Can Fewer Sets Produce More Gains?

TAGS: The Minimalist M2 Method, M2 Method, programming, muscle, strength, dave tate, strength training, training, Brian Schwab

When Dave Tate first read the title of my ebook, The Minimalist Method, I know he cringed at the sound of it and thought it was too gimmicky (thus the M2 name was born). The truth is there is no gimmick. Based off two working sets (normally between 80 and 90 percent) for the main movements and the necessary accessory work to focus on promoting balance and preventing injury, it’s a no nonsense method that works. It has also enabled me to train at a high level for the past 20 years without any serious injuries. I’m no freak, far from it in fact. I’m just determined and have stuck with what works. I've also learned through trial and error to eliminate the exercises that are unnecessary and potentially dangerous and focus on movements that are more beneficial. The M2 Method has now worked for countless other lifters who have purchased the ebook.

Think about the times when you’ve become the most sore. Most likely, these times were right after performing a one-rep max, trying a new exercise, or performing an intense training session with high percentages. Although soreness isn’t necessarily an accurate measure of improvement, it is a good indicator that you’ve done something that is causing your body to make some changes.

During any training, your body will respond to the demand that it's placed under. Initially, this begins with neurological adaptations, but then it's primarily from muscle activation and hypertrophy. The issue is, how do you determine how much stimuli must be provided for positive results? If you don't place enough stress on the muscle, it doesn't have to respond because the workload isn't high enough to force adaptation. On the other end of the spectrum, too much stimuli can be applied as well. When this occurs, the body isn't given adequate time to recover from the stressor before the next stressor is applied. In this case, it’s fairly common to stall, regress or even sustain injury because the body can't adapt quickly enough to keep up with the stress applied. This can be caused by training too frequently, using too much volume or training too often with too heavy of a percentage.

Many of the current popular programs focus too much on multiple sets of heavy, full reps of the main lifts. These programs increase the likelihood of injury by rarely addressing weak points and prescribing multiple sets with high percentages.

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If you could find a program that requires less time to complete your training but allows you to make more gains, wouldn’t it make sense to follow it? From what I’ve seen lately, many lifters have decided to try the opposite of this, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Spending hours in the gym won't make you stronger. In fact, quite the opposite is true. I've always said that it isn't the duration of the training that matters; it's the intensity. If you train hard enough, you can accomplish more in 45 minutes to an hour than you could in a half-assed two to three hours. Training for more than an hour has even been shown to cause testosterone levels to drop and cortisol levels to rise. This means that lifting for more than an hour can actually have a catabolic effect.

Increased volume has its place. If your goal is to increase lean muscle, burn more calories or improve your technique, increased volume can help. Higher reps should also always be used for accessory work. However, once you’re established in a weight class and have decent technique, the benefits of lifting heavy weights for a few reps will increase your strength more than lighter weights for higher reps. Your body will directly respond to the stress that you apply to it.

Simply stated—lifting heavy weights for few reps will improve your ability to lift heavy weights for few reps. Lifting light weights for many reps will improve your ability to lift light weights for many reps. If you’re going to perform multiple sets with the same percentage for speed or to reinforce technique, it’s best not to use over 60 percent of your max. Don’t overcomplicate things. Too many programs are trying to reinvent the wheel. If your goal is to increase your strength, you need to train accordingly.

Let's think about what causes you to become the most sore again—one-rep maxes, new exercises and high percentages. Of course, you can’t max out every day, you can’t come up with a new exercise every day and you can’t train at a high percentage constantly. However, you can find a good compromise of the three.

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Here’s an example of the first week of the basic minimalist M2 program that does just that:

Day 1

  • Five-minute treadmill warm up
  • Foam roll
  • High box squats, necessary warm ups followed by two working sets of 80% X 5 and 82.5% X 5
  • Leg press- 2–3 warm ups followed by two working sets of 12 and 10
  • Glute ham raise, 1 warm-up set followed by two working sets of 8
  • Standing cable abdominal crunches, 2 sets of 12–15 for both abdominals and obliques

Day 2

  • Five-minute treadmill warm up
  • Foam roll
  • Shoulder rotation warm up with tubing for 2 sets of 15
  • Three-board, necessary warm ups followed by two working sets of 95% X 3 and 97.5% X 3
  • Full range reps (which could be completed on a separate optional rep bench day), necessary warm ups followed by two working sets of 72.5% X 8 and 75% X 7
  • Dumbbell lateral raises, 1 warm-up set followed by two working sets of 12 and 10
  • Cable press downs, 1 warm-up set followed by two working sets of 12 and 10

Day 3

  • Five-minute treadmill warm up
  • Foam roll
  • Deadlifts off 4-inch blocks, necessary warm ups followed by two working sets of 85% X 5 and 87.5% X 5
  • Wide grip pull-downs, 1 warm-up set followed by two working sets of 12 and 10
  • Mid grip cable rows, 1 warm-up set followed by two working sets of 12 and 10

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For the M2 Raw Method, you'll work primarily with percentages from 75 to 90 percent for reps of 1–5 of the main movements. For the M2 Equipped Method, you'll work primarily with percentages from 80 to 100 percent for reps of 1–3 on the main movements. The M2 Method has an ideal compromise to promote strength gains by incorporating a gradually increasing range of motion so that you can train at higher percentages and achieve rep PRs (not necessarily one-rep maxes) in each session. The program also allows you to rotate the main exercise along with the accessory exercises each week to help keep the program interesting and keep you motivated.

Although I understand that studies can be skewed toward whatever the researchers are trying to prove, here are some that reinforce my article and program:

“Explosive strength training: Research on resistance training suggests that doing less is more!

The mechanical loading of muscle as a consequence of the external load is perhaps the most important consideration of any resistance-training [program]. Research has consistently indicated that moderate to heavy loads are required in order to gain an increase in muscle size, muscle activity and muscle strength. Correspondingly, an extensive review of the literature and current guidelines published by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggest relatively heavy loads that equal, or are in advance of, 80% of a one-repetition maximum (1RM) are required in order to achieve optimal strength gains (1).”

“The concept of high levels of workload and induced fatigue as a prerequisite for strength adaptation is thus far from proven.” (Accessed at: http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/explosive-strength-training-research-on-resistance-training-suggests-that-doing-less-is-more-41048#)

This study appears to have intended to prove that light weights and higher reps are as effective for increasing strength as heavy weights for light reps yet:

“There is no getting around the fact that a program of only heavy weights and low reps builds significantly more strength and size than a program of only lighter weight and higher reps.” (Accessed at: http://www.trainingscience.net/?page_id=301)

Here’s a study that was completed while I was attending the University of Florida. It has no doubt influenced my thought process on the ideal number of sets. Although it was performed on untrained individuals, I feel that it still has some bearing on all individuals:

“These studies clearly indicate that single-set training promotes significant improvements in strength training of both the upper and lower extremities and postural muscle and that these improvements are comparable with those attained from a higher volume of training.” (Accessed at: http://general.utpb.edu/fac/eldridge_j/kine6362/Readings/Muscular_Strength_Unit2_reading2.pdf)

 

Photos courtesy of Luke Tevebaugh at www.ltevebaugh.smugmug.com

THE  MINIMALIST M2 METHOD

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