One Set To FailureWould you take on a second job working additional 40 hours a week if it paid you 9% of your first job? So if you worked 40 hours for $1,000 would you work 40 more for 90 bucks extra? That’s pretty close to the bargain you are making when you go beyond one set of exercise. In fact, in some cases it’s a lot worse.

We asked eight middle-aged men to do some experimentation with bench press and leg press variations and the data showed that there is a reduction in intensity when performing additional sets. On bench presses with 50% of bodyweight it was startling. When performing only one set to failure the lifters could average 2,257 lbs/min of intensity but only 1,629 and 1,455 when they did two or three sets to failure. Unless you are an endurance athlete of some type who specifically needs to build endurance power, there doesn’t appear to be a reason to sacrifice so much intensity just to do more bench press sets. Nothing we tested beat the peak intensity of doing one set. (Well, SCT beat it but let’s stick to conventional, full-range training right now.)

Things were slightly less obvious when we tested leg presses using 100% of bodyweight. Two variations delivered slightly more intensity than one set to failure. Three sets to failure and a 3-minute timed set were 9% and 17.6% higher intensity. However, the trainees had to perform 120% and 102% more reps in order to get those improvements. Thus, my analogy of working a second full-time job for 9% of your first job. It’s a lot of work for a little gain. I suspect (but never tested) that if the trainees were allowed to use more than bodyweight on the leg press that the results for one set to failure would be more like the bench press – the clear winner.

One thing is for sure, doing one set to failure is not a stupid way to train. I would recommend it to anyone training conventionally. It might not be best for a guy training for an endurance event that requires power, but how many of those guys are there? One set to failure has the added benefit of making it easy to keep track of intensity numbers; weight x reps divided by minutes and you have a good benchmark to try to beat next time. Progressive intensity is the key to steady progress.

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • John M

    What if you wanted to gain endurance and strength??

  • I call endurance strength, Beta strength. Both Train Smart and the Power Factor PES workouts talk about beta strength and offer workouts for that design. (If you are really serious about Beta I’d say go with Power Factor.) Unsurprisingly, those routines involve more volume of work while maintaining peak intensity over that time. Also, see this: http://www.precisiontraining.com/understanding-alpha-strength-and-beta-strength/

  • Matt

    Hi Pete,

    I purchased your book Train Smart and am going to give it a try. The problem is I am living in Japan and there aren’t too many gyms here. I found one that only has machines – no barbells. Do you have any substitutions for the barbell exercises? Or should I just use what I have available and just keep the principle in mind – lift as much as I can and hold for 5 seconds.

  • Matt, it always a challenge when using equipment that incorporates lighter weight. (I call them Fisher-Price machines.) Try to adjust the machines so you limit the range of motion to where you need it. Often you’ll end up using the full stack of weights. Sometimes you can add a heavy dumbbell or two to a stack but be careful of them falling. Some exercises can be done one arm or leg at a time, doubling the load. Finally, when you have no choice but lighter weights you can only add volume. Try doing 15-second holds. Good luck.

  • TimA

    G’day Pete, a very senior friend has put me onto this training. I’m impressed with his results so am very interested in giving it a go.
    My question is: as I have a lower back complaint and a mild inguenial hernia I’m wondering if you have a specific routine for this situation or wether its best to avoid this kind of heavy approach all together. I have a good understanding of my back condition that is, I’m maintaining it quite well using a relaxing tech(Alexander tech) and have also had a very positive result from practicing Qi gong which is helping to strengthen my core strength, amongst other things. It does however flare up when I do heavy/manual work. My hernia is very manageable with meditation/mindfulness, the Qi gong and Alexander tech. I understand that I have to strengthen/repair the abdominal floor and core muscles and so am willing to investigate this training.
    I hope you can answer these queries.
    Regards
    TimA

  • Hi Tim. I’m not a medical doctor so I’m not qualified to tell you how to manage your hernia. This is something you MUST talk to your physician about and tell him what exercises you will be doing and that they will be at the limits of your strength.

    There are a lot of advantages to training my way but it is no miracle in terms of completely avoiding the risk of injury. One big plus it the range of motion can be limited to only the range that does not cause pain to an existing injury, but again, that is not complete assurance of zero risk. Please talk specifics with your personal physician. (And never rely on layman’s advice from the gym. Yikes.)

  • TimA

    Thanks Pete, I appreciate your advice/concern, your point about the ‘small range of movement required’ i feel will be beneficial to me. With my medical prognosis asside, Do u have a specific routine that will focus on core strength or is it all incorporated in your standard approach.
    And I will assure you, I never rely on some fella from the gym 🙂 or a medical practitioners advice alone, but rather evaluate all info that I collect and my own experiences with a good dose of ‘ common sense’ to maintain my health and wellbeing
    Thanks again
    TimA

  • Both SCT and PF will strengthen all the major muscle groups in your body. See how it goes and if you find a bodypart lagging let me know and I’ll help you address it with supplemental exercises. But this is a rare issue.

  • TimA

    Thankyou Pete, ill keep u informed,
    T

  • Jim

    While doing one set to failure, what should be the max number of reps in the set before increasing the weight?

  • Try not to use the same weight twice. Calculate your total weight and divide it by time. (100 lbs x 12 reps in 1 min = 1,200lbs/min.) Next time try 110 lbs and try to beat 1,200/min – by doing at least 11 reps in a minute. Easy – and conclusive. Rinse and repeat.

  • Anthony

    Its amazing how such infrequent one set ..or less in terms of the static hold actually does work. It does fly in the face of most bodybuilding knowledge and what has worked before in general mainstream training. The thing is I see example like gymnasts for example. There workouts are ALL static hold but for a long time and very frequent. Almost daily for hours on end. Yet have you seen their physiques. Extremely strong and muscular. How does that happen if so much rest is needed. It seems as if they do the regular style of start less then build up to doing more and more since your body is building up workload capacity is their style which does work in some ways. How do you explain such strength and muscle growth of gymnasts or those cirque do solei guys… ofcourse they do not use full range by the way. Most of the time its a static position.

    Whats with all the science on ‘as you get stronger you can bump up volume and workout days and eventually build up the capacity to do 6 days a week’ it does work for some. but how do their muscles grow that way if so much rest is needed generally. And no not all of them are on steroids that do that way.

    It seems both ways can work but I still think the way you speak of, and the more infrequent workouts is the way to go. Although I don’t get the gymnasts how they build to a point of doing hours everyday yet still packing on more strength and muscle. The cop out answer is ‘o its genetics’ id say.

  • Thanks Anthony.

    1. The truth is – everything works. Well almost. The question I always want to know is what works best for the effort? Does training six days a week yield twice the gains as three days a week? Triple the gains of two days a week? Six times more than once per week? We all know it doesn’t. So then the work starts in examining how much bang for the buck these exercises and workouts actually deliver.

    2. Olympic gymnasts are at the top of the food chain in terms of exercise tolerance and muscle growth potential. (among other attributes) That’s what makes them special and it’s why they are miles better than the rest of us are. Many of them do workouts that would put the rest of us in the hospital. So it’s hard to draw clear conclusions that their training is, or is not, best for everyone else.

    3. Most people – nearly all, I think – who become professional trainers LOVE to exercise and they naturally want to find ways to do more, more, more at every opportunity. That moves the trend toward “insanity,” “extreme” and other variations of maximum exercise tolerance. My view is at the other end of the spectrum. If I have a headache I might survive taking 15 aspirins but what I really want to know is whether one-half aspirin will do the job.

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