All bodybuilders go to heaven… I actually found this painting at a thrift store. I can’t decide which I love more: the mullet or the muscles. (Or the 3.95 price tag!) Either way this has got to be the most terrifying guardian angel ever.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: You should strength train. It’s good for you and in far more ways than the usual trope of “super charging your metabolism.” It builds better bone density. It increases neurological connections. It makes it so you can lift the 50-lb bag of cat litter into your cart at Costco without worrying about your heart exploding. And, yeah, it looks prettier and burns more calories than adipose tissue. (Although whether or not you consider that last point a bonus is highly variable on your culture, individual preference and whether or not you’re a serf in the Middle Ages.)
I still don’t love it.
I know. I really want to love it! Don’t worry, I still do it. I do it even when I don’t enjoy it because I’m all about doing/eating/thinking things that are good for me even if I hate them. (Also known as the reason I drink kale smoothies even though the texture of kale completely ruins the “smooth” aspect.) I think it’s the fact that I don’t get a “weight lifting high” like I do a cardio buzz. Although I think some people get an endorphin rush from the hoisting of iron? The good news is that after doing this blog for so many years, I’ve learned to like it a lot more than I used to!
At any rate, when I find a lifting hack that will make my strength workouts more fun, more efficient and/or more effective I’m all over that like brown on rice. And today I came across a fascinating research study that offers just such a magical hack.
Behold: The One-Set Workout.
The experiment is pretty simple: Researchers took a group of young men and divided them into two groups. The first group – we’ll call them Old Faithful – performed a series of 9 exercises targeting different body parts, doing 3 sets of each exercise – which is pretty standard when it comes to lifting. The second group – we’ll call them the Second Group because I’m tired and the only other option I can think of right now is Unfaithful which unfairly makes them sound like man sluts – performed the same series of 9 exercises but did only one set of each, essentially doing 1/3 as much work as the Old Faithful group. Both groups worked out 3 days per week for 8 weeks. All other aspects of their workouts were held constant.
At the end of the 8 weeks, the researchers employed certified strength coaches to test their strength and measure body fat using calipers. The results were surprising. At least to me. Both groups gained about the same amount of strength with the one-rep group barely edging out the Old Faithfuls. But when it came to body composition the one-rep group lost significantly more body fat.
So the group who did less got just as strong and ended up leaner. Things that make you go “huh.”
If you’re like me, that right there is enough to make you want to try it out. But before you (and I) jump on the One-Set bandwagon there are some things to consider (all bulleted, because… I’m tired).
How to do the One-Set Workout
1. Linear progression. The men just didn’t go into the gym and start picking up random weights willy nilly and moving them around. The strength coaches first tested the subjects’ one-rep max (the highest amount of weight you can safely execute a lift with, one time) and then assigned them to do their sets starting at 80% of their 1RM and then progressing each week by adding more weight. You still have to push yourself.
2. 6 reps to failure. Both groups did a weight that had them “fail” – unable to do one more rep – by six reps. SIX. That is not a lot. Especially if you’re used to doing the standard 10-12 reps like I am. These guys were lifting a lot shorter, yes, but a lot heavier as well.
3. Best for beginners/recreational athletes. The researchers noted several times that all their subjects were “recreational” weight lifters rather than advanced athletes or competitive lifters. In the conclusion they noted that the One-Set Workout may not be sufficient for people looking to go beyond functional strength gains/some body fat loss.
Benefits of the One-Set Workout
1. Less time commitment. The paper’s authors actually did some complicated math to show that the one-set subjects did 1/3 the work of the 3-set group. Which made me giggle. For people who don’t love lifting (like me) or are just new to it, this lesser-volume method may be better at helping people stick to a weight lifting program. Doing three sets and spending 45 – 60 minutes on the weight floor can feel daunting. Popping in for one set seems much more doable and therefore more likely to be done.
2. Less overtraining/workout program fatigue. The researchers also noted that the lesser volume would lessen the wear and tear on the subjects’ bodies as well as their psyches. There’s much less risk of overtraining, even though they are lifting very heavy. The risk of boredom also goes down.
3. Equal strength gains. Science said so. Why would you do three sets when you can get the same functional strength benefits with only one?
4. Better fat loss. Better! Like, whoa.
When it came to this last point, I had to know why. The results even surprised the scientists. Per the paper, “Although the data here clearly demonstrates that strength-training can be viewed as an effective means of subcutaneous fat reduction, the changes noted here suggest that the one-set training group produced the greatest alterations in skinfold thickness. This is surprising given the additional metabolic cost of performing two additional sets of exercise representing 2,592 additional repetitions across eight weeks. There is little scientific research available that states categorically that higher training frequencies produce greater alterations in body composition characteristics. However, lower volume training might maintain protein and muscle glycogen stores, reduce intramuscular damage, and therefore facilitate the capacity of muscle to enhance lean tissue formation.”
Catch all that? They basically said they aren’t sure either why this happened, especially since the Old Faithful group did nearly 2,600 MORE reps (and therefore burning way more calories) than the one-set group. But they theorize that the lower number of reps may have “spared” the muscles and glycogen stores.
File this under Weird But Cool, right after A Boy Named Sue.
As with any research, it’s not perfect. Here are a few variables that remain unaccounted for and could potentially change the results:
1. Only done on men. Like most fitness research, scientists only looked at men. I’d be offended except… okay, I’m a little put out they didn’t look at women too. Would it have been that much more work to throw some chicks in too? They can have separate charts and everything in the data. In addition to being only men, they were very young and already healthy dudes. And with a sample size of 16, not very many of them.
2. Doesn’t address hypertrophy or advanced athletes. If you’re training for a purpose other than functional strength and basic health this workout probably won’t do you.
3. Diet wasn’t tracked. The subjects were instructed to just eat their normal diet. Which may offer one explanation for the fat loss: more exercise = more hunger. So perhaps the 3-set group ate more afterward since they’d worked more? It’s a phenomenon also seen in other types of exercise. (Although people don’t talk about it much. Which is why exercise is great for maintaining a weight loss but not so great for losing weight.)
All in all this feels revolutionary to weight lifting like Tabata training (or the “4 minute miracle”) was to cardio. Again, science shows that short-and-tough workouts can be as effective (and even better in some ways) than longer and slower ones. It’s a small study but considering it tells me what I already want to hear (I can admit that!), I think it’s definitely worth me trying it out!
Do you love strength training? Hate it? What program do you follow??