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I recently signed up for a new gym closer to where I live. Together with the signup they were offering structuring a workout schedule with a personal trainer, which I gladly took. After talking about my goals for training and any old injuries, I was told that their general policy with overall workouts is one set and as many reps as possible though at least 10-12 reps, and increasing the weight next session once 12 reps is not tough anymore.

I have to say I was quite unsure about this regime, so I asked the trainer about if they had any reason for recommending this regime and was told that the advice is based on shorter but intensive sessions and is a company policy that is recommended nationally (it's a large company that have gyms overall in the country).

I wonder if there is any physiological reason behind this regime being superior to the usual/conventional 3 set with 12-15 reps? Have you been recommended this regime at some point? If you have followed a similar regime, how does it compare to more conventional regimes? I should note that my goals for workout is recovering from weakness that some old injuries have left as well as my sedentary life style causes, as well as generally getting in better shape.

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The one-size-fits all attitude at your gym sounds off-base to me, as they really needed to help you figure out a routine to meet your individual goals. But that said... I've done single set work and found it really good.

I did it over a 1 week period (lifting 3 days that week) as an interim routine in-between ending one schedule of a conventional 10-12 reps per set and starting a new one of a different but still conventional 8-10 reps per set routine.

Psychologically, I enjoyed it due to the variety and challenge it added. For some exercises, like deadlifts or squats, I went heavy and close to failure at about 8-10 reps (because I did not have a workout partner, I went close to but not to failure, as I felt that would have been dangerous). But for others that required more coordination, balance and protection of my knees, like lunges, I used light weights, strict form and went to about 20-25. In between exercises, I was recommended to rest as little as possible and to alternate between an upper body exercise and a lower.

I moved fast and it was a heart-pumping, sweaty workout that felt more like interval training than a regular gym workout. Maybe -- on the physiological front -- that is why your gym recommends this to beginners in the lighter weights + high reps format -- as some sort of general, overall conditioning routine.

It was not something that I felt was a long-term choice of working out to meet my own goals for shape as well as strength, but as a short-term exercise in muscle confusion and avoiding accommodation, it worked well.

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Whether or not it's "superior" is probably an unfair question--it's different, whether it's superior depends more on your goals/needs/etc. than any objective measurement.

The theory that is one set of intense work is enough to bring the muscle to sufficient exhaustion that it is forced to adapt. In order for this to be the case, you have to be very strict about your reps, disallow any help from momentum, go heavy, and so on.

For deconditioned individuals, IMO it's a bit risky unless you start fairly light and focus on very strict form and safety before going hard--it wouldn't be what I would start people with.

Personally, given your goals and history, I'd steer towards lighter weights, conventional set/rep structure, etc. until you're at a point you can go heavier without risking connective tissue injury.

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12-15 reps trains for muscular endurance and hypertrophy (muscle size) rather than strength. You'll feel a burn, and you'll feel sore after these types of workouts. Bodybuilders use this type of routine. I don't know why one would recommend a single set. As a novice, you probably don't know how to work yourself hard enough for a single set to be sufficient stimulation to cause an optimal adaptation between workouts.

If your goal is strength gains (recovering from weakness, as you say), you should working out in the approximately 5-rep range with heavier weights for about 3-5 sets.

Not that you wouldn't gain strength with their recommended program... since you're untrained, almost anything will work for you. But, your time in the gym would be better spent with a routine tailored to your goals. It will be more efficient, and you'll see the results you're looking for sooner.

The choice of exercise, reps, sets, and workout schedule should be chosen to match your goals, not based on what a particular gym has as a national policy.

In another answer, I mention one such program that might be better suited to your goals.

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Why they recommend a single set? To get you out of the gym faster so they can move on to the next trainee! Or maybe I'm just being cynical. –  Greg Jun 5 '12 at 22:43
    
I was actually thinking that too! –  user3085 Jun 5 '12 at 23:12
    
I agree with your answer except for the 12-15 reps being hypotrophy. It is more like 15-20. –  Mike S Jun 13 '12 at 0:50
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