In our fast-paced lives, the perpetual struggle to find time for exercise is all too familiar. The perception of a lack of time often stands as the primary barrier to developing a regular fitness routine. However, groundbreaking research has unveiled a game-changer: short bursts of intense training can outshine 45 minutes of less strenuous exertion.

It may sound like an extravagant infomercial promise, but in this case, reality surpasses expectations. A burgeoning body of research now substantiates that workouts lasting 10 minutes or less can yield substantive and meaningful results. Astonishingly, even a solitary one-minute bout of exercise, if executed with precision, can contribute significantly to your fitness and health. However, there is a crucial caveat: to reap the benefits of these short workouts, you must be prepared to push yourself to the limit.

This week, we’ll discuss strength training. We’re familiar with the benefits of strength training: enhanced muscle strength, improved bone density, and increased metabolic efficiency. Despite these advantages, many individuals find themselves daunted by the prospect of engaging in strength training.

The good news is that achieving greater strength doesn’t necessarily require an extensive time commitment at the gym or countless repetitions. Recent studies indicate that the key lies in pushing yourself to the point of “momentary muscular failure,” that critical juncture where you can no longer complete another repetition.

In the world of exercise, a set denotes a specific number of repetitions for a given exercise, whether it’s a bench press or a bicep curl. The conventional wisdom prescribes completing 8 to 12 repetitions per set, with the ultimate aim of exhausting the targeted muscle to the extent that additional repetitions become momentarily impossible — a concept often poetically termed “lifting to failure.”

Common advice suggests that to gain muscle size, strength, and endurance, one should aim for a minimum of three sets of each exercise during a workout session, necessitating a considerable investment of time and effort. However, this guidance has often lacked robust scientific support, primarily focusing on newcomers to the world of weight training, whose muscles tend to respond vigorously to any form of resistance exercise.

The question remained: Do experienced individuals need to increase sets and effort as they become accustomed to weight training to continue augmenting their strength? To address this, researchers designed a study recruiting 34 fit young men familiar with resistance training but not considered weightlifting enthusiasts.

The participants underwent initial assessments of muscular strength, endurance, and size before being randomly assigned to one of three supervised weight-training routines. The routines consisted of seven common exercises, including flat barbell bench press, barbell military press, wide-grip lateral pulldown, seated cable row, barbell back squat, machine leg press, and unilateral machine leg extension, with each exercise requiring lifting to failure through eight to 12 repetitions.

The three groups differed in the “dose” of exercises assigned:

Five Sets Group: Completed five sets of each exercise, with around 90 seconds of rest between sets, resulting in a gym session lasting nearly 70 minutes.

Three Sets Group: Completed three sets of each exercise, resulting in a workout duration of approximately 40 minutes.

One Set Group: Finished only one set of each exercise, concluding their session in a brisk 13 minutes.

Each participant adhered to their designated workout routine three times a week for eight weeks, followed by a return to the lab for muscle measurements. Following the two-month period, all participants experienced increased strength, even those already familiar with resistance training. However, the most remarkable finding was that the strength improvements were virtually identical across all groups, irrespective of whether they completed one set, three sets, or five sets of each exercise.

Muscular endurance, assessed by the number of repetitions during a bench press exercise with a low weight, also exhibited comparable enhancements across the groups. The sole distinguishing factor was the size of the participants’ muscles. Those who completed five sets per session displayed greater muscle mass than their counterparts who did three sets or only one. However, this greater muscle size did not translate into noticeably superior strength.

These outcomes suggest a clear separation between muscular strength and hypertrophy (muscle enlargement). Your muscles can become as strong as those of someone who appears more muscular, and achieving this strength is attainable with just one set of lifts. What truly matters is pushing the working muscles to the brink of exhaustion by the end of each set. Stay tuned next week as we discuss how you can apply the findings from this study into your own workout routine.