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There’s been a debate for a number of years, largely driven by marketing and hype, about training volume. There is a “less is better” school of thought, i.e. do one set to failure and that’s all you need to make massive gains from training. Over the years, a number of studies have shown that this is a fine approach for the untrained (i.e. absolute beginners), but may not be appropriate for highly trained athletes.

In the December issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology, Marshall et al look at the impact of training volume on lower body strength and performance measures. The authors designed a really interesting 12 week training study. During this study, all subjects had the same two-week initial period (to wash out the effects of any previous training), then the six week study period (detailed below), then four weeks of “peaking” where all subjects did the same training program basically focusing on power training.

During the six week study period, all subjects did a split so that 2x per week the subjects trained chest/shoulders/arms and 2x per week the subjects trained back and back squats. The authors divided their subjects into three groups; one did one set on the squat, one did four sets on the squat, one did eight sets on the squat. Every group did the same training protocol on all the other exercises.

Testing was performed after the two week washout period, three weeks into the study period, after the study period, and after the peaking period. Testing consisted of 1-RM on the back squat, isokinetic strength testing, and isometric strength testing (all of the knee extensors).

During the course of the study, the authors found a number of interesting things:
• Total training volume (setsxrepsxweight) was very different between the three groups, with the four set group having a training volume more than 200% greater than the one set group and the eight set group having a training volume more than 460% greater than the one set group.
• Between the baseline testing after the washout period and the end of the six week intervention, the 1 set group improved their back squat strength by 10%. The four set group improved by 14%. The 8 set group improved by 19%.
• The authors also noted the existence of high, medium, and low responders. The high responders increased their squat strength by almost 30%, the medium by almost 15%, the low by about 3%.
• According to the authors, 11/13 low responders were in the one and four-set groups.

Over a six week training intervention, performing eight sets of squats produced superior gains to one set. Although, six weeks of one-set training increased squat strength by 10%. Having said that, there are some qualifications that need to be kept in mind. First, at baseline testing all the groups were squatting around 185-190% of bodyweight. So there is some training experience but these are not “strong” lifters. This suggests that almost any training program will still produce gains for these subjects. Second, the low/medium/high responder information is very interesting and I’m grateful that the authors looked at this. It also significantly complicates the results. If there were fewer low responders in the one- and four-set groups, those groups might have experienced better gains in the squat and the differences between the groups might not be as stark.

What causes someone to be a high, medium, or low responder?  This actually isn’t the first study I’ve seen suggesting this exists.    Petrella et al (2008) looked at how people respond to 16 weeks of strength training and found that those that increased their population of satellite cells the most during training had the most significant hypertrophy gains.  Satellite cells exist in between the inner and outer membranes of the muscle fibers and are thought to provide the material for muscle hypertrophy.  However, some of us have many and some of us don’t – in other words this seems to bea  genetic limitation to training.

This was a really interesting study, but it shows a need for us to start looking at training gains in terms of whether people are responders to training.

Marshall, P.W.M., McEwen, M., and Robbins, D.W. (2011). Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111: 3007-3016.


Petrella, J.K., Kim, J-S., Mayhew, D.L., Cross, J.M., and Bamman, M.M.  (2008).  Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: a cluster analysis.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 104: 1736-1742.



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