To build muscle, it’s the sets that count

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Earlier this year, I wrote a column about the minimum effective dose of strength training. Amazingly, novice lifters can make gains with as little as one set of six to 15 reps per week on average, at least. But average results don’t tell the whole story. Some people will earn more than the average; others will earn less. If you’re a typical endurance-focused Sweat Science reader, there’s a good chance you’re in the second category. What is needed to put muscle on those who no answer the minimum?

A new study in Journal of Applied Physiology, from researchers at the University of São Paulo and other institutions in Brazil, as well as the University of Alabama at Birmingham, fills in some details on this question. By assigning volunteers to do different lifting routines with each leg, they eliminate a lot of individual variation that often obscures the results of strength training studies. The results offer hope for those who might initially be classified as non-responders to resistance training, and suggest that the best way to trigger muscle-building adaptations is simple: add more sets.

For starters, it’s worth unpacking this idea of ​​non-responders. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of studies explored the role of genetics in the response to exercise. Give a bunch of people the same training program, and their genes will explain about half the variance in how much their fitness improves, the studies found. Some people, it turned out, just didn’t seem fit, even after several months of training. This idea of ​​exercise non-responders received much enthusiastic attention (So this is why am I not as fit as I want to be!) and a little push. Subsequent studies tend to show that if you take non-responders from a study and make them train at higher intensity or higher volumes, they actually get fitter.

Previous studies focused on aerobic exercise, but expect similar results with resistance training. The new study, which was led by Hamilton Roschel of the University of São Paulo, was designed to see if adding extra sets would convert non-responders into responders. They recruited 85 volunteers (41 men, 44 women), all over 60 years old and not currently doing any strength training; older adults are generally less sensitive to the anabolic stimulus of strength training, making nonresponse more likely. The exercise program involved two workouts per week for ten weeks, consisting of sets of between 8 and 15 repetitions of single-leg knee extensions with the weight chosen to failure in each set. Each volunteer did one set of training with one leg and four sets of training with the other leg.

Muscle size was measured by MRI and, as expected, the one-set routine produced many non-responders. Sixty percent of subjects failed to gain more than 3.3 percent in quadriceps cross-section (a minimum threshold for statistically significant improvement based on the repeatability of the MRI measurement). With four sets, the proportion of non-responders dropped to 19 percent, and those who responded to one set had greater responses to four sets. The bottom line: doing more sets leads to greater muscle gain, even among those who don’t seem to gain initially.

This may seem painfully obvious, but the same is not true for strength as measured by a one-rep max. Doing four sets did not produce significantly greater strength gains than one set, which seems surprising and unfair. This result is consistent with previous studies, however; in fact, I wrote about a study from Brad Schoenfelds group in 2018 that found the exact same thing in young, experienced lifters: five sets were better than three, which in turn was better than one set for muscle size; but all three options were basically the same for bench press strength. Strength is a function of muscle size i of the complex signaling process between brain and muscle. The two don’t always go hand in hand.

In fact, there is more nuance in the individual (rather than average) data in Roschels’ study. Among those who responded to one set, only 51 percent achieved significantly greater muscle size results from four sets, and 15 percent actually did. worse in four sets. Normally, when I see results like this, I would assume that that 15 percent had another life stressor during the four-set portion of the study that closed their results. But in this case, the one-set and four-set parts of the study were conducted simultaneously in different legs. This suggests that while four sets are better than one for some people, they are actually worse for others.

So the superficial takeaway from this study is that you can get away with fairly minimal single training if your primary goal is to get stronger, but you’ll probably benefit from more sets if, like many aging athletes, you’re more concerned about winning or simply maintain muscle mass. This echoes previous results by Schoenfeld et al. The deeper and more interesting thing, however, is that this rule is not true for everyone. The resulting uncertainty is inconvenient and a little annoying, but it means we have to fall back on a simpler rule: if what you’re doing isn’t working, even if it follows the latest research, try changing it.

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