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Fastest weight workout pumps up people in a hurry

Fastest weight workout pumps up people in a hurry

May 10, 2000
Web posted at: 11:52 AM EDT (1552 GMT)

In this story:

Study says one set works

There's no such thing as a free lunch: Make that single set count!

Some say that more is still better


(WebMD) -- As an actor who hustles to a dozen television and film auditions a week, John Lehr doesn't have much time for the chest-press machine, the leg-curl gizmo or any of the many other weight-training contraptions at his West Hollywood health club. But neither can Lehr afford to skip the gym altogether. "I don't want to be one of those muscleheads with biceps exploding out of their shirts," says Lehr, 34, "but, in my line of work, looks count for a lot. Besides, 40 years from now, I don't want to end up hunched over like Quasimodo."

So, on the advice of a trainer, Lehr recently began an unconventional strength program: He does only one set of each exercise (albeit a grueling single set), a routine that takes him just 20 minutes three days a week. "I spend less time at the gym than some guys spend looking at themselves in the locker room mirror," says Lehr, who also jogs three mornings a week. "But my body is starting to firm up -- you can ask my girlfriend."


Study says one set works

Can one-set training really get you results? Or is the idea too good to be true? Although the issue continues to foster debate among exercise experts, a new study provides further evidence that a minimalist routine can get the job done -- at least in the short term.

In the 13-week study, published in the January 2000 issue of the journal "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise," 21 men and women performed one challenging set of nine exercises three days a week; 21 additional subjects powered through the traditional three sets. By the end, both groups showed the same gain in strength (about 12 percent) and muscle (about 2 pounds).

Earlier research showed similar results with novices, but this was the first study to look at recreational lifters who had been strength training for at least a year. The key to getting the most from just one set? Lift heavier weights.

There's no such thing as a free lunch: Make that single set count!

Experts emphasize that to gain benefits from one-set strength training, you can't sleepwalk through your routine. You must "lift to failure." In other words, you must lift heavy enough weights that your muscles give out after 8 to 12 repetitions (reps).

"No matter how much yelling or screaming you do, you shouldn't be able to raise that weight one more time," says Chris Hass, the study's lead author, a researcher in the department of exercise and sports sciences at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

For people (often women) who fear that such high intensity will cause them to bulk up, rest assured: Doing 8 to 12 reps to failure won't turn you into a Schwarzenegger look-alike. To develop significant size, you need to lift much heavier weights -- heavy enough to exhaust your muscles after just 3 to 5 reps -- and do a more elaborate, complicated routine, says Hass.

"For the average person who wants to look good in a swimsuit or run around with the kids on the weekends, one set is a very valid option," says Hass. One-set proponents hope the latest findings will inspire more people to lift weights. These days, after all, strength training is considered practically a necessity for good health.

Lifting weights kicks the body's metabolism into a higher gear, making weight maintenance easier. It also helps to prevent osteoporosis by slowing the natural rate of age-related bone loss and muscle wasting. A study in the February 2000 issue of "Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association" even suggests that weight training can help lower blood pressure.

Some say that more is still better

Although experts agree that one-set training works in the short term and is probably sufficient for general fitness, not all strength researchers fully endorse the idea.

"Everyone wants a quick fix, but you have to look at the long haul," says William Kraemer, director of the human performance laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Kraemer's research on trained athletes suggests that after four to six months, one-set exercisers tend to plateau, whereas multiple-set exercisers continue to gain strength.

But nobody has studied novice or recreational lifters over the long term, so questions remain about how long average Joes and Janes can continue to benefit from one-set workouts. The experts at the American College of Sports Medicine straddle the fence, saying that one set is sufficient for healthy adults, but "multiple-set regimens may provide greater benefit if time allows."

For his part, Kraemer advocates "periodization," a technique where you change your program -- including the number of sets and repetitions -- every two to four weeks. For example, you might start with one set of 10 to 12 reps, then do two sets of 8 to 10 reps, then two or three sets of 6 to 8 reps, then three to five sets of 3 to 5 reps. Not only is this type of program more effective than one-set training because it challenges your muscles in more diverse ways, Kraemer says, but it's also less boring. "When you do the same thing over and over, you don't look forward to it. It's like eating apple pie every night."

While Hass agrees that a multiple-set program of this type can build more strength than a standard one-set routine, he doesn't think most people have the time or inclination to follow such a regimen. His scaled-down program, he says, is simply more realistic for most time-pressed Americans who struggle to do any strength training at all.

Even Kraemer's results, in fact, bear this out. When his "periodization" study ended, he says, most of the three-set subjects were eager to cut back their routines. "I'd see them in the gym and most of them were happy to go back to one set," he says.

John Lehr, for one, intends to stick to his abbreviated program. "I'm auditioning for voice-overs," he says. "Not for Mr. Universe."

 Tips on strength training:

(WebMD) -- So you're committed to the idea of strength training, but don't know where to start? With these six exercises, you can work all of the body's major muscle groups at home or at the gym. All you need are two or three sets or dumbbells (try 5-, 8- or 10-pound weights) and a chair.

A few key tips:

  • Warm up for five minutes with light cardiovascular exercise, such as brisk walking and arm circles, before lifting.
  • Perform one set of 8 to 12 repetitions. Choose weights heavy enough so that the last rep is a real struggle (but not so much of one that you're forced to contort your body). You may need to use a different amount of weight for each exercise. With some of the moves, your body weight may be enough, so you might not need to add a dumbbell.
  • Perform each exercise with controlled movements, taking a full two seconds to get to the extreme position and a full two seconds to return to the starting position. Rely on muscle power, not momentum.
  • Rest no more than 30 seconds between exercises.

The Moves:

1. Modified push-up (works the chest, triceps and front of the shoulder). Kneel with your ankles crossed, arms straight, palms on the floor a bit to the side and in front of your shoulders and your face to the floor. Bend your elbows and lower your body until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Keep your abs tight so your back doesn't sag. Push back up.

2. One-arm row (strengthens the back, biceps and back of the shoulder). Place a chair in front of you with its back to the left, out of the way. Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, stand with your right foot on the floor and your left knee resting on the seat of the chair. Lean forward and place your left hand on the seat in front of your left knee. Keep your back straight and parallel to the floor and your right knee slightly bent. Your right arm should hang straight down. Bend your elbow, lifting the dumbbell until your elbow is higher than your back and your hand brushes against your waist. Lower the weight slowly back down. After completing the reps with your right arm, switch sides.

3. Dumbbell shoulder press (works the front and middle shoulders). Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and abs tucked in. Raise your upper arms to shoulder height so that the dumbbells are at ear level. Push the dumbbells up and in until the ends of the weights are nearly touching directly over your head. Then lower the dumbbells back to ear level.

4. Squat (Works the buttocks, quadriceps and hamstrings) Hold a dumbbell in each hand or place your hands on your hips or on the tops of your thighs. Stand up tall with your abs tight, feet hip-width apart and your weight slightly back on your heels. Sit back and down, as if you're sitting into a chair. Don't squat any lower than the point at which your thighs are parallel to the floor, and don't let your knees shoot out in front of your toes. Stand back up.

5. Lunge (Works the buttocks, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves) Hold a dumbbell in each hand or place your hands on your hips. Stand tall with your abs tight, feet hip-width apart and weight back on your heels. Lift your right toe slightly and, leading with your heel, step your right foot forward about a stride's length. As your foot touches the floor, bend both knees until your right thigh is parallel to the floor and your left thigh is perpendicular to it. Your left heel will lift off the floor. Press off the ball of your right foot and step back to the standing position.

6. Crunch (Works the abdominals) Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Place your hands behind your head so your thumbs are behind your ears, without lacing your fingers together. Hold your elbows out to the sides but rounded slightly in. Tilt your chin slightly toward your chest and tighten your abs. Curl up and forward so that your head, neck, and shoulder blades lift off the floor. Hold for a moment, and then lower slowly back down.

© 2000 Healtheon/WebMD. All rights reserved.

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