Build Muscle Fast: Strength and Size When Time Is Limited

Build size and strength with this HDST single-set training method from STACK Expert Kyle Arsenault.

Build Muscle Fast For building maximal strength and muscle over time, multiple-set training reigns over single sets. But multiple sets take time, and many of us need to build muscle fast, in short training sessions. When life gets busy and time becomes a factor, not only is it difficult even to get under the bar, it is nearly impossible to spend the time needed to complete multiple sets of various exercises.

This may cause athletes to give up strength training in favor of other forms, like cardio or strict intervals. They may feel they won't achieve the stimulus they need to maintain or enhance strength and size, so why not work conditioning and get lean?

But if you don't want to become a weaker, softer and physically inferior version of yourself, putting strength training on hold is not an option. You need a program that will help you build muscle fast.

Luckily, there is evidence that single-set training can significantly improve or at the least maintain strength and also have a positive impact on muscle mass.

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High Intensity Training 

HIT is a method in which a lifter completes an exercise for one set using moderate intensity (6-10 RM) and reps out to complete muscular failure. HIT training has been shown to maintain, and in some cases, improve strength.

Although classic HIT training is adequate when it comes to maintaining or improving strength, stimulating optimal hypertrophy requires more volume.

When you are focused on maintaining or building brute strength, as well as packing on muscle mass in a limited time, combining the classic HIT method with drop set training is the solution.

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HIT Drop Set Training (HDST)

Drop sets are a commonly used intensity booster in which the lifter completes a set just short of technical failure (1 rep left in the tank), rests only as long as it takes to reduce the weight by roughly 5-10%, performs another set, and repeats this process one more time. Essentially, it is three mini-sets in one, using descending resistance.

Adding the intensity boost of drop sets to a single high-intensity set allows you to take advantage of the strength gains from HIT, the hypertrophy stimulation from a higher volume, and the mental toughness from pushing your body to complete fatigue in a short period of time.

Drop sets also allows lifters to keep the intensity of the overall session high while keeping the injury risk to a minimum. HIT is maximized when you use compound movements (Squats, Deadlifts, Lunges, Presses, Rows, Pull-Ups, etc.). It is not optimal to train these movements with high resistance and volume in a state of fatigue.

Unlike other intensity methods (rest pause, partial reps, etc.), HDST allows the lifter to push volume and maximize strength and hypertrophy as much as possible in a limited time and also keeps injury risk lower as the resistance is reduced with each subsequent drop set, creating a better opportunity for strict form.

Note: Although you decrease your injury risk with the decreasing weight, HDST is an extremely intense form of training, best done by experienced lifters, as you need to push yourself to complete fatigue. Going all out with HDST will provide strength gains, skin-splitting pumps and lungs that will be begging for mercy, all in less than 20 minutes.

WATCH: Build Strength and Size With Drop Sets

HDST Sample Program

The best exercises for HDST are our compound lifts. Below are three sample HDST routines you can implement when time is tight and you don't want to compromise strength and size potential. I suggest starting out with a weight that is your 8-10 rep maximum and progress toward starting with a higher resistance (5-6 RM). Make sure to take every mini-set to technical failure (where you cannot get the next rep without breaking form), but don't work into bad technique.

Full Body

  • 1a) Trap Bar Deadlift x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1b) DB Bench Press x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1c) DB Reverse Lunge x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1d) Chin Up x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%

Lower Body

  • 1a) Front Squat x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1b) DB Reverse Lunge x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1c) Goblet Squat x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1d) Glute Ham Raise x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%

Upper Body

  • 1a) Flat Bench Press x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1b) Wide Grip Pull-Up x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1c) Weight (chains/vest/band) Feet Elevated Push-Up x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%
  • 1d) 3-Point DB Row x 1 set with 3 drop sets of 5-10%

Final note: The exercises chosen are the best I have seen for HDST, but different exercises can be selected. Just put your biggest lifts first and make sure the exercises are easy enough to "dump" as fatigue is going to be high. HDST is not meant to replace your strength training for long periods of time, but rather supplement it in tight times.

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J. S. Baker, B. Davies, S. M. Cooper, D. P. Wong, D. S. Buchan, and L. Kilgore. "Strength and Body Composition Changes in Recreationally Strength-Trained Individuals: Comparison of One versus Three Sets Resistance-Training Programs." BioMed Research International, 2013 August, Article ID 615901, 6 pages, 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/615901.

Fisher, James. "Beware the Meta-Analysis: Is Multiple Set Training Really Better than Single Set Training for Muscle Hypertrophy?" Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. 2012 December; 15(6):23-30.

Krieger, JW. "Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-1159.

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