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Multiple Set Training Success: Control The Variables

Updated on November 29, 2011
Gregg performing a standing curl. Remember to stay tight and don't "flop". Do the reps in a slow and controlled manner.
Gregg performing a standing curl. Remember to stay tight and don't "flop". Do the reps in a slow and controlled manner.

The Goal? Getting Stronger!

First and foremost, it is important to be clear about your goals when it comes to lifting weights. Myths abound. Heavy weights will make you big. Light weights and high reps are for tone. Women can big and bulky. One set is not enough to see changes, and so on. The truth is that whatever training program you use, the one and only goal is simply to get stronger. That's it (admittedly, with the HYSTRENGTH training program we like to ensure an elevated heart rate, combined with functional training and stability training in each workout, but the main focus is to get stronger). Why? Because there is a direct correlation between strength and tone, shape, definition, and overall stability. I say over and over that the one form of exercise that is the true fountain of youth is strength training, i.e. getting stronger. Strength training works the fast twitch fibers. They are the ones that bring about all of the aforementioned benefits. As my clients know, I believe that one or 2 good sets per body part is plenty to do the job, so my program focuses on that. However, I have learned over the years that there are many people that do not want to train that way. They prefer to do multiple sets per body part. Personally, I don't get it. Why do 5 sets when one set can do the job? Who really wants to spend more time to get the same results? I digress. I have witnessed many trainees that saw very little gains for their efforts following a multiple set program. You can be successful with it, but you need to know what you are doing.

Strength training basics

By stating the obvious, all lifting programs must use good form, proper progression, and a good repetition cadence (a deeper discussion of these points are for another article). If you get sloppy with any or all of these principles, you will not see good progress toward your goals. You will spend more and more time training with less results to show for it. Even worse, your are more exposed to potential injury. Having said that, let'stake a look at the variables employed in a multiple set program, and how they work.

The three variables

To be successful with a multiple set approach,one must be acutely aware of three different variables. If the trainee does not keep track of them (a training journal is a must), he will not see progress. What's worse is he will actually think he is making progress when most likely he is staying pat, or even going backwards. Here are the three variables:

  • Tempo
  • Rest Intervals
  • Volume

Let us now examine each one individually and how to manage them.


Every workout one must increase the demand placed on the muscles. They must work harder from one workout to the next. The simplest way to do it is by increasing either the weight lifted or the amount of reps every workout. For example, if a trainee does one set if 10 reps with 100 pounds one workout, he can do 100 pounds for 12 reps the next workout. The following workout he can increase the weight to 105 pounds and do 10 reps again. This is a simple linear progression. This works well with a single set, whole body workout. The trainee just has to train hard and try to do a little more this workout over the last one. The same rules apply to a multiple set program. One can increase weights or reps every workout. However, with a multiple set program, the trainee has other variables at his disposal (which will be discussed below). These can be beneficial to the program, but they can also be leaks in the training program. We will start with tempo.


Tempo refers to the speed of the movement of the lift. There are proponents of slow lifting that claim by slowing down the repetition speed, momentum is taken out of the lift and the muscles would have to work harder to move the same amount of weight. The theory goes that by working harder, one would need less total sets to achieve strength gains. A trainee can apply this to a multiple set program as follows: one workout you do 3 sets of 10 reps using a 3/3 tempo (3 seconds to lift, 3 seconds to lower the weight). The next workout, he can use the same weight and the same rest interval but do a 4/4 tempo (4 seconds to lift, 4 seconds to lower the weight). This would increase the time under tension making the muscle work harder, without increasing weights or reps.

Rest Intervals

Rest intervals between sets can be a very useful tool to increase the challenge to muscles. It can also be the biggest leak. Most trainees absolutely miss this point. Here is an example. Day one a trainee does 3 sets of bench press. He does not time his rest intervals. He relies on "feel". Let's say he takes 2 minutes in between each set. The next workout he increases the weight 10 pounds for all three sets. However, since it is harder, he takes 2 1/2 minutes in between sets. Since he does not time his rest intervals, he does not notice this subtle change. He still thinks he is doing 2 minute rest intervals. Over time, as he increases the weights quite a bit, his rest intervals get longer and longer. Next thing you notice, he reads an article in between each set, walks around, and gets a drink before he does the next set. The problem is, once again he thinks he is getting stronger, but he has not increased the demand on his muscles. He is not getting stronger. He is simply wasting more time. To use rest intervals in an effective manner, the trainee must use a stop watch. If he did 2 minute rest intervals one workout, he must at least do two minute rest intervals the next workout while he increases the load. It will be harder. It would feel harder. It will bring about meaningful overload. He can also use rest intervals to increase overload without increasing weight. Instead of 3 sets of 10 reps with 2 minute rest intervals, for example, he can shorten the rest interval to 90 seconds and keep the amount of load the same. Once again, it would feel harder, and it will be harder.


The third variable a trainee must manage for success is the volume of exercise. Volume is simply adding more sets and more frequency between workouts. For example, if a trainee does three sets of ten reps one workout, he can do 4 sets of ten the next workout. He can also add more workouts per week to increase volume. I am not a fan of increasing the frequency, for it is too easy to over train. Strength training is demanding on the body, and it needs a lot of rest to fully recover. But one can increase from 3 days a week to four days a week and be O.K. As for increasing the amount of sets,the trainee needs to remember that by adding just one set to a three set protocol increases the overload by 25%. An increase of 3 to 5% is more appropriate. The trainee must keep that in mind, and lower the intensity a little bit to make up for that.

Putting it all together

Now that we shined a soptlight on the variables, it is time to put together the program. The trainee could start with three sets of ten using a 3/3 tempo and 2 minute rest intervals. The next workout the trainee can do three sets of 12 reps using a 3/3 tempo and 2 minute rest intervals. The next workout he can then do three sets of 12 reps using a 4/4 tempo and 2 minute rest intervals. In all these cases the amount of the weight is the same. Then the next workout he can increase the weight 5% and go back to 3 sets of ten reps using a 3/3 tempo and 2 minute rest intervals. After 4 to 6 weeks, the trainee can completely change all the variables and start the process over again. He may add more total sets and lower the weights, then gradually build up over the next 6 weeks, and then change the program again. This is known as periodization.


As one can see, with a multiple set program, there are many more variables a trainee must be aware of. With mastery of the variables, the trainee has a practically unlimited range of options to add to his workout program. However, the trainee must use other tools to be successful. He would need a workout journal and a stop watch or a watch with a second hand. More importantly, he would have to be focused and be clear about his goal for each workout. However, if it is done properly, he can be very successful with a multiple set training program.


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