Two-set work outs work

When it comes to sets and reps, it really does come down to what works for you. This frustratingly simple answer is, frustratingly, the truth, one which all experienced lifters can relate to. Most of us started with some form of generic 3-by-X program such as 3x5, 3x8, 3x10, 3x12 etc. These could have been the same weight straight across or an increasing/decreasing amount of weight per set.

Later you discovered or at least found out about waves, drop sets, super sets, deloads, volume, strength versus hypertrophy and everything else in-between such that it’s a miracle anyone actually figured out anything. Almost overwhelmingly, we all started off with absolutely no idea what we were doing. Sometimes I still wonder but the point is we were prepared to experiment.

Remember that.

We started listening to our bodies, paying close attention to what worked for us individually — notice the word “individually” — because you see, some people respond extremely well to 6 sets of descending reps starting at 20 (I definitely don’t!). Some people respond better to working the same body part three times a week. Some respond to volume, others to strength-training protocols but the only way anyone found out, was to go ahead and try.

When I first started working out at around 40yrs of age it was because I needed to get into shape. I’d been running off and on most my adult life but pounding cement with about 5–10mm of rubber between my heel bone and the pavement just lost its appeal. Shucks. You get lean, sure, but you lose muscle and if you’re really lucky, you get joint damage. So I got into lifting.

My weight training morphed into wanting to get bigger; this morphed into wanting to get stronger; that morphed into wanting to lose weight; which morphed into intermittent fasting and other ideas but I finally calmed down and believed the science: pick a weight and set/rep range, stick at it till you get stronger, then increase the weight. How simple is that? That’s all it is and yeah, genetics does pay a part in it.

That’s just life.

One constant in my weight lifting program today is I only ever do two sets for any given exercise. It produces for me and may/may not for you. I don’t respond well, let alone enjoy, endless sets and reps. It’s not just a time factor either; I genuinely don’t like doing a zillion different exercises for a zillion sets. I’m not a bodybuilder and whilst I enjoy working out, I want to get the shit done and move on, period. I have a life to live.

So I experimented. I found by doing two sets of reps in the 5–8 range I stay fresh, I maintain form, I recover faster and yes, still hit PRs. Straight up. If you’d like the scientific evidence behind doing two sets — and there’s a fair amount out there — then I encourage you to go online and knock yourself out…or try it out, you choose (I’m over doing research for other people who also own computers and can do it themselves).

I also opted into a 3-day per week program as of late 2015 whereby each training day I focus on a specific one or two body parts, something I avoided like the plague when I first began, combining this with 2xsets per exercise. I’d be lying if I said the reduced time pumping-iron wasn’t appealing but here’s the skinny: I’m still making size and strength gains but if you, like me, started off with the ingrained 3-by-X mantra, such thinking will be anathema to you.

…can you handle “experimenting” again though?

Problem is, most people think more is more i.e. if you’re not increasing in size, shape and strength quickly enough (whatever that means) then you’re not working out enough. You need to do more. Thing was, I was doing a more-is-more program working out five times per week and made very slow gains, hitting a lot of plateaus and regularly went 1–2 weeks backward for every 3–4 weeks forward over a 1–2 year period.

Often I had to restart back at the original weight (or slightly above) for a given exercise more than I care to admit. Why? Because I wasn’t recovering enough. That’s it. I was blinded into a more-is-more belief whereby I had to work out more as well as do more each work out, when in fact what I needed was to work out less and do less, which is an incredibly hard concept to get around let alone accept. Really hard. To recap:

  1. I moved to a 3xday per week program (I’m old).
  2. I did compound lifts: squat, RDLs, deadlifts, shoulder press, benchpress, bent-over row and high pulls.
  3. I did two reps per exercise, somewhere between the rep range of 5–8 depending on the muscle group, and always round 80–90% of my 1RM (even as my one rep max grew).

Doing two sets only of each of these compound lifts works if you’re tracking the weight(s) and making sure you’re increasing reps or weight, you choose, over time. It’s simple…but maybe it’s so simple people don’t actually have a plan? Which is stupid. What I’m still doing for most exercises is starting on 5xreps and increasing a rep per week till I’m on 8xreps, then increasing the weight 2–5kg and dropping back down to the original 5xreps.


Tempting as it is to go into diet, sleep and recovery — which I’ll do in later articles — I think a lot of that shit is misleading at worse, distracting at best. Especially all the nutrient/calorie/protein angle which I’ve successfully ignored thus far. Believe the science: pick a weight and set/rep range, stick at it till you get stronger, then increase the weight. It really is that simple. Keep at it.

Kia ora koutou!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated 4thebar’s story.