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.