The evidence and definitive victor in the single vs multiple sets debate has gone through several stages. While the research is not new by any means, this topic still warrants investigation.
Single Set Failure Training And Science
In 1988, the American College of Sports Medicine published a review article comparing single set training with multiple set training (1). They found practically no difference in strength gains between the two regimens. Over the following decades as newer evidence amassed, several meta-analyses were done concluding multiple sets were superior for strength gains (2,3) however these were met with a scathing reception (4, PDF).
Finally, in late 2009, a meta-analysis was published that sought to reconcile objections raised to previous papers. It still found multiple set regimens to be more conducive to strength gains than single set regimens (P < 0.0001) (5).
Another year later, one more meta-analysis was published and this time examining the effect of set quantity on muscle hypertrophy (6). And again, it was found that multiple sets were superior than single sets (P = 0.016). Since this publication, the debate surrounding single vs multiple set routines has diminished considerably with few if no new studies being published on the topic.
A Conclusion, Of Sorts
The once highly contentious issue of single vs multiple sets was finally redressed in a meta-analysis that confirmed the superiority of multiple sets for both strength gains and muscle hypertrophy. While this may be a conclusion, the research will continue and the topics discussed in this article will either go on to be corroborated by subsequent lines of evidence, or possibly refuted, all this ultimately highlighting the importance of staying current with the literature.
Picture courtesy of US Navy.