Building Strength: One Set Per Exercise

Q: "Hey James, I love your blog. I'm a 33 year old ectomorph whose been lifting off and on for 15 years or so. I've found that the normal two body parts a workout doesn't seem to work for me. I make progress slowly. However, I recently purchased a powerbar for pull-ups, pushups and dips, along with a mini bench and 50 lb. dumbbells. I've been on a Pull-up, Pushup, dip, press (with dumbbells) 3 sets each for a month now, and I see good progress.

"I was wondering what you thought about going to the gym and doing an entire body workout: one set each exercise? For example: 10 reps squats, 10 reps bench press, 10 reps lat pulldowns, 10 reps curls, 10 reps close grip presses, 10 reps back rows, 10 deadlifts, etc. Is this overkill 3 days a week? Sorry for the long question, I wanted to give details."

Thanks!
Tay


My Answer: Doing 1 set per exercise three times per week is much better than 3 sets done once a week. You will gain strength quickly the more frequently you train, so what you propose is perfectly fine. This was the way bodybuilders used to train in the very beginning. I go over this history lesson in my book Tactics and Strategies.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, there was no such thing as multiple sets. The training concept of the "set system" hadn't been invented yet. Everybody did one set per exercise and that was it. A typical bodybuilder’s routine would have consisted of 12 exercises covering the entire body, with only one set per exercise. This full body workout would be performed 3 days a week, every other day.

Despite the limitations of a single set, a wide variety of single set training routines flourished for 40 years prior to the advent of the set system. In my book Tactics and Strategies there's a chapter that goes over these various single set routines. Single set routines are great for bodybuilders looking to minimize overtraining and yet still develop strength and muscle tone.



Q: "Hey James, I recently tried your bulking for ectomorph program and managed to put size on everywhere except for my arms which failed to grow. Do you suggest I include more direct arm work or cut back on the amount I'm doing already: 4 sets biceps + 4 sets triceps, 3x a week?"

Thanks,
Dan


My Answer: You can still do the pyramid program, but for the arms, substitute the Direct Assault arm specialization program. Done properly this will give you some big guns. Your workouts for the week will look like this:

Monday:

A) Squats- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 3 minutes rest.

*The next 2 exercises are an “antagonistic superset.” Perform a bench press, then rest 90 seconds. Perform pulldowns, then rest 90 seconds before going back to bench presses. Repeat for desired repetitions.

B1) Bench press- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 90 seconds rest.
B2) Pulldowns- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 90 seconds rest.

C) Laterals- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 2 minutes rest.

D1) Preacher Curls (6 sets) 6 reps, 90 seconds rest
You can use any variation of the preacher curl. Variations include the straight barbell preacher curl, one arm dumbbell preacher curls or reverse grip EZ-bar preacher curls

D2) Lying flat bench triceps extensions with an EZ curl bar (6 sets) 6 reps, 90 seconds rest


Wednesday:

A) Squats- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 3 minutes rest.

*The next 2 exercises are an “antagonistic superset.” Perform a bench press, then rest 90 seconds. Perform pulldowns, then rest 90 seconds before going back to bench presses. Repeat for desired repetitions.

B1) Bench press- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 90 seconds rest.
B2) Pulldowns- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 90 seconds rest.

C) Laterals- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 2 minutes rest.

D1) Lying to seated dumbbell curls (3 sets) 13-15 reps, no rest
-Perform 6-8 reps of lying flat bench dumbbell curls, then sit up and perform alternating seated dumbbell curls

D2) Feet Elevated Pushups (3 sets) 13-15 reps, 60 seconds rest


Friday:

A) Squats- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 3 minutes rest.

*The next 2 exercises are an “antagonistic superset.” Perform a bench press, then rest 90 seconds. Perform pulldowns, then rest 90 seconds before going back to bench presses. Repeat for desired repetitions.

B1) Bench press- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 90 seconds rest.
B2) Pulldowns- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 90 seconds rest.

C) Laterals- 4 sets of 10, 8, 6, 15 reps; 2 minutes rest.


Saturday:

A) Hammer curls (10 sets) 4 reps, 60 seconds rest
B) Seated overhead half press in power rack (10 sets) 4 reps, 60 seconds rest
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