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June 27, 2013
The Sweet Spot…How many Sets?

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

― Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

The Talent Code is one of my favorite books because it gives me inspiration to improve anything with deep practice (see Sparta Point). But as a coach, it defines our job; prescribing and then refining “a cycle of distinct actions.”

Notice the word prescription. One of the largest advancements in exercise benefits came from the work of an army physician towards the end of World War II. In an attempt expedite recovery times of soldiers, Dr. Thomas DeLorme created a strength training system to include 3 progressively heavier sets of 10 repetitions, and he referred to the program as “Progressive Resistance Exercise”.

But through the research of our industry and authors like Daniel Coyle, 3 sets are not enough for that deep practice or mastery of a movement. So where is that “sweet spot”?

Prescriptions are not just Movements

Prescriptions are instructions stating the duration (time, reps), amount (weight, distance), frequency (daily, weekly). We use the word prescriptions rather than movements or exercises because everything has an effect (sleep, nutrition, sprinting).

We analyze athletes on the force plate (GRF), then choose the prescription proven to enhance the Sparta SignatureTM. Sparta and our partners, like Kansas Basketball, have even begun to notice an effect of stress and lack of sleep to excessively high levels of peak force or EXPLODE (see Sparta Point).

Prescribing Movements…Why More Sets are Better

Once a prescription is chosen, there is just more opportunity to improve a Signature with a greater number of repetitions (deep practice). While some research has actually favored 1 set prescription over 3 sets, this has little meaning for anyone looking for deeper practice, not just entertainment.

A January 2012 study out of the University of Sydney, compared the differences of 1 set, 4 set, and 8 set prescriptions of the squat exercise to trained individuals. The authors found the highest volume group (8-SET) had significantly greater gains in the squat exercise. This study supports previous research that greater volumes result in increased strength gains, likely due to neural mechanisms (deep practice).

But how much is too much? Specifically, volume increases of 200% (when athletes go from 4 sets to 8 sets) or even 400% (1 set as compared with 4 sets) were insufficient. Enhanced strength development was only observed on the 8-fold (1 set to 8 sets) increase in the  volume of training. The authors also found that none of the three protocols, including the 8-SET condition, resulted in overtraining and the associated negative outcomes.

How to Do More…Smarter

After 3 progressively faster or heavier warm-up sets, we begin work sets. Generally we perform 5-6 total sets of an exercise, 3 work sets, sometimes up to 10 sets, depending on the needs analysis. The goal of work sets is to maintain the same target intensity (weight, speed, distance, etc.) for a prescribed number of repetitions. But don’t make the mistake of prescribing 2 different movements of 3 sets to get 6 total, a little bit of everything will give you nothing.

The work sets  are critical because they chosen within our software to be analyzed and compared to determine the effect of exercise (medicine) on the athlete. The software have created a database over the last 5 years to start addressing these factors. The goal is to create a Sparta SignatureTM that reflects sport/positional success, while minimizing injury risk. For example, we can find the expected results of a 17 year volleyball female performing 1 Leg Squats at 50% body weight with a minute rest period. The advancement of software allows training journals to take that next step; reflection of previous workout prescriptions and comparison against peers and/or norms within your sport.

Think of any prescription you do like taking antibiotic medication if you do not finish the entire duration prescribed, the illness is not completely removed.

The Effect of Training Volume on Lower-Body Strength. Robbins, Daniel W; Marshall, Paul WM; McEwen, Megan. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 26(1):34-39, January 2012.

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June 27, 2013
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6 thoughts on “The Sweet Spot…How many Sets?”

  1. I would be interested to see if 8-10 sets 1 day per week would be different than 3 sets performed 3 times per week? From a skill acquisition perspective, my basketball athletes do much better learning basketball skills when performed multiple times per week with shorter sessions than 1-2 times per week with longer sessions. Can this be applied to strength training, which for athletes is really skill acquisition?

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