even more time efficient than single set training, so I’ve worked that into the mix.
Multi-sets For Fat Loss
So what changed to make me interested in multiple sets again, and how can you make them more time efficient? For many of us, one of our main motivations for working out is to achieve fat loss. There is some evidence that resistance training is effective for fat loss, and recently in several places I’ve read the recommendation of doing resistance training with multiple sets but minimum rest between sets. This doesn’t mean lots of reps with lower weights, it still involves high resistance. It is also similar to “metabolic conditioning” (metcon) workouts done in CrossFit. Hard resistance training with minimum rest between sets is claimed to be optimum for fat loss because it produces a lot of lactate, which in turn promotes secretion of human growth hormone (hgh). It is actually lactic acid that is produced by exercise, but it becomes lactate in the bloodstream after giving off a hydrogen ion.
Just googling “lactate and fat loss” leads to a lot of discussion of this resistance training approach. There is solid science behind the connection between lactate and production of hgh, for example . The connection between naturally produced hgh and fat loss is murkier, It’s harder to investigate because most of the studies found are about externally applied (exogenous) hgh, which I don’t think is a good idea (except possibly if recommended by an MD because you’ve been diagnosed with a deficiency). There are various studies showing a connection between injected hgh and fat loss, for example . For this training approach to be plausible, we have to make the (not unreasonable) assumption that naturally produced hgh will have a similar effect.
Multiple sets with minimal rest between sets is not as time consuming. For example, a typical recommendation is four sets of 8 to 10 reps of several compound exercise. Examples might be squats, bench presses, rows, standing presses, and pullups (or lat pulldowns). About 30 secs rest between sets is recommended.
But there are ways to speed it up even more. One is to arrange the exercises in antagonist supersets. For example, the standing press uses muscles like the deltoids and triceps, while the pulldown uses their antagonists like lats and biceps. So you can do a set of standing presses, then immediately jump into the pulldown with no rest. The muscles worked in the press are resting while you do the pulldown, and vice versa. In this way you can quickly go through 4 sets of 2 exercises. The bench press and the row can be paired the same way.
Another option is to use circuit training, so do one set of each exercise, to complete a circuit, and repeat four times, with minimal rest between sets and circuits.
I final trick I like is to use single arm variations. For example, I do a chest press with resistance bands but only do one arm at a time. So I can do a set with the left arm, then immediately switch to the right arm with little rest (just the amount of time needed to switch hands with the handle). I got this idea from “one-man drills” we used to practice in my outrigger canoe club (it really should be called “one-person”, there were lots of women in our club just as good at doing one-man drills as the guys). For four sets I call this “double one-mans” because it’s four times per side.
I do an upper and lower split with my strength training, I concentrate on the upper body twice a week and the lower body two others days. Upper body day had been my least favorite, and the day I was motivated to be as time efficient as possible to get it over with. I do five exercises: chest press, horizontal row, standing press, pulldown, and a twisting exercise similar to kayaking. With a single set, this took about 10 minutes. With four sets and the time saving techniques mentioned, it only takes about 20 minutes. And it is a great workout, I’m gassed afterwards. With a warmup and cooldown, This could be a complete workout for strength and fat loss in about 30 minutes.
This is not my whole workout, I precede it with a warmup and a series of isometric exercise (including abdominal work), then do high-intensity intervals of various resistance stations followed by intervals walking with dumbbells and with poles, and a cooldown. Total time is about 90 minutes. But the extra is more “strength-endurance”, the strength part itself is only about 20 minutes. I do the extra because I enjoy those activities, and hope that this winter I’ll be able to cross country ski and this spring I’ll be able to rent standup paddleboards and kayaks again.
On lower body or “leg” day, I just do my hard training on my bike or hiking. So I didn’t have to change much to implement the multi-set idea, I just bumped up my on-bike strength training drills from 2 sets to 4. I just find a hill, put it in a high gear, and grind a short way up while standing and pulling on the handlebars for leverage, about 10 revolutions (10 reps per leg). This is very similar to a single-leg press but more enjoyable for me. I’m continuing doing the other high intensity intervals I was doing on the bike or up hills hiking. I’ve also added some isometric training to strengthen my calfs and hip flexors off the bike.
Making it Fun
Strength training is a lot more fun for me if I connect it to activities or sports that is will make me better at. The one-sided chest press is like boxing, and one-handed rowing and the kayak twisting exercise are related to canoe and kayak paddling. These exercises also make me more conditioned for cross country skiing. For me, this makes them a lot more fun than if I am just doing them for fat loss. My high-intensity intervals are also more fun because they mimic activities I enjoy.
There are a lot of stories on the internet of people making rapid progress for fat loss with “lactate strength training” (multiple sets with minimal rest between). I can’t attest to that personally, because I never tried it at a time when I needed to lose a lot of weight. But I can say that, for me, it has worked great as a plateau buster. I’m working on getting rid of the last stubborn couple of inches around the waist, and was stuck for weeks, and am now making progress again.
Warmup and Cooldown
My warmup and cooldown are simple. I do exercises at an easy pace that use the muscles that will be doing the work in the main part of the program. So on “upper day” I just do a minimum of 5 minutes of brisk walking with light hand weights. On “leg” day I just spin easily in a low gear on my bike for the warmup and cooldown. You can make a bigger deal out of it than that, especially if you were training for something like powerlifting where you do max lifts. But my simple approach has always served me well.
- Westcott, W, and D’Arpino, T, High-Intensity Strength Training, Healthy Learning, 2015
- Godfrey, R, Madgwick, Z, and Whyte, G, “The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes”, Sports Med, 2003.
- Snydera,D, Underwoodb, L, and Clemmons, R, “Persistent lipolytic effect of exogenous growth hormone during caloric restriction”, The American Journal of Medicine. 1995.