In the first part of the article, we gave an intro to Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training system, and debunked training to failure, alongside the lack of necessity and possible shortcomings of shock techniques. Let’s tackle two more HD crowd concepts: training with just one set and how much value someone’s word has in the world of bodybuilding.
The Endless One-Set Controversy
I feel that there’s one message that needs to be repeated from first part of this article: I’m sure a lot of people will come here and defend HIT-HD by stating that all they do is trying to provide more efficient workouts, both in terms of effort and time management, and also to give more rest to grow. Again, as I said in Part I, these are all good ideas, good concepts, which HD takes to an extreme and makes them unusable. Don’t view HIT as the only alternative to workouts which only work for steroid users and genetic elite and requires you to spend half your free time training – heck, I train less than 3 hours a week on average, but I don’t pre-exhaust, go to failure on each set, I try to hit my muscles every 5 days and, for the reasons I’ll describe below (plus some coming from personal experience), do multiple sets per exercise.
There are lots of examples in the bodybuilding world of people not being able to reach consensus on something – be it frequency of training, going to failure, or a value of a particular exercise (like the deadlift – while some worship it, others say that the risk/reward ratio is hardly favorable). Most of the time, however, these antagonized stances stem from differences in opinion and attitude (unquantifiable and (mostly) unverifiable, such as in the deadlift case – if you’re too scared to do it, no amount of coaching or real-world examples will change your mind), or from the fact that one side lacks knowledge or scientific evidence (in form of peer-reviewed studies), while the other doesn’t.
What makes the one set vs. multiple sets debate specific is the fact that both sides seemingly have lots of solid evidence to back up their ideas. Even though it’s common for studies to refute each other and report different findings, after a while, with sufficient body of work amassed, the scale tilts to one side and then we can draw a more solid conclusion which we then incorporate into our overall training paradigm and apply it in the gym. Again, this never happened with the one vs. many debate. Despite having a number of strong references that support the claim that there really is a dose-response relationship in muscle hypertrophy, which makes the one set approach inferior in delivered results, I recognize the these results might still be disputed by some people possessing honest and valid arguments. Again, how is that possible? As always, the reason lies in lack of uniform definitions and understanding of shortcomings evident in (most of the) studies researching the matter.
One Set – Really?
This entire debate comes down to whether there is a significant dose-response relationship (DRR) in regard to muscle hypertrophy. If one set can deliver all the results three or four sets can, then the fact that doing a large number of sets is detrimental to your training results is of no importance since nobody actually trains that way, and DRR is insignificant in practice. However, if these few additional sets have an either positive or negative effect on training results, then the DRR is significant and we have to think about it while programming our routines.
The DRR best manifests itself in volume. Unfortunately, people have lots of different ideas of what training volume is. Taken from this article of mine:
Volume is the total number of reps done on an exercise, a muscle group, a training session or during a microcycle.
I made this definition in an attempt to bring all these views together. So, how does this really relate to our one set problem? Well, simply because nobody seems to be sure on what does doing just one set mean. And this problem isn’t evident just with general training population, because different studies have treated the one set principle differently. In almost all the cases, these “one sets” are quite different from Heavy Duty’s one working set to failure per muscle group, with infrequent workouts, and all of them, subsequently, lead to much higher amount of volume per training microcycle, which actually brings them much closer to the “multiple sets” group and their recommendations.
Here are a few examples of what I mean. Dorian Yates is commonly placed in the one-set mindset group. However, by looking at his recommended routines, his “one set” means just one working set per exercise, or just one working set at the same weight – and for more advanced trainees only. As evident from the provided links, he never does just one exercise per body part, and there’s even overlap between exercises on different workout days (deadlifts on back day and stiff-leg deadlifts on leg day). All of this leads to a much, much larger volume per body part per microcycle than you’d expect when someone mentions a “one set routine.”
Another example you can see is a HIT full body routine, with only one working set per exercise. However, they have two or three weekly sessions, which, again, does total at less volume than what is usually meant when “multiple sets” is said, but it’s still a lot more than doing just one (super)set per muscle group a week. A different type of situation is where a trainee claims to follow the one set method, only to be discovered that he’s actually doing a pyramid style workout, in which half of his warmup sets exceed the intensity limit and thus can be counted into total volume.
So, the take home point is this: there’s no uniform definition of the one set approach. Most of the time, these people, over the course of their microcycle (which is usually one week), usher a lot more volume than you’d expect.
What Does Research Have To Say About It?
First thing I’d like to point out is that different studies tend to use different methodologies to obtain their results, which they then interpret differently. There’s no need for us to delve more deeply into this aspect of weight training-related research, as the details of it aren’t really relevant to the topic of the article (and it’d probably bore the hell out of everyone). Suffice it to say, research papers and meta-studies that dealt with the issue of one set vs. multiple sets weren’t done in a uniform way, and this is the very reason why the obtained results are under dispute.
I won’t cite individual articles, for two reasons, one being the fact that I weren’t able to get my hands on most of them (and, in all honestly, I wouldn’t have read them all even if I could). The other reason is that individual articles are, at least in my opinion, a poor argument for proving a point in a debate as big as this one, especially since quite a large body of research has been done so far, making the results of a single article weak in comparison to the big picture. Our best choice here are meta studies (or meta-analyses) – these are a result of statistically evaluating a (large) number of independent studies to draw an integrated conclusion. Luckily for us, we have a number of strong ones done for the very reason of determining whether DRR in bodybuilding exists or not. (A note – Rani and I happened to write an article on the same thing simultaneously. His review comes down the same conclusions as mine, although it presents it in a slightly different way, being focused only on available research.)
The situation is basically as follows: in the multiple sets corner, we have meta studies by Krieger (the paper and quite a long discussion), Rhea (8 relevant papers are listed at the end of the article, including 4 of his own), as well as American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) (two similar papers were published in 1995 and 2002, but the most recent one, which is of interest to us, is the 2009 paper. If you don’t wish to read the entire article, this posting summarizes its take-home points quite well.) All these papers have concluded that DRR in weight training does indeed exist, and that doing multiple sets yields better results than stopping at just one set.
In the opposite corner, we have just one group of scientists which wrote several papers discrediting the above cited papers, calling them biased and their results incorrect, mainly due to statistical errors and varying methodologies used – Carpinelli and Otto. You can see his/theirs papers here, here and here, with a summary by Clarence Bass given here. Their conclusion is that claims of multiple sets being superior don’t have a firm basis in real evidence, which justifies the idea of using one set training protocols to achieve the same results.
Criticizing The Critics
Of course, there are many people who criticize Carpinelli’s critiques. Here is, for example, Berger’s response to Carpinelli’s claims that his study (published 50 years ago) was flawed and unsubstantiated. This page (scroll down to the third item) presents Dr. Fred Hatfield’s critique of the Otto/Carpinelli papers. The most common things on this issue that you can read around the Internet is that Carpinelli picks only those papers that favor the HIT low-volume stance, and attempts to discredit everything else. How much truth there is in these claims, I can’t tell. I’ve read the papers I linked, but I aren’t a professional and don’t have enough experience with the matter to be able to (or be bold enough to) make such conclusions.
So, what’s the morale of the story? I tried posting prominent papers for both sides. There are more of them, but these are usually cited as being the most relevant. Personally, I recommend doing multiple sets. Or, to phrase it a bit differently, I believe that there is some amount of work that needs to be done to optimize hypertrophy, and it exceeds the one-set per (a few) week(s) that HD-HIT proponents go after. I’m not saying that Dr. Carpinelli is wrong, but do consider the evidence from multiple set sources to be better, and this, coupled with experience and anecdote, both from trainees and trainers (such as Charles Poliquin), makes me favor the multiple sets side.
Analyzing The Anecdote
Now, here is one that I’ve heard countless times in articles/discussions of this sort: “Doing HIT skyrocketed my gains, I’m so huge and buff now compared to what I was before.” Well, good for you! And good for the rest of us as well, because this gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at a typical piece of bodybuilding’s fabled “anecdote evidence,” and decide which stance should we take when it appears and exactly how much weight does it have as a debate argument.
Anyone who even had to argument an opinion (or attack one) at a more serious level, like writing a peer-reviewed article or being a member of a debate club, will immediately tell you that anecdotal evidence carries little to no value, and is easily discredited for reasons such as its obvious cognitive bias, as well as a fair number of logical fallacies that can be observed in statements that comprise it. As we’ll see in paragraphs to come, bodybuilding anecdotes are no exception to this rule, and HIT-related anecdotes especially vulnerable to several particular fallacies, which we’ll also examine later on.
Despite that, I’m not so hesitant to discard any bodybuilding anecdote (except if it’s outright incorrect in its basic premise), for two simple reasons. First, bodybuilding-related scientific research, despite having come very far (thus allowing me to back up a number of my claims with citations of large meta-analyses), is still undecided (results of different studies conflicting each other) on many aspects of training, and hasn’t looked into some of them at all. Second, everybody’s different, we don’t respond uniformly to various training approaches. Lastly, to merge the two, any training experience is valuable, because none of us have enough time to try everything out in our search for better gains.
Now let’s go back to our original HIT-supporting anecdote and see what exactly is wrong with it. Here are some problems that are common to all bodybuilding anecdotes, which mainly stem from usage of undefined terms, or terms on which there’s no consensus:
1. “My gains skyrocketed.” – what does skyrocketed mean? Normally, you’d take that such gains exceed the expected ones by a nice amount, but that’s rarely the case. Most of the time, people compare current gains to gains that they had immediately before. This basically comes down to two possibilities:
a) They followed a worthless routine that gave them no gains at all, and now, with HIT (which isn’t totally worthless), they finally got some, or, more commonly,
b) the difference observed is between final stages of last routine (that stopped giving results, or they became extremely slow), and new ones that occur immediately upon switching to a new routine you didn’t yet have a chance to adapt to.
With HIT, there’s also one thing we have to consider. Most bodybuilders who follow mainstream routines are overtrained, some grossly. They train 5-6 days a week with tons of unnecessary volume. On top of this, they have no concept of de-loading or taking a week off every couple of months. So, when they switch to HIT, their body finally has a chance to recuperate and again get proper stimulation instead of annihilation. Furthermore, focusing on fewer exercises and just one working set allows them to bring effort and progression back into their training, something that gets awfully diluted if your workout includes doing 4 sets of 10 on 5 different exercises for the same body part. Renewed effort leads to renewed results, which inevitably bring in novel enthusiasm, and this breath of fresh air, this surge of positive thinking and motivation can actually turn your training upside down and make the gains coming from an inferior program much better than those coming from a more refined one.
Besides, this also shows that we know absolutely nothing about this particular trainee’s workout history. Most of the time, no background info is given whatsoever, only “I did HIT and it worked miraculously!” This brings us to
2. “Huge and buff compared to my former self.” – In 90% of cases I’ve seen around the Internet (yes, this is “anecdotal evidence”, but you’re free to check it out yourself, it really doesn’t require that much research), this “huge and buff” trainee has a hard time pressing 20 kg DBs. In best case, he’s a borderline intermediate, but such people are usually HIT converts, meaning that didn’t get there using HIT, but have switched to it fairly recently in their training career.
Back To Earth
Here is a perfectly honest and straightforward proposal: show my somebody who got big using Heavy Duty. Not the big guy who started using it when he got super-advanced, not Mike Mentzer (who, besides being the aforementioned big guy convertee, was a genetic freak and used drugs), not Dorian Yates because his training principles are, in reality, very far from that of HD/HIT crowd. Anybody who got from being skinny and untrained to reasonably big and muscular using predominantly HD-styled workouts.
By making this proposal, I’m actually backing off from a very important part of the usual HIT deal, which states that not only will these gains be better than those conventional routines can offer (with less time invested, more interesting workouts, etc.), but they’ll also be fast. And not only fast, super-fast. This doesn’t apply to HIT as a whole, nor to Mike Mentzer’s ideas, but it gets associated with HIT more often than with other types of routines (maybe because they appear more exotic to the outsider). I’ll just make a short mention of two examples of HIT training anecdote twisted and turned into a total BS marketing plan. I won’t go into detail since I have nothing to add to what’s already been written and posted on the Web, and it would derail the article (and the series) too much. If anybody is interested, we can have a more direct discussion of the two in the article comments section.
First example: the Colorado experiment, in which Casey Viator gained 63 pound of muscle in four weeks using Arthur Jones’ Nautilus equipment and his HIT principles (Jones claimed to have gained 15 pounds in three weeks himself, but that’s less important right now). Second, more recent case of a marketing scam involving HIT (Colorado experiment took place almost 40 years ago) involves Tim Ferriss’ claims presented in his book The 4-Hour Body, involving himself gaining 34 pounds of muscle in four weeks using a HIT routine. (Note that in both examples all participants actually gained a lot of muscle and lost some fat at the same time, making all of that even more incredible, in the most literal sense of the word). Again, I have no intention to discuss the nature of these scams in this article, and, for all the people who’ll come here with the blunt argument of: “You can’t be sure that it didn’t work for them!”, I have a simple response: “Then go and do it yourself. Go, and follow any routine you want, and make these kinds of gains. If you’re a grown male of average height, you have a chance to beat the results I had gotten in over 5 years of training in just a month.” And this is basically where the story ends.