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How Many Sets Are Best for Muscle Growth?

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Lifters do three to as many as 10 sets of an exercise. However, professional organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, have noted that most people only need to do one set of weight-training exercises to get most of the benefits. This is based on the results of more than 30 studies showing that doing more than one set provides little benefit for novice weight trainers. That’s fine if you are a novice, but if you want to pack on real muscle, do more than one set – and several research groups have challenged the rather wimpy one-set concept. Researchers have repeatedly found that if subjects work hard on all the sets, then they get more benefit from doing multiple sets. Dr. Andreas Sachlumberger and colleagues from Frankfurt, Germany found that doing three sets was superior to one set in test subjects who trained two days a week. The one-set group improved their strength by 6 percent, while the three-set group improved by 15 percent. Scientists and trainers have gained a better picture of the optimal number of sets in a workout. One set won’t do the job when it comes to producing real muscle growth. Do three sets or in some cases more, if you are an advanced trainer. One set per exercise might cut it if your goal is general fitness and you don’t have too much time. However, do more sets if you want to make significant progress. Be assured you won’t look more muscular doing only one set per exercise.

Heavy Load Versus High-Volume Training. Which is better for growth and strength – lifting heavy weights for fewer reps or sets, or high-volume training? A short article in Testosterone magazine (Issue 178) stated that doing high-volume training drives the body toward catabolism (tissue breakdown exceeds tissue buildup), as indicated by a lower testosterone-cortisol ratio (the muscle-building hormone testosterone goes down while muscle breakdown hormone cortisol goes up). The article suggested that based on this information, intensity is preferable to volume. While these are interesting observations, they may not mean anything. Be very careful about making training decisions based on hormone changes. Athletes have set many world records with low testosterone and high cortisol levels. Further, if you get extremely overtrained, your cortisol levels actually go down, not up. Base your training choices on the bottom line – which technique makes your muscles grow the most. When you enter a contest or walk down the beach, the winner is the person with the best looking body – not the one with the optimal testosterone-cortisol ratio. (J Strength Cond Res, 15: 284-289)

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A 25-Minute Core-Stability Workout You Can Do Anywhere

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Your core doesn't just provide strength—it also provides stability. And that's the exact idea behind this week's core stability workout from Sweat with SELF.

Led by athletic trainer Liz Letchford, Ph.D., A.T.C., and coach Paul Wright, this 25-minute core stability workout is the third in a six-part series dedicated to helping you build optimal core strength. Catch the first two videos in this series here and here.

One key component of core stability? A strong transverse abdominis. This deep core muscle, which wraps around your sides and spine is “an intrinsic core stabilizer,” Cori Lefkowith, Orange County, California-based personal trainer previously told SELF. That means it “helps stabilize your core and spine to help your body function correctly.”

Having a stabilized spine is important as it translates into injury prevention at the gym—particularly when you're doing big, compound lifts like squats and deadlifts—and helps in everyday life—like when you're hoisting a bag of groceries or picking up something off the floor, as SELF previously reported.

Moreover, core stability is the foundation for a lot of athletic movements, as NSCA-certified personal trainer Renee Peel previously told SELF. By improving your core stability, you can in turn improve your ability to move efficiently and effectively in a lot of scenarios.

In this workout, you'll fire up your core stabilizers (and, as a bonus, work your shoulders and legs) with moves like bird dogs, bear holds, and downward dogs to planks.

When you're ready, grab a mat and follow along with the video below. Or, if you'd rather work at your own pace, simply keep scrolling for detailed workout directions and GIFs of each move.

Workout Directions

Start with the dynamic warm-up.

After the warm-up, rest for 20 seconds. Then, do the workout. Do each exercise for 60 seconds, taking 10-15 seconds to transition between moves. Repeat the workout 2 more times, resting 20 seconds between each round.

Dynamic Warm-Up

  • Downward Dog to Plank x 60 seconds

Workout

  • Bird Dog x 60 seconds
  • Leg Lower x 60 seconds
  • Bear Hold x 60 seconds
  • Glute Bridge x 60 seconds
  • Single-Leg Deadlift (repeat on each side) x 60 seconds

*Rest for 20 seconds. Repeat the circuit 2 more times.

The Exercises

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Ashley Kaltwasser, 3x Ms. Bikini Olympia Champion

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Welcome to this week’s episode of the “Buff Bombshell Show” with Emma Hyndman aka The Posing Pro, Lauren Lotter aka Bikini Amateur, and our special guest, three-time Ms. Bikini Olympia Champion Ashley Kaltwasser.

The ladies talk to Ashley about her journey in the IFBB, what it takes to become a pro athlete, and more. To follow Ashley’s journey, check out her YouTube channel, which will update you with all of her show day vlogs.

Thank you for watching this week’s episode on FitnessRx for Women online. As always, we thank you for your support. -Lauren and Emma xo

Ashley Kaltwasser is a member of Team Hi-Tech

Learn more about Ashley at https://ashleykfit.com/

 

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How to Test Your Mobility

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The overhead squat requires mobility in your shoulders, hips, and ankles, and stability through your upper back, core, glutes, and adductors. It is useful for assessing weakness, immobility, and muscular imbalance — and for improving overall mobility.

Strive to avoid leaning too far forward or letting your knees move inward or heels rise from the floor. Don’t let the weight track behind your body as a counterbalance. For the purpose of testing mobility, use a light implement (a dowel rod, PVC pipe, or empty barbell) and focus on form, not how much weight you can lift.

How to Test: Stand with feet at shoulder width, toes pointed slightly out, and take a wide, shoulder-width-and-a-half grip on the rod, pipe, or barbell. Press or snatch the weight overhead with chest proud, arms locked out, and shoulders engaged.

Brace your core and squat down as far as you can with control. Continue to engage your core, glutes, and shoulders as you return to standing.

How to Assess: The number of reps you can perform and the weight you carry isn’t as important as improving your form. Consider recording a video of yourself and look for the following: If your chest drops, it may signal a weak core. If you can’t keep your arms overhead and in line with your torso, it could mean limited shoulder mobility. If your heels lift, ankle immobility may be the culprit. If your knees collapse inward, hip strength is a likely issue.

How to Improve: Depending on the results of the test, you may want to incorporate shoulder- or ankle-mobility work, core- or hip-strengtheners, or some combination of these efforts. You can also add variations of the overhead squat into your warm-up or workout.

Trainers often recommend ditching tools that hold the hands in a fixed relative position in favor of dumbbells or kettlebells that unlink the hands — or simply perform the move with just body weight, one arm extended overhead at a time.

For more tips on improving your overhead squat, see “BREAK IT DOWN: The Overhead Squat“.

This was excerpted from “Fitness Testing 2.0” which was published in the June 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.

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