We all do it, lots of it and often. The more the merrier.

If a few is good for you then surely a few more must be even better? I’m talking about the sets and reps that fill our workouts, hit our bodies and fire our muscles. 

Yet anyone who has immersed themselves in sports science might have encountered the theory that around 80-90% of  benefit comes from the first exercise set. Of course an exact reading depends very much on the individual – and  absolutely precise percentages in our world of health and fitness tend to be rare event.


However whether the real figure is nearer 80 or 90% we can be certain that there is strong evidence to suggest the real gains are made first up.  So how much validity does that give to the second, third or even fourth set that I used to hammer myself with years ago and many people still dutifully undertake?

Bearing in mind it isn’t actually the first set where we tend to max out but the last, convention suggests the process resembles a three course meal; a light starter to get you going, a good main dish to really get things under way and then lashings of pudding to finish you off and leave you groaning!

But with the one set theory we might really be able to optimise both time and muscles.

Not convinced? That’s OK, we have accepted, lived and worked with certain principles for so long a little bit of initial reticence is understandable! Take an individual who has to be fit for their work, let’s say a mountain rescuer, solider or fireman. In a moment of urgency what would count most is their exertion on his first attempt at rescue or attack.

There are no second sets or chances here. In fact in real life – excepting manual repetitive labour – we don’t do very much at all in sets. But ‘training man’ hit upon them many years ago as a good idea (understandably so) and we have been bashing them out ever since.

FT chest pressNow take fitness to its crude level of survival of the fittest and the whole notion of  ‘fight or flight’.

Out in the Sahara, I don’t suppose the impala gets a chance to turn around to the cheetah and ask for a break whilst his energy system recharges. For rescuers, cheetahs, impalas and more, life is on the line and you go all out until the job is done. And that is life in summary!

We’d be mistaken to believe that repeated sets improve endurance when what would test endurance more than to keep going at something without rest until failure? And this is the point. I am not talking about dropping your three sets of 12 for a single set of 12, I am talking about tackling that first set to exhaustion.

Maxing out on one set gives both strength and endurance a real baking, especially in body resistance exercises like chin ups, press ups, dips and jumps. One flat-out set  performed to the extent of your capabilities will see your strength increasing far faster than the rather bloated three course meal equivalent.

And you can bring variety to this extended single set. A speed set brings its own challenges and benefits and really blasts the body. Whilst utilsing ‘staged movements’ within something like the single press up is really effective too. By this I mean rather than simply striking a rhythm of up and down, go partially down and hold half way for a few seconds, complete the downward phase before driving up three quarters of the way before holding there for a few seconds, then down almost all the way before another hold.

joey bull 1I came across this method many years ago when it was being practised by a boxing trainer who swore by it.

And the talent he was overseeing suggested he knew what he was talking about.

Of course there is nothing wrong in doing sets, we develop a rhythm and routine with them and find that very comfortable. But just imagine the variety of exercises that could fill up the time occupied by repetition and rests. Muscles, mind and body really could benefit from broader and more potent stimulation from this new approach to your exercise programme.

Theories and practises will always be presented to us as ‘The New and Best’, ‘Latest and Greatest’. But ultimately what works best is what works for you and you will only find this out by exploring the varieties and variations on what are well established themes.

A friend told me the other day how he gauged his quantity of daily press ups and chin ups according to the date in the month. So on the 1st it is 1 press up and up to 31 by the end of the month  This is obviously very much his own system, a bit peculiar maybe and an easy training he has stuck to it. And when it comes to working out, that is always half the battle.

Read more from Joey on her Expert Profile here.

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