Resistance Training for Strength: Effect of
Number of Sets and Contraction Speed
JOANNE MUNN1, ROBERT D. HERBERT1, MARK J. HANCOCK1, and SIMON C. GANDEVIA2
1School of Physiotherapy, The University of Sydney, Lidcombe, NSW, AUSTRALIA; and2Prince of Wales Medical
Research Institute, University of New South Wales, Randwick, NSW, AUSTRALIA.
MUNN, J., R. D. HERBERT, M. J. HANCOCK, and S. C. GANDEVIA. Resistance Training for Strength: Effect of Number of Sets
and Contraction Speed. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 37, No. 9, pp. 1622–1626, 2005. Purpose: To compare effects on strength in the
early phase of resistance training with one or three sets and fast or slow speeds. Methods: A total of 115 healthy, untrained subjects
were randomized to a control group or one of four training groups: one set fast (?140°?s?1), three sets fast, one set slow (?50°?s?1),
or three sets slow. All subjects attended training 3? wk?1for 6 wk. Subjects in the training groups performed unilateral elbow flexion
contractions with a target six- to eight-repetition maximum load. Control subjects sat at the training bench but did not train. One
repetition maximum strength, arm circumference, and biceps skinfold thickness were measured before and after training. Results: One
slow set increased strength by 25% (95% CI 13–36%, P ? 0.001). Three sets of training produced greater increases in strength than
one set (difference ? 23% of initial strength, 95% CI 12–34%, P ? 0.001) and fast training resulted in a greater increase in strength
than slow training (difference ? 11%, 95% CI 0.2–23%, P ? 0.046). The interaction between sets and speed was negative (?15%)
and of borderline significance (P ? 0.052), suggesting there is a benefit of training with three sets or fast speeds, but there is not an
additive benefit of training with both. Conclusions: Three sets of exercise produce twice the strength increase of one set in the early
phase of resistance training. Training fast produces greater strength increases than training slow; however, there does not appear to be
any additional benefit of training with both three sets and fast contractions. Key Words: MUSCLE STRENGTH, STRENGTH
TRAINING, EXERCISE, TRAINING VOLUME
However, training parameters for resistance exercise have
been the subject of surprisingly little research.
Conventionally, strength training involves multiple sets
of resistance exercise rather than single sets. (A training
“set” is a group of contiguous repetitions of a specified
exercise.) The practice of performing multiple sets of resis-
tance exercise is supported by the early and influential work
of Berger (3), who suggested that multiple sets produce
greater gains in strength than a single set. Evidence to
support this premise is ambivalent. Several literature re-
views comparing training responses to single and multiple
sets of resistance exercise (4,5,10) have concluded that
similar increases in strength are produced with both and that
there is little scientific evidence to support the use of mul-
tiple sets of exercise. However, a recent meta-analysis con-
cluded that three sets are superior to a single set (standard-
ized effect ? 0.70) (27). Another meta-analysis (28)
concluded that four sets of resistance training produced
any people from both healthy and patient popu-
lations undertake resistance exercise to develop
muscle strength and produce muscle hypertrophy.
twice the strength increases of one set. The conclusions
from both narrative reviews and meta-analyses include non-
randomized studies, so the reviews’ findings are potentially
seriously biased (1). Moreover, the meta-analyses by Rhea
and colleagues (27,28) involved comparisons between stud-
ies, not within studies, which exposes the conclusions to
serious risk of confounding (31).
The ambiguity of evidence of the additional benefits of
multiple sets may be due to shortcomings in the design of
relevant studies. Some studies do not randomly allocate
subjects to training groups (3,12), exposing these studies to
allocation bias (1), few have adequate sample sizes (13,22),
and many have high rates of loss to follow-up (22,32).
Another problem is that many studies are confounded by the
effects of co-interventions because groups either train at
different intensities (17,29,30) or use different resistance
exercise equipment (18,19).
The speed at which a resistance exercise is performed is
another training variable that may influence effectiveness of
strength training. There is no consensus on the effect of
movement velocities on strength increases associated with
resistance training (for review, see Pereira and Gomes (24)).
Even though it is common practice to train by lifting weights
(dynamic resistance training), most experimental studies
have used isokinetic training to investigate effects of train-
ing speed. Few studies have examined the effects of lifting
speed on strength with dynamic resistance training. Morris-
sey and colleagues (20) examined the influence of move-
ment speed with weight training and found greater improve-
ments in strength with fast training (1-s lift phase, 1-s lower
Address for correspondence: Joanne Munn, School of Physiotherapy, The
University of Sydney, P.O. Box 170, Lidcombe NSW 1825, Australia;
Submitted for publication December 2004.
Accepted for publication April 2005.
MEDICINE & SCIENCE IN SPORTS & EXERCISE®
Copyright © 2005 by the American College of Sports Medicine
phase) for isokinetic work, but similar improvements for
increases in strength for a specific training exercise.
Given the absence of clear evidence of the number of sets
and training speed, this study aimed to determine in the
early phases (first 6 wk) of training the effects on dynamic
strength, if any, of i), the number of training sets (one or
three) and ii) the speed of contractions used in training (slow
(?50°?s?1) or fast (?140°?s?1)). In addition, we assessed
whether the number of sets and speed of contraction affected
limb circumference or skinfold measurements of the trained
The study design is illustrated in Figure 1.
Subjects. A total of 115 untrained, apparently healthy
subjects (21 males and 94 females) with mean (?SD) age
20.6 ? 6.1 yr (height 168.1 ? 9.1 cm and weight 64.2 ?
11.6 kg) participated in the study. Subjects were included if
they were deemed able to safely participate in physical
activity according to the Physical Activity Readiness Ques-
tionnaire (2), free from upper limb injury, and not involved
in regular upper limb strength training in the 6 months
before commencement of the study. Subjects were in-
structed of all study requirements and gave written informed
consent. Approval for this study was granted by the univer-
sity’s human ethics committee.
Measures. Elbow flexor strength for the right and left
arms of each subject was measured. The largest weight a
subject could lift only once (one repetition maximum (1
RM)) using a loaded handheld bar from a position of full
elbow extension and forearm supination was recorded. Sub-
jects were seated with the testing arm supported on a bench.
Before testing, subjects were familiarized with the testing
protocol and performed a warm-up consisting of six to eight
contractions through full range of elbow motion with a
weight estimated to be 50–60% of the individual’s 1 RM.
There was a 1-min rest period after the warm-up and
before the test period. Instructions were given to ensure the
lift was performed correctly to minimize compensatory ac-
tions. To ensure maximal effort by the subjects, the proce-
dures suggested by Gandevia (11) were adopted. Subjects
were reminded before each lift to perform maximal exertion,
they were loudly exhorted by the researcher, and they were
able to discount an attempt if they believed a contraction
was submaximal. They were informed that a prize would be
awarded to the person whose strength, adjusted for gender,
weight, and height, was greatest. Testing of the elbow flex-
ors was performed with the subject lifting the weight
through full elbow range of motion then lowering the weight
back to the starting position. This procedure was repeated to
determine the 1 RM to the closest 0.25 kg. A 2- to 3-min rest
interval was given between each attempt. The nontest arm
remained in a relaxed posture behind the subject’s back
throughout the testing procedure. Repetition maximum test-
ing for the elbow flexors has been reported previously as
highly reliable (7).
Measures of skinfold thickness at the biceps and upper
arm circumference were taken. Skinfolds were recorded
with Harpenden calipers using standardized methods (21).
Arm circumference was measured with a tape measure at the
widest circumference of the upper arm with the subject
attempting a strong contraction of the elbow flexors in a
shortened position (shoulder at 90° flexion with the lower
arm at 45° to the horizontal arm) (21).
After baseline measurements subjects were randomly al-
located to one of five groups: control (N ? 23), three sets
fast training (N ? 23), three sets slow training (N ? 23), one
set fast training (N ? 23), or one set slow training (N ? 23).
The training arm was also randomly assigned.
Training protocol. All subjects attended 18 training
sessions over a 6- to 7-wk training period. Ideally, subjects
completed three sessions on three nonconsecutive days per
week within a 6-wk period. When a session was missed,
subjects were allowed to make up this session to ensure they
completed the target number of training sessions. Subjects
in the training groups warmed up before training by per-
forming one set of six to eight repetitions with a weight
approximately 50% of the training weight for that session.
Subjects trained with a 6- to 8-RM load (approximately
equivalent to 80% MVC) to failure (i.e., until the weight
could no longer be lifted without compensatory movement)
for either one or three sets, according to assignment. When
more than eight repetitions could be performed in a set, the
training weight was increased by the experimenters for the
subsequent training session to maintain a training intensity
of 6–8 RM. A maximum of a 2-min rest between each set
was given for training with three sets. At each training
session, subjects listened to a tape recording that instructed
them to keep the nontraining arm relaxed. The tape also set
the training pace. In the slow training group, a 3-s lift and
3-s lower time (average speed ? 50°?s?1) was required, and
FIGURE 1—Summary of study design. Fast, 1-s lift time, 1-s lower
time (average speed ? 140°?s?1); slow, 3-s lift time, 3-s lower time
(average speed ? 50°?s?1); n, number of subjects; RM, repetition
STRENGTH TRAINING: EFFECT OF SETS AND SPEEDMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise?
in the fast training groups a 1-s lift and 1-s lower time
(average speed ? 40°?s?1) was required. The tape instructed
control subjects to rest the training arm on the training bench
and keep both arms relaxed for 4 min (the average time for
all training groups). A physical therapist experienced in
resistance training was present at all training sessions.
After the training period, all subjects were retested for
elbow flexor strength and anthropometric measures of both
limbs (as described above). The rest period between the
completion of training and retesting was usually between 2
and 5 d but no less than 48 h to minimize the impact of
fatigue, and not longer than 7 d to minimize the effect of
Data analysis. The sample size of 115 subjects deter-
mined a priori was estimated to provide an 80% probability
of detecting a 10% difference in strength between groups.
Data for pre- and posttraining measures for the trained arm
were analyzed with a nested factorial ANCOVA using a
linear regression approach to determine the effect of number
of sets and speed of contraction. The regression model was
outcome ? a ? b (initial value) ? c (trained) ? d (sets) ?
e (speed) ? f (sets ? speed), where outcome is the final
measure of strength (arm girth or biceps skinfold thickness);
initial value is the initial measure of strength, arm girth, or
biceps skinfold thickness; trained indicates whether the
subject trained (dummy-coded as 0 or 1 for control and
trained subjects, respectively); sets indicates whether the
subject trained with one or three sets (dummy-coded as 1 for
subjects who trained with three sets and 0 for all other
subjects); and speed indicates whether the subject trained at
fast or slow speeds (dummy-coded as 1 for subjects who
trained fast and 0 for all other subjects). a, b, c, d, e, and f
are coefficients that describe the magnitude of each of these
effects. Significance for all statistical analysis was set at P
? 0.05. Only data for the trained arm are reported in this
Of the 115 randomized subjects, two dropped out before
commencement of training (one in the control group and one
in the three sets slow training group) as they decided not to
adhere to the training protocols. One subject (one set slow
training group) only completed 4 wk of training (12 ses-
sions) because she developed neck pain attributed to train-
ing. Outcome data were obtained from these subjects and
analyzed by intention to treat (15). No other adverse events
were reported. All other subjects completed 18 training
sessions within a 6- to 7-wk training period.
Strength. Strength measures before and after training
are given in Table 1. Changes in strength following the
training period for control and trained subjects are illus-
trated in Figure 2. Training with one set at the slower speed
resulted in an increase in strength of 25% of initial strength
(1.38 kg, 95% CI 0.75–2.02 kg, P ? 0.001, Table 2),
compared with the control condition. Three sets of training
were superior to a single set, increasing initial strength by
48% (2.66 kg, 95% CI 1.40–3.94 kg) or an additional 23%
compared with training with one set (1.28 kg, 95% CI
0.65–1.92 kg, P ? 0.001, Table 2). Fast training resulted in
an 11% (0.64 kg, 95% CI 0.01–1.27 kg, P ? 0.046, Table
2) greater strength increase than slow training. Although of
borderline significance (P ? 0.052), there is a suggestion
that the effect for the interaction between sets and speed is
negative (effect ? ?15%), suggesting that there is a benefit
of training fast or with three sets but no additional benefit of
Girth and skinfolds. Data for arm circumference and
skinfold thickness are reported in Table 1. Strength training
resulted in a small but significant increase in the circumfer-
ence of the trained arm (mean ? 0.5 cm, 95% CI 0.10–0.91,
P ? 0.015). There was not a statistically significant added
effect for training three sets compared with one set (0.24 cm,
95% CI ?0.17 to 0.64, P ? 0.252) or for training at a fast
FIGURE 2—Strength changes for the elbow flexors (expressed in
kilograms) for control and trained subjects following 6 wk of progres-
sive resistance training. Data are group means and SD. Circles repre-
sent individual subjects.
TABLE 1. Pre- and posttraining measures of strength (kg), girth (cm), and biceps skinfold (mm) for the trained arm of control and trained subjects.
Control (N ? 23) One Set Slow (N ? 23)
1 RM (kg) 5.7 ? 1.6 5.9 ? 1.9 5.4 ? 2.0 6.9 ? 1.9
Girth (cm)29.1 ? 2.729.5 ? 2.729.0 ? 2.929.7 ? 3.1
Data are means and SD.
One Set Fast (N ? 23)
5.8 ? 4.0
29.1 ? 4.6
8.3 ? 4.7
Three Sets Slow (N ? 23)
5.7 ? 2.8
28.4 ? 2.6
7.6 ? 4.4
Three Sets Fast (N ? 23)
5.6 ? 2.3
28.4 ? 2.9
8.2 ? 3.8
8.0 ? 5.1
29.5 ? 4.5
7.4 ? 3.1
8.0 ? 2.2
29.2 ? 2.4
7.7 ? 4.2
8.2 ? 3.3
28.6 ? 2.6
7.5 ? 3.28.3 ? 3.5 8.1 ? 3.28.4 ? 3.4 8.3 ? 2.8
Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine http://www.acsm-msse.org
compared with a slow speed (?0.28 cm, 95% CI ?0.67 to
0.12, P ? 0.175). Training had no effect on skinfold thick-
Six weeks of training with three sets of resistance exercise
produces about twice the increase in strength (48%) ob-
tained when training with one set (25%) at the same training
intensity. This difference is similar to that found with 12 wk
of strength training for the lower limb (56% increase in
initial strength for three sets compared with 26% for one set
(26)). These findings support superior strength increases
with larger training volumes in the early phases of training.
Increased exposure to the training stimulus (three training
sets compared with one) induces further strength adapta-
tions even in the acute phase of training.
One set of contractions produced significantly smaller
strength increases than training with three sets. However,
strength increases produced by a single set of training may
still be large enough to be useful (25% of initial strength,
95% CI 13–36%). Previous research has shown that com-
pliance with training programs is higher in one-set programs
than three-set programs (13), and in short programs (25)
with fewer exercises (14). Moreover, training with one set is
less time-consuming than training with three sets where the
same exercises are being performed. Thus, although three
sets of resistance exercise clearly produce greater strength
gains in the early phases of training, a one-set protocol
might sometimes be preferable to a three-set protocol if
subject compliance or time prioritization is a concern.
Training at fast speeds resulted in greater strength gains
than training at slow speeds. However, the effect of speed on
strength was smaller than the effect of number of sets (11%
greater strength increase if training fast rather than slow
compared with a 23% greater strength increase if training
with three sets instead of one). The effect of training speed
is consistent with observations made by Paddon-Jones et al.
(23) and Farthing and Chilibeck et al. (9), who showed that
eccentric training at faster contraction velocities (180°?s?1)
produced greater increases in strength than training at slow
velocities (30°?s?1). The mechanisms by which speed of
training influences strength adaptations was not investigated
in this study, but some authors have speculated that mech-
anisms could include change in muscle fiber type (16,23) or
increased ability to selectively recruit fast-twitch motor
units (6). The latter mechanism is unlikely because recruit-
ment order of motor units appears to remain unchanged with
fast compared with slow contractions (8). Training with fast
speeds leads to higher discharge rates of single motor units
and more frequent occurrence of brief interspike intervals
(doublet discharges) (33); these phenomena might underlie
the greater training response.
Training resulted in a small but significant increase in
upper arm circumference. This increase is most likely due to
a change in gross muscle size of biceps brachii and brachia-
lis. It is unlikely that other structures (such as bone or
subcutaneous tissue) underlying the site of measurement
would have undergone adaptive changes that would be
reflected by an increase in arm circumference. Previous
research on recreational weight lifters has also found in-
creased biceps circumferences following 13 wk of training
but only in subjects training with three sets (13). In the
current study, there was no evidence that one type of train-
ing (i.e., one set or three sets, fast or slow) was superior for
increasing arm circumference in the early phase of training.
Resistance training for 6 wk with either one or three sets
had no effect on skinfold thickness. Several studies have
shown reduced skinfold thickness after resistance training,
but these studies used exercises incorporating several mus-
cle groups (13). The effect of training on skinfold thickness
is likely to be related to the total caloric expenditure of the
exercise program and not the individual resistance exercise
at the target site. In the present study, only one exercise was
performed that may be why no change in skinfold thickness
In conclusion, a one-set strength training program for
elbow flexor strength at a slow training speed (average
speed ? 50°?s?1) performed 3? wk?1for 6 wk will increase
strength of untrained subjects by about 25%, and this effect
is doubled if three sets are performed. Training with fast
repetitions (average speed ? 140°?s?1) results in an 11%
greater strength increases than training with slow repeti-
tions. There is no additional benefit of performing fast
contractions if training with three sets. It is recommended
that three-set programs be used in preference to single-set
programs if the aim is to maximize strength gains. If one-set
programs are adopted, fast rather than slow repetitions will
produce larger gains in strength. These findings may have
implications for clinical populations where strength training
forms part of rehabilitation or health promotion intervention.
The authors thank Dr. Cath Dean and Nicole Munn for their
assistance with training procedures during the study and the Allied
Health Staff at RPS Baringa Hospital, Coffs Harbour, NSW for their
TABLE 2. Coefficients, 95% CI, and P values for the linear regression analysis for strength of the trained arm.
Training (one set slow vs control)
Three sets vs one set
Fast vs slow speed
Interaction (sets ? speed)
The regression model is strength (kg) ? a ? b (initial strength) ? c (trained or control) ? d (sets 3 or 1) ? e (speed fast or normal) ? f (interaction sets ? speed).
Mean effect (kg) (95% CI)
?0.93 (?1.59 to ?0.28)
1.20 (1.11 to 1.28)
1.38 (0.75 to 2.02)
1.28 (0.65 to 1.92)
0.64 (0.01 to 1.27)
?0.88 (?1.77 to 0.01)
Effect as % of pooled initial value (5.58 kg)
1.20% per % initial
STRENGTH TRAINING: EFFECT OF SETS AND SPEEDMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise?
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