One Set To Failure Training Protocol

As part of my Seattle Experiment, I’ve been weight training using a single set (to failure) protocol. After two weeks of this method (4 training sessions), I can truly say that it is working (I am getting stronger, even though my weight isn’t changing). Amazingly, I am also spending hardly any time in the gym. So far, so good.

Here is a run down on the exercises I typically will do. Note that there will be some variation to this routine. For example, I will vary the tricep or bicep exercises and sometimes do dead-lifts instead of squats or pull ups instead of rows. Other than that, I’ve kept things constant.

General rules I’ve been following:

  1. Perform a total of 8 exercises covering the entire body in a single workout, focusing on compound movements (multi-joint exercises)
  2. Train twice per week at most. I train once every four days
  3. Perform each set so that you are reaching muscular failure on the last rep
  4. Aim to reach failure between 8-10 reps
  5. Each rep should be performed SLOWLY, using a 5 second up and 5 second down count
  6. Wait at least 3 minutes between each exercise

A typical day in the gym using this approach (taking from my training log on May 13, 2007):

  1. Squats 135 lbs x 10 reps
  2. Nautilus Chest Press 150 lbs x 9 reps
  3. Nautilus Compound Row (back) 120 lbs x 15 reps
  4. Leg Press 275 lbs x 9 reps
  5. Nautilus Pullover 160 lbs x 9 reps
  6. Cable Flys (chest) 40 lbs x 10 reps
  7. Tricep Press w/ Rope 30 lbs x 7 reps
  8. Incline Dumbbell Curl (bicep) 25 lbs x 7 reps

By the end of this I was pretty darn tired. A couple things to keep in mind when doing this type of workout:

  1. It will take a few training sessions to “calibrate” your exercises so you actually know how much weight to use. You’ll notice for a few of the exercises I did, I still didn’t have the weight dialed in properly.
  2. Doing the reps slowly is really important. Look at a clock and get use to how long five seconds really is. At my gym there are clocks everywhere, so for couple exercises, I can actually watch the second hand while I am working out to help me calibrate.
  3. Make sure you take the full rest interval. The goal isn’t to run your body into the ground, it is to stress your muscle as much as possible. Make sure you have the rest required to give it a full effort.
  4. You MUST keep a training log. It is really important to make sure you are increasing your weights. If your training logs don’t show you increasing weights or reps every workout; you either aren’t resting enough or you aren’t eating properly.

That’s it! The total workout lasts about 40 minutes…and frankly, most of the time is just resting between sets.

My previous training routine took about 70 minutes for the typical workout, and I trained 4 days on / 1 day off.

That means my previous workout routine took almost 6 hours per week while my new routine takes less than 1.5 hours….so I’m getting more progress in 1/4th the time. Not bad!

Update 1: The Mission

Update 2: Day 1

Update 3: Day 12

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24 thoughts on “One Set To Failure Training Protocol

  1. Pingback: Quora ~
  2. Ravi,
    Can I do yoga twice a week alternating between the 1 set to failure strength routine?
    I was thinking of a simple 20-30 yoga/stretch workout.

  3. It’s great to see the results you’ve been getting. My only reservation would be to encourage you to cut back even further, i.e. no more than 4 workouts in 20 days, otherwise your recuperative reserves will be tapped out and will eventually slow down in progress. Good luck!

  4. hey, i tried superslow reps for my upper chest and it sure worked miracles for me. you need a little patience and a lot of gumption but once you get the hang of it it is smooth as silk and you get great gains esp. in the form of beautiful shapely humongous musclezzz!

  5. sorry…didnt have the will power to continue only doing one set slow reps…just feel like im being cheated somehow because I dont feel fatigued as I would if I did 10 sets. Too bad about the will power but what Im doing now to cover myself is doing the first 2 sets super slow and then doing a couple normal ones after. I find it weird that after doing one super slow set you should be fatigued but yet I still feel that I have enough strength and stamina to kill the muscle more. Im not knocking the exercise just saying it takes alot of will and faith to act on it.

    • Exactly! When I first started doing this, I would leave the gym after 20 minutes and have tons of energy. I would feel like I was not pushing myself hard enough. However, I still saw gains…I guess that is the point. To stress the muscle without killing yourself in the process, so your body has time to grow.

  6. thanks Ravi…will let you know although it seems real weird only doing one set so I think ill probably be doing about 2 slow rep sets.

    • Hey Diego – I know it seems weird…but if you do the sets super slow (5 counts each way…for 10 counts per rep) you will feel fatigued after only 1 set. It even helps to have a spotter so that in the last few reps you can really give it your all.

  7. Hi Diego – I did this training for a month and saw great gains, but then stopped. I changed my focus and got more into yoga. I think the technique definitely works to some degree. While I didn’t put on much weight, I got significantly stronger. I also think that after some time it would be important to change your training method….and just stick with the super slow reps all the time – so you don’t plateau.

    Please do let me know how this goes for you!

  8. Hey Ravi nice posts…are you not posting anymore? I just did my first day of this type of training….did you continue with yours? Whats your final say on your expriment? worth it or better train tradiotianal style (lots of sets)?

  9. Hey Pratik, I did keep up with it and my strength gains were quite good, but I didn’t gain much weight (which was what I wanted). I think a LOT of this has to do with diet.

    Also, It would have really helped to have a workout partner, since you need to push yourself very hard when doing 1 set to failure…and it helps to have someone there to help you on the last few reps.

    Let me know how it goes for you!

  10. I would tend to believe that Cooke’s post of Tim’s workout protocol was really Tim’s, as Ferriss has not hesitated to delete blog comments that were trolling, etc.

  11. Interesting….I think to some degree, there will be some variation in how people choose to sequence their exercises, which exercises to do and the amount of rest in between each.

    I think Tim is incredibly knowledgeable but really he is just layout out a protocol that others will have to fine tune through practice.

    In my past year of steady weight training, I’ve never really had an issue starting out with legs. However, I do lunges and some bodyweight squats to warm up before starting.

  12. Great post, Ravi. Very interesting to see what exercises you chose. Very encouraging to hear that you feel your strength increasing.

    I had my Day 1 yesterday – and 5 seconds is a very long time.

    Just one comment you might want to check out.

    Cooke, a poster on Ferriss’ blog, posted an email from Ferriss (can’t verify authenticity). He says “For exercise sequence, I recommend doing one or two exercises upper body to prep the nervous system, then go legs.” Not sure if it’s accurate, but that’s what I’m doing.

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