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Home Training Build Muscle The One Set Workout

The One Set Workout

The One Set Workout


A lot of people are so caught up in the bodybuilding craze that they have this false perception built up in their minds that the only way to build muscle is to do volume training. The kinds of people I'm talking about don't feel "right" unless they pound set after set for one muscle group until it is completely exhausted. 




Is this productive or counterintuitive?

It's hard to believe that something like weightlifting can be controversial or cause differing opinions. Weightlifting is weightlifting, right? Doing any kind of exercise will make me better off, right? Partly true- and when something's partially true, that usually means it's fully wrong. What?? How?? Why??

First off, believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to train. Doing some exercise is obviously better than none, but doing too much exercise is actually counterproductive. There is such a thing as overtraining, which could actually leave you worse off- more tired and sluggish, more injury prone, more susceptible to disease and colds, less productive at work, etc. than if you never trained at all. Not to mention your body will never gain muscle mass and will actually put on bodyfat as an attempt to preserve its natural state when you overtrain. 

Every time you workout, not only are your muscles working to their maximal potential, but a lot of strain is placed on your internal organs and your central nervous system. Working out, while providing endorphins and enhancing mood, is actually very stressful on the body. Some stress is good as it creates a proper working environment (too little stress will result in inadequacies), but too much stress is very damaging and debilitating. Following, too much training will actually place too much stress on the body. This results in a hormonal imbalance that will leave you catabolic (muscle wasting and fat building) as the cortisol (stress induced hormone) increases and testosterone (precursor to muscle building and fat burning) decreases.

Doing too many sets to failure will place your body in too much of a stressful situation, whereby it cannot recover properly. Your body needs to be placed in the proper hormonal environment for the body to grow muscle and burn fat. Too much training disrupts the hormonal environment and will actually do the opposite of what you intend.

Therefore, we need to do the right amount of sets to failure. But how many is optimal?

Research suggests that, in order to gain strength and size, you have to overload your muscle--push it beyond it's present capacity. From this theory of what is called the overload principle, we know that
intensity is the key to gaining muscle.

Mike Mentzer once said you can either train intense or train long. The two do not coincide. Mentzer trained for a total of 20-40 minutes, 3-4 days a week and had one of the best bodies ever.




Mentzer is not the only one to understand the genius behind this theory. Guys like Ken Leistner, Kevin Tolbert, Dorian Yates (6x Mr. OLympia), Lee Haney (8x Mr. Olympia) understood this theory and actually applied it. Check out the intensity that Mentzer's teachings applied. This is where muscle growth occurs.





I conclude that one set to failure is not only all that it takes, but the most optimal. Does that mean you only do one set in your entire workout? No! You need to perform warm-up sets to prime the muscle for that one all-out set along with cool-down sets to flush out the ammonia, toxins, and lactic acid that built up from the stress you placed it in during that one all-out set to failure.

However, your definition of failure and my definition of failure are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

Failure does not occur when you put 225 on the bench press, lift it for 9 times and because you can’t get it up for the 10
th rep, you stop. Many people refer to that as failure. However, do not get confused because of the misuse and misunderstanding of this commonly used term. Too often do I see people refer to their cowardly sets as reaching failure. It is just that they are either a) uneducated on how to properly perform an adequate failure set; or b) their mental constraints were too tight to allow their bodies to experience failure. They may be uncomfortable at that present moment in time, but definitely not realizing what their muscle is actually capable of once they unlock their minds to allow their bodies to experience such pain. They have not reached complete exhaustion to the point where there is a total cessation of performing potential additional work.

So let’s refer back to the previous example of the 225 pound bench press. Stopping after 9 may mean you have failed to perform 225 anymore, but think logically here. Isn’t it possible that you could perform 220 for 1? And then 210 for another? And then 200 for 2 additional reps? And so on down the line? The answer is yes! To all of the above. That means your muscle technically has not reached absolute failure when failing to complete rep 9. Your muscle still has juice left in it to continue to work. Therefore, theoretically, failure would have to mean that you’ve worked your muscle so hard that you couldn’t lift 1 more pound off of your chest for one more rep. Obviously that is unrealistic, but do you get my point? That should be the standard for what you are trying to achieve when attempting to reach failure.
You’ve got to apply more effort than what you are currently doing. That one set to failure needs to be the definition of living hell if you want to see the best possible results.

Focusing on quality, not quantity is what is important here.

Stimulation occurs when you’ve gone to failure. However, that does not suggest to you that you should go to failure each and every set. Studies show that stimulation occurs with just one set to failure and that anything more than that provides no further stimulation. The muscle fibers are completely torn with that one failure set. Going to failure set after set is going to damage them to the point where overtraining occurs.

There is such a thing as overtraining and overstimulation to the point where repair cannot adequately take place. Once a muscle has been thoroughly stimulated, anything applied further beyond that can actually hurt you, hindering growth, rather than supporting it. Think about it. If you damage the fibers properly, then they are forced to repair. However, if you stress
 it further than that, you are damaging the already torn fibers to the point where it takes that much longer to repair them just to reach the level that they were at prior to exercise. Now logic may tell you that the more they are damaged, the more they are going to rebuild past their normal level. However, this is not the case. Once the muscle fibers are torn, that’s all the muscle requires to stimulate growth of the muscle to develop stronger and bigger. Damaging of these torn muscles is just going to hinder your growth.

8x Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney, known by many to be one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, always preached to “train to stimulate, not annihilate”. He also believed that “it doesn’t take a ton of weight to stimulate a muscle to grow, just the correct stimulus.”






In terms of exercises, the best way to properly stimulate a muscle is to focus on basic, explosive training with compound movements. The main focus of your workout should be primarily on compound exercises, such as the deadlifts, bench press, military press, bent over one arm dumbbell row, squats, hang cleans, etc. These types of compound exercises have proven to be most effective to build lean muscle mass because they require the most work from your muscles. Furthermore, they have to work in conjunction with all the other muscles in your body to lift the weight and you are much stronger when all the muscles work together, moving more total poundage (which is going to stimulate the muscle most and burn the most calories, which will in turn, build muscle and burn fat). After you’ve performed compound exercises, then it is time to stimulate the muscle with isolation exercises that focus on the contraction. Your goal in the compound movements should be for explosive power, whereas your primary goal for the isolation exercises should be to infiltrate the blood into that muscle. However, that does not mean that you should sacrifice form for weight in any movement. Hoisting weight up for the sake of itself does nothing to stimulate growth. Proper form is required and actually working the muscle you are supposed to be doing (barbell curls for biceps and not your back) is the only way to adequately stimulate the muscle.





You will want to choose one set of one exercise per muscle group where you will go all-out for that set using one of the following to do so:

  • Drop Set- When you cannot complete another rep on your own with the weight you currently are performing, drop the weight down and bang out some more reps without any rest in between. In a 2-set drop set, decrease the weight so that you can perform at least 8 reps on your second set.

  • Strip Set- This is a drop set, but performed multiple times. Perform a three, four, five, or six set drop set, where you continually lower the weight upon each successive set. In a strip set, the range of reps is up to you, but make sure you mentally push through to get as many done as you can with strict form.
  • Forced Reps-When you cannot complete another rep on your own, have a training partner assist you by applying only the required help necessary for you to keep the weigh moving for extra reps. Shoot for 5-6 more reps with the assistance.

  • Negatives- Using heavier weight than you are used to, lower the weight very slowly on the negative portion of the rep (it should take 4-5 seconds to complete that half rep) and have a partner help you as much as necessary on the positive portion of the rep. For instance, aim for 6-8 total reps on a weight that you possibly could only do for 2 reps with your partner’s assistance.

  • Rest-Pause Theory- Take brief rest periods during a set to squeeze out more reps. For instance, if you use a weight you can lift for 6 reps, only do 2-3 reps. Take a brief rest of up to 20 seconds at most and try for another 2-3 reps. Rest again and repeat the process. You will essentially lift the same weight for more reps in this one set.

  • 5, 5, 5- This set consists of 5 fast reps (explosion of only 1 second for both the negative and positive portion of the rep), followed by 5 very slow reps (5 seconds on each the negative and positive portion of the rep), then followed by 5 normal reps (2 seconds on each the negative and positive portion of the rep). This works all twitches of the muscle fibers. Keep the same weight for all 15 reps, but make sure a proper weight is chosen, where you are really struggling to get those last 5 in. Have a spotter help you. Also you can vary it so you start out with a heavy weight for the first 5, then immediately after, with no rest, use a low weight (around 40% of your 1 rep max) for the 5 very slow reps, and then raise the weight for your 5 normal reps (around 60% of your 1RM) for the 5 normal reps.

  • Giant Set- Using multiple exercises that focus on the same bodypart, one set consists of performing at least 3 exercises in a row without rest. For instance, during back you could do a pull-up straight to a bent over barbell row straight to a wide grip lat pulldown; ensuring that there is no rest in between the set.

  • Slow and Controlled Reps- Take 4-5 seconds on each portion of the rep. Have a spotter help you just enough when you’ve failed.

  • Pause Contraction Reps- Pause at different phases of the movement to realize an incredible contraction. For instance, during a squat throw on 50% of your one rep max and pause halfway for 3-5 seconds, then pause at the bottom position at parallel for 3-5 seconds, and then back up halfway with a hold, and then at the top with a hold (that is one rep). Complete it as many times as you can. Once you can’t hold it anymore, bang out as many normal reps as possible with the help of a spotter. You can switch up the times you are paused. For real intensity, hold it at the bottom, midway, and top positions for 20 seconds at a time.

  • Peak Contraction Reps- Hold the peak contraction for up to five seconds on each rep. Squeeze the muscle as hard as you can before starting the next rep.

  • Rep Overload– Instead of performing your normal rep range, which most people keep within the 6-15 rep range, you are going to shoot for 30, sometimes, 50, and even up to 100 reps. Choose a moderately heavy weight but one where you can perform a good amount of reps. Keep focused and keep pushing them out for an incredible amount of reps. It’s really all mental. For instance, put 135 on your back for a squat. Bang out 10 at a time, hold at the top position for 5 seconds and breathe, then bang out another 10 reps, and another 10 reps and so forth until you’ve reached failure.


So applying these basic principles, a workout will look like the following:


Legs- Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Calves (Increase weight with each successive set)

  • Bike
    • 5 minute warmup

  • Leg extensions
    • 30 Rep Warm-Up set
    • 20 Rep Warm-Up set
    • 10 Rep Warm-Up Set

  • Leg presses
    • 30 Rep Warm-Up set
    • 20 Rep Warm-Up set
    • 10 Rep Warm-Up Set

  • Hack squats
    • 20 Rep Warm-Up Set
    • 10 Rep Warm-Up Set

  • Back Squats
    • 20 Rep Warm-Up Set
    • 10 Rep Warm-Up Set
    • Rest 5 minutes
    • ***All-Out-Set*** 15 Reps + 5 Forced Reps (help with spotter), Strip Weight down with no rest- 15 Reps + 5 Forced Reps (help with spotter), Strip Weight down with no rest- 15 Reps + 5 Forced Reps (help with spotter), Strip Weight down with no rest- 15 Reps + 5 Forced Reps (help with spotter)
    • Rest 5 minutes

  • Stiff-legged deadlifts
    • 15 Rep Cool-Down Set x 2

  • Single-leg curls
    • 15 Rep Cool-Down Set x 2

  • Standing calf raises
    • 30 Rep Warmup Set x 2
    • 30 Rep Warmup Set x 2
    • Hellish 100 Rep Drop Set

  • Seated calf raises
    • 30 Rep Cool-down Set x 3




Dorian Yates stuck with this theory and had one of the best physiques ever.


We can illustrate how it works by comparing a sprinter and a marathon runner. Who has the better body and is usually leaner? Don't you have friends that run around endlessly, yet have a gut? I know many who run upwards of 6 miles a day, yet don't see any improvements in their physique or the amount of fat they lost. Clearly, sprinters have phenomenal bodies.

How long can you maintain an all-out sprint before you are forced to jog? The answer is that it does not take very long. If you do five sets, it is physiologically impossible to perform an all-out sprint during each of those 5 sets. However, even if you were able to do so, the effect would be so detrimental that your body would be so depleted and forced to spend more time recovering from your workouts than actually growing from them.

Intensity in one set provides the stimulus to grow, but any more intensity sets will actually provide more damage than good. Therefore, intensity is only half the battle. Recuperation is the other half. Insufficient recuperation impedes intensity, and insufficient intensity impedes muscle growth. Dorian Yates had this to say about rest: "Rest periods between sets are as long as I feel is required. Many bodybuilders think training is 50% aerobic and 50% anaerobic. That is a mistake. They don't rest enough between sets; their body is not able to regenerate enough energy to exhaust that muscle to absolute fatigue, which is the point at which optimal muscle growth begins."

Dorian Yates was all about intensity for one set to provide the proper stimulus for growth and then rested adequately. "I perform a set with 100% energy to 100% failure--then beyond, to 100% fatigue--and I won't do another set until I feel that the muscles have recuperated 100%, however long that takes. For example, when I take squats or leg presses to total fatigue, I know from experience that it's likely to be at least five or six minutes before I'll be able to even think about what my address or name is, let alone do another set."

This should begin to shed some light on how intense and crazy his sets were when referring to one all-out-to-failure set. It was a life-sucking, flesh-frying torture that forced him to insert a rest day both before and after just so he'd have enough intensity to get through. This left him with a schedule that looked like:

  • Day 1: Delotids, Traps, Triceps, Abs
  • Day 2: Back, Rear Deltoids
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Chest, Biceps, Abs
  • Day 5: Off
  • Day 6: Quads, Hams, Calves
  • Day 7: Off

Try this routine out. You'll notice how much more intensity you'll have in the gym, which will result in the best of gains.



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