The Last Set: A Synergistic Combination Of Volume And Intensity In Strength Training

In the strength world, you have volume proponents (VPs) and intensity proponents (IPs). The VPs push multiple sets as the optimal method to train, and the IPs insist that one set taken to the utter limit is more than enough. This debate has been going on for years and to be honest, both camps have merit. If there was only a way to combine aspects of each philosophy, then perhaps a superior method of training exists. Well, it does exist and it works like a charm. Simply perform multiple sets and then take the last set to oblivion… then rest and grow!

The True Definition of Intensity

“Holy cow, five cluster reps followed by two forced reps, four drop sets, some static contractions, and finally partial reps till there was absolutely nothing left. Oh yeah, and a twenty second pose in the mirror to really bring out the cuts. Man, that was intense!”

You hear this sort of thing all the time and although subjective ratings of perceived exertion are as important to strength training as they are for aerobics, we need objective measures to truly gauge progress.

The universal definition of intensity in strength research is the total amount of weight you lift per repetition (absolute intensity) or the amount of weight you can lift relative to your one repetition maximum (1RM) expressed as a percentage of your 1RM (relative intensity).

Since strength is the ability to exert force and Newton’s second law of motion states that force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration, to increase intensity you must increase either the load or the speed of the concentric action.


In reality, high intensity training as most people recognize it is not high intensity at all, but rather high density training and should be abbreviated HDT instead of HIT. Usually moderate intensities are used in HIT-style training, but sets are extended and taken to utter concentric, isometric, and eccentric failure. Basically, a lot of work is performed in a very short period of time. Submaximal loads are used and the training is quite dense due to short rest periods. Thus, HDT!

If HDT doesn’t work for you, then perhaps HET (High Effort Training) or WTF (Weight Training to Failure) are more appropriate acronyms as proposed by James Steele, a PhD candidate in exercise physiology/biomechanics at Southampton Solent University.

A Number of Ways to Define Volume

In strength training, volume refers to quantity of work and can be expressed as a “number” of things, including sets, reps, time under tension, duration, frequency, or workload. Some experts consider training volume as the sum of all stimuli.

We all know that an inverse relationship exists between intensity and volume. At a high intensity, you perform a low volume of work, and vice versa (as shown below).

Intensity vs. Volume

The inverse relationship between intensity and volume.

The type of exercise and amount of muscle mass involved along with an individual’s training age, gender, and muscle fiber type composition can influence the number of repetitions performed at a given intensity. For example, a study conducted in 1987 found that at 60% 1RM, 34 reps of the leg press could be performed on average, while less than half that number (15 reps) on the arm curl and less than a third (11 reps) on the leg curl.

Single vs. Multiple Sets

Controversy exists between the use of single versus multiple sets. Numerous studies claim that one set is a sufficient stimulus for strength gain and will produce equal or better benefits than multiple sets. However, upon further investigation, many of these single-set protocols are actually multiple-set protocols in disguise. Several warm-up sets are often used leading up to a maximum effort set. Furthermore, multiple exercises are performed for one muscle group, which may have a similar effect to multiple sets of one exercise for that same muscle group.

In general, multiple sets are superior over single sets to optimize muscle strength and size gains. Beginners in the initial stages of a base program (usually the first 6-12 workouts) require only 1-2 sets. However, as training age increases, more sets are necessary to bring about supercompensation. According to research, increasing the number of sets will increase the magnitude and shorten the time for strength gains. In fact, many top-level strength athletes regularly perform as many as ten sets of an exercise.

The Synergistic Effect

Synergy refers to “a combined effort being greater than the parts,” where 1 + 1 is more than 2. That’s exactly what happens when you intentionally combine intensity of effort with volume of work. Consider it the Reese’s Pieces of strength training, and it will give you mouth-watering results if you do it right! The key is to perform multiple sets to concentric failure and then, only on the last set, go beyond concentric failure by trying to exhaust isometric and eccentric strength. To put it in muscle-magazine terms, you “torch” all remaining fibers on the last set! As a result, your body has a serious stimulus to deal with and with enough recovery, it makes sure to be ready for the next encounter by increasing muscle size and strength.

There are plenty of HIT articles and books out there for you to refer to, but here are some of my favorite techniques to get the job done:

Forced Repetitions

Of course, if a partner is available, have them assist you on the concentric action while you control the eccentric action. In some cases where a partner is not available, you may be able to assist yourself. For instance, during a single-arm preacher or concentration curl, the free hand can provide assistance. Likewise, during a single-leg seated or prone leg curl, the free leg can provide assistance.

Rest-Pause Training

You can use this technique on any exercise, but I’m fond of using rest-pause training on the three powerlifts (i.e., squat, bench press, and deadlift). After you complete your last set, rest 10-15 seconds and perform an additional 3-4 singles with 10-15 seconds of rest in between.

Slow Negatives

For slow negatives, aim for 10-second lowerings done for 1-3 reps. For instance, if you’re performing chin-ups, use a bench or chair in front of you to step up or simply jump up, then go for a slow, “fiber-tearing” negative. On barbell curls, clean or swing the bar up and lower it strictly under control.

Static Holds

If you have a partner that can lift the weight off you, then static holds are possible on just about any exercise. For heavy benches or squats, make sure to set the supports appropriately and you should be fine – no partner is necessary. Other than that, static holds work great for any calisthenic-type exercise (e.g., push-ups or pull-ups) or any machine exercise. Aim for 3 different angles (e.g., 135, 90, and 45 degrees of elbow or knee flexion) held for 8 seconds each.

Drop Sets

Perform anywhere from 3-5 drop sets – either strip plates from a barbell, grab lighter dumbbells (aka “down–the-rack” training), or simply raise the pin one or two plates on a selectorized machine.

If you’re performing weighted dips or chin-ups, go to failure, then drop the weight and do as many you can with your body weight only. When you cannot complete another repetition, continue with close-grip push-ups after dips or pulldowns after chin-ups.


Keep performing short-range partial reps until you can no longer budge the weight. Use partials on calf raises to prolong the time under tension and really test your lactate tolerance!

Other Options…

Follow semi-stiff-leg/arm movements, such as Romanian deadlifts and good mornings for the lower body or flyes and laterals for the upper body, with bent-knee (deadlift or squat) or bent-arm (press or row) versions, respectively.

Decrease the lever arm “Telle-style” as you go along. For example, during a two-leg lowering or dumbbell flyes, go from 180 degrees to 135 degrees to 90 degrees to 45 degrees.

Follow 1¼ presses or squats with full range of motion reps (i.e., without the ¼ rep).

Change the bar orientation, e.g., front squat followed by high-bar back squat followed by low-bar half squat.

Change the angle of the bench during lying presses, i.e., reduce the angle of inclination and work your way down to the stronger flat or even decline position if you can.

Many times I’ll combine two or more of the methods listed above for a real finisher, especially when the caffeine and ephedrine kicks in! The point is this, no matter how many sets or reps you’ve assigned to an exercise, you’re going to push the envelope on the last set. Where most people ease up at the end as fatigue settles in, you’re going to kick it up a notch and go beyond what the body expects to do. In other words, you’re not going to settle for the status quo. You’re going to dig deep into your reserves to demand the body to grow.

Of course, this system is not easy. You need some mental fortitude to push that last set to the limit. On the bright side, it does work and the results will motivate you when the going gets tough.

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit


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