MORE IS BETTER: A QUESTIONABLE CONCEPT
Ralph N. Carpinelli, Ed.D.
(from Master Trainer, June 1999)*
The mindless muscle magazines and newsletters abound with different philosophies of training that claim to optimally increase muscular size, strength and endurance. Most of the misinformation is based on different writers' opinions and is not supported by any scientific evidence. An unsubstantiated opinion is not science; it is pseudoscience (false science), which is any assertion or concept that is based on assumption rather than evidence. Assertions in the scientific literature must be supported by evidence from peer-reviewed journals, and the scientific community should not accept any assertion without sufficient evidence. One very common unsubstantiated assertion is that a greater volume of strength training will produce superior results-the more-is-better philosophy.
In a recent article on resistance training published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (10), the "Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine [ACSM]", Feigenbaum and Pollock predicate training principles that are not substantiated by any scientific evidence and are contradictory to their other recommendations in the article. The authors claim (page 40): "the total training volume (sets x repetitions x resistance) is more important for the development of muscular endurance and muscle mass." They cite four references in an attempt to support their assertion. The first reference is a book by Fleck and Kraemer (11), which contains no scientific evidence to support the claim that a greater volume of exercise will produce superior results (for a detailed review refer to The Absence of Evidence in Master Trainer 8(3): 8-11, 1998). The next two references cited by Feigenbaum and Pollock are strength-training studies (14, 18) that report changes in strength, not muscular endurance or hypertrophy. Messier and Dill (14) stated (page 350): "In general, the isokinetic strength values elicited by the Nautilus circuit weight training group in this study compared favorably to those generated by the Free Weight group." Silvester and colleagues (18) reported (page 32): "one set to failure was just as effective in developing strength as was performing three sets of six repetitions, regardless of the equipment used. This finding is contrary to the accepted belief that three sets of six repetitions is the optimum program." The last reference is Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (21). In the eight pages of the Report that are specifically cited by Feigenbaum and Pollock, there is no evidence to support their claim for the superiority of a greater volume of resistance exercise. In fact, there is nothing in the entire 278 page Report to suggest that greater sets, reps, and resistance are more important for the development of muscular endurance and muscle mass. The Report simply cites the recommendations of the ACSM (1995), American Heart Association (1995), and American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (1995), each recommending one set of 8-10 or 10-15 repetitions performed 2-3 times a week. There are no strength-training studies referenced.
Feigenbaum and Pollock also published a similar article in The Physician and Sportsmedicine (9) where they made another unsubstantiated claim (page 46): "lower-intensity programs emphasizing the completion of a greater number of repetitions per set and greater number of sets is more important for the development of muscle endurance and mass." They cite three references in an attempt to support their claim. Two of the references were the aforementioned studies by Messier and Dill (14) and Silvester and colleagues (18). The third reference was a study by Stowers and colleagues (20) that reported increases in strength after seven weeks of training, with no significant difference in strength between the one-set and three-set groups at the end of the study. There was no report of muscular endurance or hypertrophy. These three studies are accurately reported in a review by Carpinelli and Otto (4), which showed no significant difference in muscular strength or hypertrophy (when it was assessed) in 33 out of 35 studies as a result of training with single or multiple sets. There is a lack of scientific evidence to support the assertion that a greater number of sets or reps will produce superior increases in muscular strength, endurance or hypertrophy. Although Dr. Pollock had expressed in personal communications that there was no evidence to support higher volume strength training, he justified the statements in his articles by noting: "In some cases this has been forced upon us by the weight lifting community." If there is no evidence (peer-reviewed strength-training studies), there is no obligation to acquiesce, or concede to anyone.
Both of the articles by Feigenbaum and Pollock (9, 10) refer to the 1990 ACSM Position Stand (1) in another attempt to justify their claim that additional sets or repetitions elicit larger strength gains, although they do state that "the magnitude of difference is usually small." Three of the six references cited by the ACSM are books, not peer-reviewed studies. Citing someone else's opinion is not science. Another reference is an excellent review by Sale (16) on motor unit activation during exercise. However, it contains no information regarding the volume of exercise, either greater sets or repetitions, influencing gains in muscular strength, endurance or hypertrophy. There is one report (22) that Feigenbaum and Pollock cite as an ACSM reference, but is actually not cited in the ACSM Position Stand (1). Zinovieff (22) simply reported the use of the "Oxford technique", which is a decrease (about one pound each set) rather than an increase in resistance for 10 sets of 10 repetitions. He made no comparisons to any other training protocols. Zinovieff stated (page 130): "This series [55 out-patient cases with wasted and weak quadriceps muscles] was not considered to be large enough for detailed case analysis." Only the 1962 strength-training study by Berger (refer to details in the review by Carpinelli and Otto, reference 4) reported a 3% greater increase in bench press strength in groups who performed three sets compared with those who trained with one set.
The other reference cited by the ACSM was published in 1945 by DeLorme (6), who was a U.S. Army medical doctor. DeLorme reported the clinical observations of 300 cases of therapeutic restoration of function to muscles that were weakened and atrophied as a result of injury and disease. His protocol consisted of 7 to 10 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions (70 to 100 repetitions a session) once a day on five consecutive days each week for an unspecified duration. The workout began with considerably less weight than the subject's 10 repetition maximum (10RM) and progressed throughout each session, culminating with a 10RM. This was not a training study. There was no assignment to different groups, no comparison among the patients, no pre- or post-training data reported, nor was the duration of the clinical observations reported. DeLorme stated (page 651): "We are presenting only the clinical observations made on 300 cases in which these exercises have been employed." There is no evidence by DeLorme to support the vacuous claim by the ACSM that more is better.
In 1948 DeLorme and Watkins (7), referring to the aforementioned DeLorme protocol, stated (page 264): "Further experience has shown this figure to be too high", and they modified the program (less exercise, fewer sets) to what is now commonly called the DeLorme technique. They recommended three sets of ten repetitions beginning with 50% of the 10RM, then 75% 10RM, and culminating with 100% 10RM-one maximal set. DeLorme and Watkins were also concerned with the problems of muscular rehabilitation from poliomyelitis. They proposed that two warm-up sets using 50% and 75% 10RM before performing one set of 100% 10RM were applicable for their population of patients. In their book entitled Progressive Resistance Exercise (8), they lucidly stated (pages 27-28): "By advocating three sets of exercise of 10 repetitions per set, the likelihood that other combinations might be just as effective is not overlooked. Three sets of exercise in which the resistance is increased after each set offers the advantage of warming up the muscle but probably does not contribute toward increasing the muscle strength. By doing 10 repetitions only with the 10RM, strength increases would be approximately the same as when three sets are performed. The validity is also attested to by the fact that many of the strongest athletes never perform more than 10 repetitions for any one exercise. Incredible as it may seem, many athletes have developed great power and yet have never employed more than five repetitions in a single exercise." Do DeLorme and Watkins sound like they advocate a more-is-better philosophy? Does anyone ever read these studies? Do the editors of the ACSM publications ever read the studies that are cited in their journal? Does everyone just drink the ACSM Kool-Aid without question?
Barney and Bangerter (3) reported the effects of three different thrice-weekly training programs on knee-extension strength and thigh circumference. Eighty young males were assigned to either Program 1: THE DELORME AND WATKINS TECHNIQUE (1 set of 10 reps using 50% 10RM, 1 set of 10 reps using 75% 10RM, and 1 set of 10 reps using 10RM-one maximal set), Program 2: TRADITIONAL HYPERTROPHY OR BULK PROGRAM (3 sets of 10RM-three maximal sets), or Program 3: TRADITIONAL POWER (STRENGTH) PROGRAM (1 set of 10 reps using 10RM, and subsequent sets of increasing weight (5-10 lb.) and decreasing reps, culminating with a 1RM-number of maximal sets (at least three) not reported. All three groups showed significant increases in 1RM strength (55.3%, 57.8%, and 52.6% for Programs 1, 2, and 3, respectively), with no significant difference among the programs. All three programs produced significant increases in 10RM. However, Program 1-the lowest-volume program-elicited significantly greater gains than the other two higher-volume programs. The only group to show a significant increase (4.4%) in thigh circumference (about 3/4 in.) was Program 1-the group performing the lowest volume of exercise and only one maximal set. Greater volume and multiple maximal sets did not produce better results.
In DeLorme's original paper (6) he expressed his opinion that low-repetition high-resistance exercises produce power, and high-repetition low-resistance exercises produce endurance. In a study designed to test DeLorme's opinion, DeLateur and colleagues (5) concluded (page 248): "The results of this study show that those who trained for strength (with sessions lasting about 5 minutes) gained as much endurance as those who trained for endurance (with sessions lasting up to 1 hour and 20 minutes); those who trained for endurance gained as much strength as those who trained for strength. Further, all attained equal power, defined as work per unit time. The common denominator among the groups was continuation of the exercises to the point of fatigue. The data suggest that in producing both strength and endurance, choice of weights is not of prime importance as long as the subject continues the repetitions to the point of fatigue. Strength and endurance thus appear to be closely related attributes of the well-trained muscle."
Another fallacious claim by the ACSM is in their current 1998 Position Stand (2): "For the more serious weight lifter (athlete), a regimen of heavier weights (6-12 RM) of 1-3 sets using periodization techniques usually provides greater benefits" (page 983). The only reference they cite is the aforementioned book by Fleck and Kraemer (11). For reviews of the inane concept called "periodization" refer to H.I.T. High Intensity Training, 6(1): 6-10, 1996 and Hard Training, 6: 8-10, 1999.
Since its inception, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has been a strong advocate of the high-volume, multiple-set concept. In a recent article in the NSCA's "professional journal" Strength and Conditioning, Stone and colleagues (19) claim at least 12 times that multiple sets are superior to a single set-that is, more-is-better. They cite nine references to support their philosophy. Berger (1962) and Kramer et al (1997) reported significantly greater strength gains as a result of multiple-set training (4), while the studies by Capen (1956), Kraemer (1995), and Stowers et al (1993) did not (4). Stone and colleagues cite a paper by Kraemer (12) that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, "The Research Journal of the NSCA." Kraemer is the Editor-in-Chief. The article is a series of "studies" representing data accumulated by Kraemer during his years as a football coach and strength coach. Kraemer claims (page 131): "for me the answers were initially determined through my role as a coach" and "science can be too slow to satisfy coaches who are mostly worried about the upcoming game or season." The incredulous 3 to 7 times greater increase in strength for one protocol compared with another in his "series of studies" is unlike any peer-reviewed strength-training study, and the question at issue is why these remarkable data were not previously submitted for publication and subjected to the rigors of independent peer-review.
Stone and colleagues (19) also cite Marx and colleagues (13) who reported the results of 24 weeks of training with either 1 set or 3 sets of each exercise. Both groups significantly increased bench press and leg press strength at the end of the study, with no significant increase in body mass. Marx and colleagues reported that there was no statistical difference between the groups at 12 weeks and did not report any statistically significant difference in strength between groups at 24 weeks. Neither percent nor absolute change in strength was reported. In a desperate attempt to support their claim for the superiority of multiple sets in "elite/power athletes", Stone and colleagues cite a study by O'Shea (15) who reported the results of 6 weeks of strength training. Three groups of students, enrolled in introductory weight lifting classes, performed 3 sets of squats using a different range of repetitions: 3 x 2-3, 3 x 5-6, or 3 x 9-10. O'Shea reported (page 102): "1. No significant differences were found between the three systems [repetitions] of training. 2. All training procedures resulted in the improvement of static and dynamic strength." O'Shea did not compare sets; he compared different ranges of repetitions and reported no significant difference.
The only other reference, which is cited 9 times by Stone and colleagues (19), is a presentation by Sanborn and colleagues (17) that reported the results of training young women with either 1 set of 8-12 repetitions or 3-5 sets of 2, 3, 5, or 10 repetitions 3x/wk for 8 weeks. There was no significant difference in strength (1RM squat) between groups and no significant change in body mass in either group. Sanborn and colleagues concluded (page 158): "Similar percent gains were noted when body mass was accounted for in the squat." Stone and colleagues omit most of the 33 strength-training studies (4) that showed no significant difference between single and multiple sets.
What do the advocates of the more-is-better philosophy mean by a greater number of sets-greater than what? Berger (1962) reported a 3% difference in strength after performing 300% more exercise using three sets compared with one set. Will six sets (600% more exercise) elicit a 6% greater increase in strength? Will ten sets (1000% more exercise) produce a 10% greater increase? Will 100 sets (10,000% more exercise) produce twice as much strength as one set? Is there a volume limit? What do the authors mean by a greater number of repetitions-20 reps, 100 reps, 1000 reps? What are the physiological mechanisms involved with a greater volume of exercise that would stimulate greater muscular size or strength? These are questions that are never addressed by those with the more-is-better mentality.
Dedicated trainers and trainees may be misinformed when they try to acquire scientifically-derived information and exercise guidelines from journals such as the ACSM's Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, and the NSCA's Strength and Conditioning, which are allegedly peer-reviewed; albeit, not very well. The authors, reviewers, editors, and ultimately the editors-in-chief of the journals are supposed to be responsible for providing valid scientific references that actually support the claims that are asserted. Their incompetence, or perhaps their blatant disregard for editorial standards, is conducive to the perpetuation of fallacious beliefs.
Is this the best evidence the ACSM and the NSCA can produce to substantiate their more-is-better philosophy? The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence required, and there is very little evidence supporting the extraordinary claim that more exercise is better. As with their unsubstantiated more-is-better recommendation for enhancing aerobic capacity (refer to Master Trainer 8(4): 8-10, 1998 and 8(6): 12-13, 1998), the ACSM never allows a lack of evidence to interfere with their opinions and they do not want any of their opinions threatened by the facts. The NSCA is disingenuous at best, editorially incompetent at worst. Shame on the editors. Shame on the NSCA. Shame on the ACSM.REFERENCES
1. American College of Sports Medicine. The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness in healthy adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 22: 265-274, 1990.Dr. Carpinelli teaches the neuromuscular, kinesiological, biomechanical, and practical aspects of strength training in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Human Performance Science at Adelphi University. * Go to www.ageless-athletes.com for more Master Trainer articles.
2. American College of Sports Medicine. The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 30(6): 975-991, 1998.
3. Barney, V.S. and B.L. Bangerter. Comparison of three programs of progressive resistance exercise. Research Quarterly. 32(2): 138-146, 1961.
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