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Suppose I want to do 50 pushups. I could do:

  • 10 sets of 5
  • 5 sets of 10
  • 2 sets of 25
  • 1 set of 50

Each option is more difficult than the last. But is it more beneficial? Is it "more pain, more gain", or would I benefit just as much from the easier sets?

Clarification

As one user pointed out, from a physics perspective, the total amount of work is the same in each case, which is why I asked this question. But my understanding is that building muscle requires damaging it via exercise:

When muscles undergo intense exercise, as from a resistance training bout, there is trauma to the muscle fibers that is referred to as muscle injury or damage in scientific investigations

So my question is essentially: "doing more pushups in a row hurts more - does that mean it causes more damage and thus stimulates more growth?" For example, does a buildup of lactic acid contribute to damaging the muscle fibers?

  • I would guess that part of the "burn" I feel in longer sets is the muscle running out of oxygen, but 1) I could be wrong and 2) I don't see why that would, in itself, help build muscle. – Nathan Long Aug 27 '14 at 19:49
  • The "burn" you are speaking of @nathanlong is a lack of the body's ability to meet oxygen demands. Once the demand for oxygen is greater than the body can supply (lactate threshold), lactic acid starts forming telling your body that it can not handle the workload being placed upon it. – BryceH Aug 27 '14 at 19:57
8

I'm a bodyweight training addict.

In my point of view doing 1 x 50 is better than doing 10 x 5 because you have the same volume but in less time, you have more intensity.

The first commandments in a post of Paul "Coach" Wade about calisthenics mass is "Embrace Reps" and the 4th is "Limit sets" source : http://pccblog.dragondoor.com/ten-commandments-calisthenics-mass/

But doing 1 x 50 can be boring and not the perfect range of intensity. Obviously if you can do 50 pushups the body don't really need to adapte (and cause hypertrophy). See the 2nd commandment in the same blog post "Work Hard!"

You can increase intensity with harder version of pushup, like have one foot elevated, feet elevated on a box, side to side pushup, push up with some iso hold (I think pushup is the exercice with the most variations) ... and the ultimate step one-arm push-up.

Another great exercice is dips (many variations too).

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  • 1
    Paul Wade's comments about embracing reps is about doing 5-20 reps instead of 1-3 reps (as I guess some people do for building skills for advanced body weight moves). – lgaud Sep 3 '14 at 2:58
  • I would like point something in france we have a book call "Méthode de musculation" (musculation methode) by Olivier Lafay. It is a bodyweight training program based on high rep. This book exist since 9 years and it is really effective. – Olivier L. Sep 4 '14 at 7:50
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Nathan, first, please check out this answer on myofibril vs sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

With muscular endurance, you are dealing with (to simplify things greatly) three variables:

  • Myofibril: how many contracting fibers you have in the muscle (e.g., one elastic band vs a bunch of elastic); how strong you are
  • Sarcoplasm: how much stored energy your muscle fibers have to contract in an anaerobic state; how much strength endurance you have
  • Aerobic cellular respiration: how well you are able to provide energy to your muscles in an aerobic state

All three are important in relation to your question.

Every exercise is both aerobic and anaerobic to some degree, meaning your body will contract your muscles using energy that is both stored as ATP in the sarcoplasm, and energy that is stored as glucose in the blood. Depending on your concentration of myofibril (the contracting part of the muscle), you may not need to tap into your sarcoplasmic ATP stores very often if you are not performing a particularly taxing exercise. Instead, there is adequate myofibril surface area for receiving the necessary energy from the blood.

If you spend some time watching videos of men doing high volume push-ups, you will notice that their chests generally are not that large. This is because a push-up is not a "highly" anaerobic exercise once a person is able to do them in numbers. In a well-trained individual, more energy comes from the blood than the sarcoplasm per push-up. This means that the body will prioritize getting better at glucose uptake from the blood than sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (storing more energy in the muscle). Consequently, muscle size will probably not increase much.

That said, I think what you're getting at is this: is it better to do 10x5 push-ups because I've read this rep scheme is good for muscle gain, or is it better to do 50x1 push-ups because it hurts a lot and hurting builds muscle?

The 10 rep range is ideal for gaining muscle size if you are at near maximal loads. 10 reps is the right amount of time under tension (for average lifting tempo) to promote progressive overload in anaerobic conditions. However, if you are at lighter loads, there is less anaerobic demand, and more ATP comes from the blood instead of the sarcoplasm.

In short, once you start getting good at push-ups, the exercise will be too easy for you to gain much sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

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The more repetitions you can do, the more you are moving towards endurance training. That is to say, you will develop muscles that can perform the same motion over and over without tiring as easily.

Heavier weight with fewer repetitions is more for building muscle mass. That being said, just performing 10 sets of push-ups for 5 repetitions will not build muscle mass unless your body perceives your body weight as "heavy".

If you can perform 5 push ups and feel like you've done nothing, you would not build muscle or move toward that endurance state. So really, it is relative to how your body responds to the stress placed upon it. For comparison sake, look at endurance runner's legs (think 1 set of 50 repetitions) versus a sprinter's legs (think 1 set of 5 reps).

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    I think I understand that, eg, lifting 100 pounds 10 times builds more mass vs lifting 50 pounds 20 times builds more endurance. But I'm just asking about the exact same weight and the same total number of reps, varying only the number of sets. – Nathan Long Aug 28 '14 at 20:03
  • I know. It is just super hard to explain because it isn't really that simple. If you couldn't do 1 push-up. Then, as you progressed, you would initially see more significant bulking (the 10 sets of <1 rep). Later (in the 1 set of 100 reps) you would not see as much muscle gain but would be building a lot of muscle endurance. If you can do 50 push-ups right now, you will see no significant bulking from any of these scenarios. – BryceH Aug 28 '14 at 20:19
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    It depends on your max. If you can do 50 at the most, then probably 2x25 would build more muscle than the other options. If your max is 100 push ups, then maybe 1x50 would build more muscle than 2x25, despite being in the "endurance"-range. There really is no need for a discussion here, because there is absolutely no practical function in exercising this way, especially for building muscle. But from a theoretical point of view, that would be my oppinion; it depends on your RM. – Darko Sarovic Aug 30 '14 at 11:30
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Based on pure physics, whether it is 10 sets of 5 or one set of 50, the total amount of work done is more or less the same. The only difference is the time you took to complete the exercise.

Since you spend longer time to do 10 sets of 5 with breaks in between, your muscles would have time to partially recover from lactic acid build up. On the other hand, doing more reps per set will help to train your muscles to cope with soreness. So, doing more reps per set is definitely beneficial for building your muscle endurance.

Also, based on pure physics, if you are doing the same amount of work in lesser time, then you body must be able to generate more power. Compare a sprinter who complete one lap around the track in 1 minute to a marathon runner who do the same lap in 2 minutes. Both do the similar amount of work, but to be able to complete the lap in 1 minute, you need to build up more muscles to generate more power.

There is definitely some marginal benefit in building up muscles with quicker reps, however, the more effective way to do this is to increase the load by perhaps changing to dips (100% body weight) instead of pushups (60% body weight).

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If you can do 50 push ups in one set, then none of the above will build strength. Doing 50 push ups in one set will build endurance, and doing sets of 5 push ups is only useful as a warm up exercise before doing something you actually find challenging.

Beyond around 15 or so reps (aka well before 50) in a set, you are shifting in to training endurance over strength. And to build strength, you need to be challenging your muscles by getting close to your limit of how many repetitions of the exercise you can do with good form in any given set. You won't find an exact optimal answer, but the ballpark that most strength programs are in is 3-15 reps for 1-5 sets (where lower reps tends to go with higher sets), with an exercise that is challenging for you to complete all sets of. E.g. 5 sets of 5 reps, or 3 sets of 15 reps.

So if you can do 50 push ups in one go and you want to build strength, you need to find an exercise that you can't do more than 15 of (and quite possibly less), and work on that. There are a number of harder push up variations (e.g. decline push ups). If you want to gain endurance (e.g. you are practicing for a military test which involves doing lots of push ups), then do a few sets to not quite exhaustion with rest in between (take a look at the One Hundred Pushups program).

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In a recent article written by Jerry Brainum(a golden era body builder and researcher) , he talks exactly about this . The effect of repetitions on muscle growth . One set, three sets, or more: Which is best for strength and muscle gains? by Jerry Brainum

What he states in the article is that, the effect of lesser number of sets and more number of sets are almost equal . He mentions the studies that were conducted supporting this.But in no way he says that one should do only lesser number of sets as such is not concluded by science and more studies need to be conducted.
So I would say that more sets or less , is still debatable and you need to see what works for you.

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