When it comes to building muscle, weightlifting is one of the most effective ways to do so. But what type of weightlifting is best for maximizing protein synthesis? Is it single sets or multiple sets? A recent study sought to answer this question and we’re here to break down the findings. In this post, we’ll dive into the science behind muscle protein synthesis and explain the Akt/PKB pathway in detail. We’ll also explore the evidence on single vs multiple sets for stimulating muscle growth and discuss the concept of “junk volume.” Finally, we’ll offer recommendations for effective training and summarize our conclusions based on the research. Whether you’re a seasoned weightlifter or just starting out, this post will provide valuable insights on how to maximize your muscle gains.
Single vs Multiple Sets Summary
- · Researchers compared single vs multiple sets to failure and its effects on anabolic muscle signaling pathways (i.e., Akt/PKB, IGF-1, etc.)
- · The study found that a single set of resistance training to failure resulted in a similar acute anabolic signaling pathway (i.e., Akt/PKB pathway) as multiple sets in recreationally active men.
- · However, it’s important to note that the study was an acute response to a single training session, not a chronic response over an extended period. Given the study results that one set maximized protein synthesis, this raises the concern about performing excessive sets (i.e., junk volume) for muscle growth.
Resistance training is widely recognized for promoting muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. One of the key considerations in resistance training is the number of sets performed during each exercise. In the dynamic world of fitness and bodybuilding, a debate has consistently reverberated: is one set of an exercise enough, or are multiple sets essential for optimal muscle hypertrophy?
As the landscape of scientific research evolves, new studies emerge, shedding light on this age-old question. One such study titled “Similar Responses in the Akt/Protein Kinase B Signaling Pathway Following Different Lower-Body Exercise Volumes in Recreationally Active Men” by Jeremy Pearson has provided intriguing insights into this discussion. (Pearson et al., 2023)
Muscle Protein Synthesis in Response to Nutrition and Exercise
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is believed to be one of the primary drivers behind adaptive responses to exercise and is considered a key indicator for protein synthesis. (Atherton & Smith, 2012) The study emphasized that nutrient-driven MPS increases are short, and the combination of proper nutrition and resistance exercise is more anabolic than nutrition alone. This suggests that the timing and quality of nutrition, in conjunction with resistance exercise, play a crucial role in maximizing MPS.
Understanding the Akt/PKB Pathway, Muscle Protein Synthesis, and Hypertrophy
At the heart of muscle growth lies the process of MPS. Think of a muscle as a wall, each brick representing an amino acid. MPS is akin to adding new bricks to this wall. For the wall to grow, the rate of MPS must surpass muscle protein breakdown.
The Akt/protein kinase B (PKB) signaling pathway is central to this process. This pathway plays a pivotal role in protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy (Vainshtein & Sandri, 2020), guiding the construction of our muscle ‘wall.’ The Akt/protein kinase B (PKB) signaling pathway is like the main communication line or the blueprint that gives orders on how and when to build. Working out is like sending a message through this pathway, telling your muscles, “Hey, it’s time to build and get stronger!”
When Akt is phosphorylated (activated), it can trigger other molecules downstream, such as mTOR (Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin)(Dan et al., 2014). mTOR is described as a “master switch” that needs to be activated for muscle protein synthesis to occur. While other pathways and factors are involved, mTOR is crucial.
Single vs Multiple Sets for Stimulating Muscle Protein Synthesis
Several factors influence the extent of muscle protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy. One important factor is the intensity of the resistance exercise. Higher-intensity exercises, such as heavy weightlifting, have been shown to elicit a greater muscle protein synthesis response compared to lower-intensity exercises. The volume and frequency of resistance exercise also play a role in muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy.(Witard et al., 2022)
One must delve into muscle protein synthesis to understand the influence of set volume on muscle growth. This physiological process is responsible for constructing new proteins within muscle cells, and it’s a primary mechanism through which muscles repair and grow. Resistance training acts as a catalyst for protein synthesis. When the rate of this synthesis surpasses protein breakdown, it results in muscle hypertrophy. Notably, the spike in protein synthesis post-training is swift, persisting for 24-48 hours.
A pivotal study by Dr. Stu Phillips provides insight into the relationship between set volume and muscle protein synthesis. This research divided participants into two groups: one performed 3 sets of leg extensions, while the other executed just a single set. Both groups operated at 70% of their one-repetition maximum (1-RM) until muscular failure.
The findings were compelling. In the postprandial state (after consuming a meal), the muscle protein synthesis in the 3-set group was nearly double that of the 1-set group. Remarkably, even 29 hours post-exercise, the 3-set group exhibited a 130% elevation in protein synthesis, whereas the 1-set group had returned to baseline levels. This prolonged elevation suggests that the muscles in the 3-set group were still actively building protein nearly a day after the exercise session. Given the correlation between muscle protein synthesis and muscle size gains, especially after the initial phase of muscle damage, the data implies that performing 3 sets might be more efficacious than a single set for muscle hypertrophy. (Burd et al., 2010)
Single vs Multiple Sets and Protein Synthesis
Given that most studies have found that multiple sets are superior for muscle growth, the research compared the effects of a single set to failure versus multiple sets to failure on the Akt/PKB pathway. The study involved 16 healthy men divided into two groups: one performing a single set and the other multiple sets.
The single-set group performed one set at 80% of their 1RM to failure. The multiple-set group performed two sets of 10 repetitions at 80% of their 1RM, followed by a third set to failure. The primary goal is to examine gene expression and protein activity in muscle tissue. Gene expression refers to transcribing a gene’s DNA sequence into mRNA, which then leaves the cell nucleus and is translated into a protein by ribosomes.
The results were unexpected. There were no significant differences in the concentration of Akt signaling proteins between the two groups. This suggests that a single set of resistance training evokes a similar acute Akt/PKB pathway response as multiple sets in recreationally active men. (Pearson et al., 2023) It’s essential to recognize that this study was acute and doesn’t necessarily mean doing one set to failure will translate to long-term muscle growth. A more extended study would determine if these acute responses lead to muscle hypertrophy over time.
Meta-Analysis on Single vs Multiple Sets for Muscle Hypertrophy
While the Akt/PKB study provides a fresh perspective, it’s essential to consider the broader literature. A comprehensive meta-analysis by James W. Krieger titled “SINGLE VS. MULTIPLE SETS OF RESISTANCE EXERCISE FOR MUSCLE HYPERTROPHY” indicates that multiple sets lead to a 40% greater hypertrophy-related effect size than a single set, for both trained and untrained subjects. (Krieger, 2010)
While multiple sets have shown potential benefits for muscle hypertrophy and strength gains, the optimal training frequency remains a topic of debate. Schoenfeld et al. studied well-trained men and found that higher weekly resistance training sets may lead to superior hypertrophic benefits. However, it is important to note that individual differences and other factors, such as recovery capacity and exercise selection, may influence the optimal training frequency for each individual.(Schoenfeld et al., 2015)
Furthermore, for more experienced lifters, more than one set is required to optimize muscle growth. However, there’s a caveat. Many gym-goers indulge in “junk volume” – excessive sets and reps that don’t significantly contribute to muscle growth and can be counterproductive.(Krzysztofik et al., 2019)
Junk Volume: A Deeper Look
The term “junk volume” refers to the excessive sets and repetitions that many fitness enthusiasts indulge in, believing that more is always better. Several studies have examined the effects of different training volumes on muscle hypertrophy. Studies have found that doing more sets does not always lead to greater muscle growth. (Bernárdez-Vázquez et al., 2022)
The Importance of Quality Over Quantity
The key takeaway is not just the number of sets but the quality and intensity of each set. A single set pushed to failure for occasional gym visitors can yield commendable muscle gains. However, for optimal results, especially for the experienced, multiple sets with high effort and intensity are paramount.
Recommendations for Effective Training
For those aiming for muscle growth, it’s crucial to prioritize quality over sheer quantity. Here are some tips:
Intensity is Key: Whether doing one or multiple sets, ensure each set is performed with maximum effort.
Avoid Junk Volume: Focus on quality sets and reps, ensuring each set is performed with the right intensity and technique.
Individualize Your Training: Understand your fitness level and adjust the volume accordingly.
The debate between single vs multiple sets is multifaceted in the quest for muscle hypertrophy. While certain pathways like Akt/PKB might show similar activation with one or multiple sets, the broader evidence, especially the meta-analysis by Krieger et al. and others, suggests that multiple sets have a clear edge.(Bernárdez-Vázquez et al., 2022) Fitness enthusiasts and athletes should aim for quality over quantity, ensuring each set and rep counts. By doing so, they can maximize muscle growth and achieve their fitness goals.
Atherton, P. J., & Smith, K. (2012). Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of Physiology, 590(5), 1049-1057. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.225003
Bernárdez-Vázquez, R., Raya-González, J., Castillo, D., & Beato, M. (2022). Resistance Training Variables for Optimization of Muscle Hypertrophy: An Umbrella Review [Mini Review]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2022.949021
Burd, N. A., Holwerda, A. M., Selby, K. C., West, D. W., Staples, A. W., Cain, N. E., Cashaback, J. G., Potvin, J. R., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2010). Resistance exercise volume affects myofibrillar protein synthesis and anabolic signalling molecule phosphorylation in young men. J Physiol, 588(Pt 16), 3119-3130. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2010.192856
Dan, H. C., Ebbs, A., Pasparakis, M., Van Dyke, T., Basseres, D. S., & Baldwin, A. S. (2014). Akt-dependent activation of mTORC1 complex involves phosphorylation of mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) by IκB kinase α (IKKα). J Biol Chem, 289(36), 25227-25240. https://doi.org/10.1074/jbc.M114.554881
Krieger, J. W. (2010). Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res, 24(4), 1150-1159. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d4d436
Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 4897. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/24/4897
Pearson, J. R., Moodie, N., Stout, K. W., Hawkins, W. C., Matuszek, M., Graham, Z. A., Siedlik, J. A., Vardiman, J. P., & Gallagher, P. M. (2023). Similar Responses in the Akt/Protein Kinase B Signaling Pathway Following Different Lower-Body Exercise Volumes in Recreationally Active Men. J Strength Cond Res, 37(5), 1034-1041. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000004363
Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., & Tiryaki-Sonmez, G. (2015). Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000970
Vainshtein, A., & Sandri, M. (2020). Signaling Pathways That Control Muscle Mass. Int J Mol Sci, 21(13). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21134759
Witard, O. C., Bannock, L., & Tipton, K. D. (2022). Making Sense of Muscle Protein Synthesis: A Focus on Muscle Growth During Resistance Training. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 32(1), 49-61. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2021-0139
What is the difference between single and multiple sets when working out?
The difference between single and multiple sets when working out is the number of times you repeat a specific exercise. Single sets involve performing one set of an exercise, while multiple sets involve performing multiple sets of the same exercise with a rest period in between each set.
Strength training, often interchangeably used with weight training, is a cornerstone for athletes and fitness enthusiasts aiming to improve muscular strength and body composition. A recurring debate in the realm of sports medicine is determining the optimal number of sets for muscle hypertrophy. Is one set of each exercise sufficient, or do multiple sets provide superior results?
A search on PubMed, a renowned database for biomedical literature, reveals numerous studies examining this very question. Two prominent names in this field, Schoenfeld BJ and Krieger JW, have contributed significantly to our understanding of this topic.
One-Set Training vs. Multiple Sets:
Krieger JW’s research results, derived from a clinical trial, indicated that multiple sets in weight training were superior to one-set training for muscle hypertrophy. Such results were consistent with the findings of Schoenfeld BJ, who emphasized that while one-set training might save a lot of time and improve muscle endurance, it might not be the most effective for maximizing muscle growth.
Muscle Fibers and Endurance:
The human body comprises different types of muscle fibers, each responding differently to strength training. One-set training predominantly targets muscle endurance, beneficial for prolonged activities. However, for those aiming for optimal muscle hypertrophy and changes in body composition, engaging and fatiguing a broader spectrum of muscle fibers is crucial. Multiple sets, especially with good form, ensure that both slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers are activated.
The Bench Press Paradigm:
Take the bench press, a staple in weight training. A single set might stimulate the muscle fibers and provide a foundation for muscle endurance. However, subsequent sets, when performed with good form, delve deeper, recruiting more muscle fibers and potentially leading to greater hypertrophy.
Limiting Factors and Considerations:
While multiple sets seem to have an edge, it’s essential to consider the limiting factor of potential overtraining and injury. Especially in exercises that engage the spinal cord or other sensitive areas, maintaining good form is paramount. Overloading with multiple sets without proper technique can be detrimental.
The research results, especially from esteemed figures like Schoenfeld BJ and Krieger JW, lean towards multiple sets for optimal muscle hypertrophy. However, the key is not just the number of sets but the quality of each. Ensuring good form, understanding one’s body, and considering factors like endurance and body composition are essential. As always, individual needs might vary, and consulting with a sports medicine professional can provide tailored guidance.