The Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate: Context Matters

THE big questions in the world of strength and conditioning:  the efficacy of utilizing explosive movements in the pursuit of athletic betterment, calories vs “content” vis-à-vis weight gain/weight loss, the single vs multiple set debate…; now if it weren’t for pressing issues like these, exactly what, pray tell, would we Physical Culturalists have to argue about?  I mean, a good 40% of the world’s internet traffic would just up and die  🙂

The problem (such as it is) with these debates is that most times the debate itself is force-framed into yes/no, black/white, right/wrong ideological camps, with each side having hunkered into a “no quarter asked, no quarter given” mentality.  This, quite simply, is no way to tackle any issue that so heavily turns on context and scope, and that is so mightily effected by a multitude of variables that simply cannot be effectively accounted for, much less controlled.

For instance, this recent post in Exercise Biology, along with the referenced studies (here and here) would seem to suggest that multiple sets to failure (in this case, three at 70% 1RM) are more conducive to hypertrophy than a single set (again at 70% of 1RM) taken to failure.  Ok, fair enough – but let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can uncover more to this story.

Now I’m in no way a tunnel-visioned worshiper at the altar of single-set-to-failure, BBS/HIT-like exclusive training; I do remain somewhat agnostic on matters of one protocol vs the other, opting instead for the utilization of the right tool for the particular job at hand, given the peculiarities of each unique circumstance. It is my opinion, for instance, that one can get a fantastic workout, and realize great results, with little more than bodyweight, gravity and basic playground equipment.    Is this necessarily an optimum way to induce a growth stimulus?  Is it time efficient, safe, and all-encompassing?  Well, in a word, no – but if this is all you have to work with and you’re willing to invest the requite time, you can certainly expect to realize some pretty good results.  Not optimum results mind you, but some pretty good results nonetheless.  And some (myself included), freaks that we are, would even consider this type of activity recreation, a really cool way to spend a couple of hours on a pretty day.  Enjoyment of an activity, however, does not imply that it is necessarily the most efficient way workout, and we need to – if not act on this distinction – at least acknowledge it.   

But back to the post and referenced studies: first off, in my mind I believe that there is a huge difference between localized and systemic stimulus.  A HUGE difference.  In other words, in no way does a single-set-to-“failure” in a unilateral leg extension impart the same systemic stimulus – thereby signaling a much more pronounced and universal growth/protein synthesis signal — as does a bout of full-on BBS/HIT-like training.  The two simply cannot be logically compared.  So researchers, in my humble opinion, need to do a much better job of comparing apples to apples, as this particular study is akin to dropping an accomplished 100 meter sprinter in an 800 meter race, then proclaiming that the winner (who’ll assuredly not be the 100 meter man) has trained in a manner that is therefore superior to that of the 100 meter specialist.

Another way of looking at this is to say that sure, a single set of push-ups to failure is not as effective a training stimulus as multiple sets to failure.  So what is the limiting factor here, and why would multiple sets be required?  The short answer is intensity, coupled with the ability to impart a deep inroad (muscular fatigue), both locally and systemically.  As Louie Simmons is fond of saying, you’ll never invoke a response by simply tossing BBs at an elephant’s ass.  To carry this metaphor out just a bit further, you better pack that BB buckshot behind one hell of a powder load (i.e., ramping up intensity via multiple sets), or – and much more preferable, in my opinion – nail the poor bastard with a single bazooka round; an intense, deep-inroad, single-shot dose of growth-promoting stimulus.  That’ll no doubt get the elephant’s attention, and quick.

And then there is the matter of pinning down those pesky little variables, things like “intensity”, and “failure”.

Now it’s blatantly obvious, to those of even limited training experience, that the term “unilateral leg extension” is in no way synonymous with anyone’s definition of “intensity”.  Check this prior post, and the embedded video clips therein, for an example of a whole-body, BBS/HIT-like workout that is both brutally intense and a potent driver of systemic hormonal growth response.  Intense?  Are you friggin’ kidding me?  Failure?  Complete and utter.  The ability to perform another set in any of the exercises performed in this session?  Yeah, right.  Note: the one problem with attempting to capture just how much intensity a trainee (in this case, me) is pouring into any machine is that there is nothing to gauge that intensity against; no wobbling plate stacks, no flexing, heaving bars, nothing against which to gauge bar speed and power output.

Now, to put this level of intensity in prospective, the BBS/HIT/SS bout that I engaged in here took all of 15 minutes, start-to-finish, to complete.  Even with superior recuperative ability – which I possess, not by virtue of anything that I’ve done myself necessarily, but just by luck of the genetic draw – I doubt that I could progress, let alone pull-off, one of these workouts at a frequency interval of anything less than 5 days, as doing so would keep me permanently mired in recovery purgatory (otherwise known as overtraining hell).

So compare that workout’s level of intensity and systemic “dosing” to what I am able to accomplish using the tools I have access to – primarily, free weights: a “normal” iron session for me will take approximately 45 minutes to complete, and I hit, on average 4 such sessions per week.  And there’s a much different dynamic involved here as well; going to true and utter failure while using free weights in a compound movement is simply not a safe nor is it an advisable thing to do and, therefore, multiple sets are required to impart a sufficient inroad.

Intensity, volume and Time Under Load.  Goals.  Available tools.  Circumstance.   These are the variables that one must juggle so as to craft for himself an appropriate protocol.  One size does not fit all; the dogma is that there is no dogma.  Craft wisely, then proceed with confidence.

Another Take on the Body By Science Methodology

“I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.  Listen to this music.”


I’ve posted previously (here, here, here and here – all complete with plenty of fantastic TTP reader input and comments), my thoughts on Dr. Doug McGuff’s Body By Science methodology.  Today I’d like to offer another take on Dr. McGuff’s methodology, this by way of TTP reader Jerry Borrero (aka, the IronDisciple), who blogs on Paleo/Primal nutrition, Girevoy Sport, and all things Physical Culture-related.  Check out Jerry’s work over at  What follows here, in italics, are Jerry’s thoughts, with my spotty comments set apart via normal font.   Enjoy; and thanks, Jerry, for the thoughtful input.

The premise of the whole book is counter intuitive, at least to my mind.  I’ve always thought if I ever felt frustrated with my lack of progress it was because I needed to do MORE work, not less.  And from reading material from Ross Enamait and some personal experimentation, I’ve been of the opinion that we need LESS rest than the muscle mags prescribe, not more.  I personally do SOME form of vigorous exercise almost everyday of the week, with maybe one day completely off at any one time.  The knee jerk reaction after reading the well laid out argument made in the book is to toss my current workout regimen out the window because I’m apparently overtraining myself.

After the panic subsided here are some observations:

It seems that the authors are stating that all qualities of the muscle can be adequately addressed using their HIT protocol.  Max strength, Explosive Strength, etc.  Am I understanding that correctly?  The book seems to imply that there is no need for periodization although it never comes out and states this directly.

The authors refer to building all the different types of muscle fibers sequentially, but never goes into the different forms of hypertrophy (sarcoplasmic vs. myofibrillar).  Based on the fact that the stimulus is high intensity/short duration it would seem to favor myofibrillar, and maybe that’s why the subject is never broached, but whenever I think of a program aimed primarily at hypertrophy, I automatically think of sarcoplasmic.

The authors also advocate using primarily Nautilus machines for the full “Big Five” workout, but I’ve always understood that since machines only allow for one plane of motion that the stabilizer muscles don’t get developed.  Is this not accurate?  This is never really mentioned in the book.  Also, what is your take on the abbreviated and simplified program.  Is this really enough to target the body in its entirety?

I’ve taken a look at your workouts and noticed that you haven’t entirely subscribed to the prescribed BBS workout.  You’re still performing multiple workouts during the week, and utilizing a variety of different exercises.  I’m assuming the increased frequency is due to not going to absolute failure on your sets and from experimentation into what works for you and what doesn’t.

Just a quick interjection, here.  Although I agree with Dr. McGuff on the debilitating, cumulative effect of certain exercise protocols, I go about mitigating that damage a bit differently.  I do prefer to workout more frequently (3 to 5 bouts per week – usually) – each workout, though, is auto-regulated (a little more about auto-regulation here and here), so I rarely find myself in an overtrained hole to have to scamper out of.  From previous discussions with Dr. McGuff, though, I realize that his concerns lay not only with the frequency of exercise, but with the type of exercise selected.  Olympic lifts and their derivatives, plyometics, ballistic/explosive movements and the like are discouraged under the BBS methodology.  My take is that each trainee’s goals must be evaluated vis-a-vis his abilities and current condition, and a proper fitness program must be must then be individualized for that particular trainee.  For some trainees, a BBS-like protocol would work wonderfully – for others, though (myself included, I suspect), it’s just not an adequate, year-round stimulus.  I emphasis year-round here, because there may be periods within my training cycle where a BBS-like protocol would be just what the doctor ordered.  Constant re-evaluation of one’s circumstance is key, here.  If BBS is a viable option (and for many, it will be), then by all means utilize it.  My workouts are constantly morphing, and are the direct result of 30+ years of on-going, n=1 experimentation in relation to my goals, and in consideration of my current strengths weaknesses.  This, in my mind, is as it should be.  A “workout protocol”, like the organism that protocol is directed toward, should be a thing of continual re-invention (i.e., intelligent n=1).  BBS methodologies, then,ought to be seen as another useful tool to be used toward that end.

While the idea of a scientific approach to exercise that allows all my exercise to be done in a quick 10 minute burst once a week intrigues me, part of me wants to plug my ears and scream until the idea passes.  I’ve grown to enjoy snatches, clean and jerks, sprints, planche progressions, etc. and I’d be sad to realize these are all obsolete/unnecessary. That all being said, once my upcoming Girevoy Sport competition is finished (my first!) I plan to “empty my cup” and toss out all my concerns and give the BBS approach a try.  I’ll stay on the program for as long as I benefit from it with tweaks along the way if necessary.

Thanks for taking the time to commit these thoughts to the written word, Jerry.  There’s another aspect of this debate, though, that rarely gets much air time –  what I’m alluding to here is the mental aspect (benefits, boost, what have you) of frequent, strenuous exercise.  And for more on that…

The Exercise – Anxiety Correlation

photo credit: Hljod.Huskona

This study (PubMed link, here) begins to quantify what I’ve felt intuitively for years: there’s something about proper exercise (including proper intensity and duration) that makes one impervious to stress – whether that stress is mental or physical.  And this is another reason I prefer more frequent bouts of exercise – still high in intensity, and short in duration – but more frequent than what is called for under a BBS-like methodology.

If I go more than a couple days with no strenuous physical activity, I begin to get antsy (and a bit hard to be around, or so I’m told).  I wonder if this is the brain’s way of saying, “hey, bud – get off your ass and do your part to keep our defenses tuned-up”.  It’s an interesting concept, and one that I hope will be explored in the near future, in further depth.

In health,


Priming the CNS “Pump” for Maximum Fast-Twitch Fiber Activation

“We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were, for the moment, unpopular.”

Edward R. Murrow

Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the Murphy Strength and Conditioning Center, East Carolina University
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the Murphy Strength and Conditioning Center, East Carolina University

Many, many trainees seem either unable to grasp, or unwilling to believe, that short-duration, high-intensity, simply-constructed workouts occurring at infrequent intervals can be so blisteringly effective at producing enhanced athleticism, muscularity and fat reduction.   The main problem, or intellectual leap that must be undertaken, here — I believe — is to first understand what constitutes a sufficient biological stimulus required to elicit a desired response.  Too much and/or too frequent a biological “cue” can, of course, be as detrimental to overall progress as too little and/or too infrequent a biological cue.  I’ve discussed before the concepts of  “drop-off” and “auto-regulation” as these concepts pertain to continued progress.  The second point is revolves around possessing the know-how to construct a workout that achieves a high-impact biological cue in an abbreviated period of time.  Maintaining a targeted, high degree of central nervous system (CNS) stimulation is key to achieving maximum “bang” for the workout time “buck”; priming the pump, so to speak, so as to wring the maximum amount of power possible from a given circumstance (i.e., modality, desired time under load, etc).

In this previous post, we deconstructed the rep, learning what it means, what it looks like, to perform an exercise repetition that is truly productive.  But let’s now break that down even further.  Is there something we can do prior to executing that perfect series of repetitions, that will lend even more productivity to the endeavor?  You bet there is — effective CNS stimulation.  Think of proper CNS stimulation as a ramp-up, heightened muscular awareness, fast-twitch activation, or a targeted, high-intensity CNS proprioception.  Ever see elite sprinters pop-off a few explosive knee-to-chest jumps just prior to settling into the blocks?  CNS stimulation, my friend.

So what does this look like in a practical sense?  Well, let’s deconstruct one of my recent, morning workouts and see just how I utilize this phenomenon in my own training.  This is my Twitter post following that morning’s weight session:

This AM’s w/o: RDL (Conc.) + SLDL (Eccentric) x 5, Floor press x 5, Snatch Grip High Pull (from hang) x 3; 4 rounds. Blog details soon.

First I’d like to point out that I post all of my workouts to Twitter, and that you don’t have to have a Twitter account to to see these posts, as they all appear to the right of my blog (the last 10 or so posts, at least).  The nature of Twitter, though, doesn’t allow for detailed elaboration; this is both good and bad, depending upon your point of view.  I rather appreciate it as a medium of brevity that is a perfect compliment to the longer “blog format”, but I digress.  Back to the subject at hand.

Let’s deconstruct that day’s workout, focusing on a single exercise within that morning’s circuit — the basic floor press.  First, though, let’s look at the overall timeline of this workout: 5:45 AM — coffeed-up and in the gym (following a 1 hour commute, by the way).  5:55 warm up completed; heart rate is up, beginning to sweat.  6:00 AM Bars loaded and staged; begin circuit with “feel/priming” sets.  6:10 — full-on blood, guts and fury.  6:30 — pulled the plug on the last movement, staggered to the showers, and prepped to face to workday.  45 minutes, top to bottom — yes, it can be done.  Easy?  No friggin way; and if it was, everyone would do it, right?

As far as a fabulous brief, high-intensity workout goes, I’ve got all the bases covered; but here’s the obstacle: I want to tax and fatigue every fast-twitch fiber I’ve got (for each particular movement) — and I’ve got a very short time window in which to accomplish that task.  That’s a tall order.  I’ve got an ace up my sleeve, though, that’ll help me do just that.  Now what little trick did I employ just prior to sliding under the bar for each set of floor presses?  Ballistic push ups.  Just 3 or so; not enough to tire me out, just enough to fully wake up and prime my CNS for the movement to come, and give those fast twitch fibers the signal that, hey guys, it’s time to wake up and get in the game.  Then I slid under the bar and proceeded to punch out my 5 (or so) reps, attempting maximum bar acceleration with each rep.  I increased weight on each set until I reached the point where, on the 5th rep of the 4th cycle, I hit a “grind it out rep”, and at that point, I pulled the plug on that exercise.  And, having done this for quite some time (30+ years, can you believe it?), I can pretty well approximate loading, reps schemes, and sets — even when exercises are paired within a circuit (like the floor press was in this example) with a good deal of accuracy.  Sometimes I’ll exceed expectations and other times I’ll fall short.  And the scary thing is that I usually know how just how I’ll perform in the workout about midway through the warm up, and it all depends upon how my CNS is responding to that warm-up.  Stuff of urban legend, I know — but hey, it’s true.   Just a tad sluggish?  Not today, bud; still, though, you’ve got to “endeavor to persevere”.  Feel like someone just tagged you with a set of crash paddles?  Here comes one for the record books, guaranteed.

And note that the preliminary ballistic movement need not be the exact same movement as the main course — an approximation is fine.  For example, in the workout above, my pre-RDL/SLDL ballistic movement  was an explosive knees-to-chest jump with a “stuck” landing in the full squat position.  I popped-off just 2 or 3 immediately prior to beginning the set.   The same ballistic movement precedes all of my pulling movements; deadlifts, low pulls, clean variations, you name it.

Give pre-set ballistic movements a shot, and let me know what you think.  If anyone out there is following a BBS style workout, I believe a pre-set ballistic movement will really get you primed for added resistance and TUT for each prescribed exercise.  Also, if used properly, I believe vibration plates can elicit similar CNS/fast twitch fiber-stimulating effects.  I think it would be fascinating to study the resulting effects of this: if Dr. McGuff could somehow incorporate vibration technology within the equipment he uses for his machine-based BBS workouts, then compare an “all things equal” pair of study groups — both BBS-trained, one “vibrated”, the other not.  I really believe there is “something to” vibration stimulation vis-a-vis enhanced CNS/fast twitch fiber activation, however, the hucksters have latched onto the “something for nothing” sales angle (loose weight with no effort) and turned the technology into a parody of itself.  Look beneath the hucksterism, though, and I think there’s a worthwhile technology there.

In health,