Sunday, March 24, 2024

Just One Set Of Exercises Can Make You Stronger

Leg extension exercise
Doing just one set of exercises can make you stronger even if you are a "non-responder". But you will need to do more sets to get bigger muscles. At least that is what a recent study showed (Lixandrao et a, 2024).

This concept of non-responders were first described in studies done in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies explored the role of genetics in exercise response. 

When a bunch of people were given the same training program, their genes can explain about half the variance in how their fitness improves. Some people did not get fitter at all even after months of training. Note that later studies took the non-responders from a study and had them train harder or a higher volumes, they did get fitter. The studies above focused on aerobic exercise, but this study (Lixandrao et al, 2024) was on strength training. 

The authors had a total of 85 subjects (41 men, 44 women) above the age of 60 and not currently doing any strength training (Lixandrao et al, 2024). The study was designed to see if adding extra sets would turn the non-responder into responders. The subjects were assigned to different strengthening routines with each leg. That eliminates variations that can cloud results of strength training studies.

Note that older adults are usually less responsive to size and strength stimulus of strength training, making non-response more likely.

The exercse program consisted of 2 workouts a week for 10 weeks, Each set consisted between 10-15 reps of single leg knee extension with the weight selected to reach failure in each set. Each subject did 1 set per workout with one leg and 4 sets per workout with the other leg.

Muscle size of the subjects was measured by MRI. As expected, there were many non-responders who did the 1 set routine. 60 percent of the subjects did not gain more than 3.3 percent in the cross section of their quadriceps (this is the minimum threshold for a statisically significant improvement). 

The proportion of non-responders for those who did 4 sets decreased to 19 percent. Yes, you read this correctly, those who responded to only 1 set of training had bigger responses than those who did 4 sets!

Conclusion: Doing more sets lead to greater muscle gain, even among those who do not seem to repond initially.

Note that doing 4 sets of exercises did not produce bigger strength gains than 1 set, which was both surprising and unfair. Previous studies have also shown this in experienced lifters. Doing 5 sets was better than 3 sets, which in turn was better than 1 set for muscle size. However all 3 options were basically the same for muscle strength. 

Stength is a function of muscle size and the (complex) signaling process between brain and muscle. Both do not always go hand in hand.

Among those who responded to 1 set of exercise, only 51 percent got significantly bigger muscle size results from 4 sets. 15 percent actually did worse doing 4 sets. Note that the 1 set and 4 set parts of this study were taking place simultaneously in the same person but different legs. This may suggest that while 4 sets are better than 1 for some people, they really are worse for others.

Take away from this study (Lixandrao et al, 2024)? You can get away with a minimum of 1 set of strength training if your main goal is to get stronger. However, if your main goal is to gain or maintain muscle mass, you will benefit from more sets.

Note that the more interesting take away is this rule is not always true for everyone. Definitely a little annoying if you ask me. My suggestion? If what you have been doing is not working, even if it is suggested by the latest research, you need to try changing it.


Lixandrao ME, Bamman M, Vechin FC et al (2024). Higher Resistance Training Volume Offsets Muscle Hypertropjy Nonresponsiveness In Older Individuals. L Appl Physiol. 136(2): 421-429. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00670.2023

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