Evolution Of The Set System: Feat Of Strength To Mass & Strength!

Early in the 20th century, a typical bodybuilder's routine consisted of 12 exercises covering the entire body? Despite the limitations training routines flourished prior to the advent of the set system. Here are some of those systems.

Article Summary:
  • Early workouts were more like feats of strength with one lift done once.
  • It wasn't until the 1940s that people started using multiple sets.
  • Modern bodybuilders use set extenders like supersets and rest-pause.

  • Evolution Of The Set System:
    Feat Of Strength To Mass & Strength!

    Believe it or not, in the early days of weight training there was no such thing as a set or even a rep. There was no such thing as multiple sets or repeated effort. You either lifted the weight overhead, or the weight crushed you. A successful lift was not a workout, but was a feat of strength.

    A Successful Lift Was Not A Workout, But Was A Feat Of Strength.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    A Successful Lift Was Not A Workout,
    But Was A Feat Of Strength.

    Then somehow, someone somewhere got the bright idea of lifting a sub-maximal weight over and over without rest. Lifters experimented with lifting a given weight not just once, but repeatedly until failure. Those who lifted in this manner started noticing their muscles were getting pumped and that their muscles were getting larger over time.

    Hence repetitions were born, which laid the foundation for bodybuilding training.

    You'd figure with the advent of repetitions, the set system would arrive soon afterwards. After all, if a series of lifts or repetitions built muscle, then multiple series or sets of repetitions should be build even more muscle. Right?

    Yet for the longest while, bodybuilders stuck with the one set system. In the first quarter of the 20th century, a typical bodybuilder's routine would have consisted of 12 exercises covering the entire body, with only one set per exercise. This full body workout would be performed 3 days a week, every other day.

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    Despite the limitations of a single set, a variety of training routines flourished prior to the advent of the set system:

    The Calvert Routine

      During the first decade of the 20th century, Alan Calvert was the man responsible for popularizing the use of barbells and dumbbells as weight training equipment.

      Aside from founding Milo Barbell, Calvert was a prolific strength writer and created a standard weight-training program for beginner and intermediate bodybuilders, appropriately named the "Calvert Routine."

    What Is Milo Barbell?
    The Milo Barbell Company had the first US patent on a micro loading barbell that used shot. They created many of the classic pieces used in Vaudeville, circus and competitive arenas right through the early 1930s.

      The Calvert Routine is a whole body routine done 3 times per week. One set is performed for each exercise. For upper body exercises, you'll start off with 5 reps on the first workout and then increase by one rep on every third workout. When you reach 10 reps for the upper body exercises, you'll add more weight (typically 5 pounds) and start over at 5 reps.

      For lower body exercises, you'll start off with 10 reps on the first day. On every third workout, you'll increase the reps by two until you reach 20 repetitions. Once you're able to perform 20 reps for the lower body exercises, you'll add more weight (typically 10 pounds) and bring the repetitions back down to 10.

      Here's what a Calvert-inspired program would look like for first week:

      Workout #1

      Workout #2

      Workout #3

    The Potpourri Routine

      People eventually figured that one set per exercise did not necessarily mean one set per body part.

      With the Potpourri Routine, you perform 6 or more exercises per muscle group, but only one set per exercise.

      The advantage of the Potpourri Routine is the variety of exercises involved. The disadvantage to this program is you don't develop much strength in the exercises, due to the lack of repeated effort. Nevertheless, this program was a favorite of John Grimek.

    Who Was John Grimek?

    John Grimek Winner of two AAU Mr. America titles (the only man to do so), and owner one of the more massive physiques of his time, John Grimek has gone down in history as being the first bodybuilder to retire from the sport undefeated.


    • 1939 York Perfect Man
    • 1940 Mr. America
    • 1941 Mr. America
    • 1946 Most Muscular Man In America
    • 1948 Mr. Universe Short & Overall
    • 1949 Mr. USA

      Here's how a Potpourri Routine would look for the thighs. Notice how not only are there a variety of exercises, but a variety of reps as well:

    The Advent Of Straight Sets

      Eventually, bodybuilders such as Clancy Ross began experimenting with "flushing" the muscles with multiple sets for each exercise. Bodybuilding writer Harry B. Paschall puts it into historical perspective:

    Who Was Clancy Ross?
    Clarence "Clancy" Ross was born in Oakland, California on October 26, 1923, the second of the four children of Hershel Ross, a teamster, and his wife Jeannette Levi. His mother died when he was a youngster and Ross grew up in a series of foster homes.

    He was motivated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to enlist in the Air Force, which he did on October 31, 1942 at San Francisco, and was then stationed in Las Vegas.

    In 1945, Ross won the AAU Mr. America contest in Los Angeles. He appeared on the covers of most of the popular physique magazines of the time - including Your Physique, Iron Man, Muscle Power and Health and Strength.

    After leaving the service in November, 1945, Ross opened a gym in Alameda, California.

    On March 13, 1948, Ross won the Mr. USA contest in Los Angeles ahead of the 1947 Mr. America, Steve Reeves. Ross attempted to defend his title in 1949, but placed second to John Grimek. However, he finished ahead of Steve Reeves, becoming one of only two men to beat Reeves twice (along with Grimek).

      "About 1940 a number of lavishly muscled supermen appeared on the American scene, following the inception of the annual Mr. America award, which began in 1939. We spent a good bit of time backstage at these shows, watching the bodybuilders warm up for the contest, and found they had hit upon a new technique for inflating the tissues with blood.

      They did innumerable sets of curls, bench presses, and dumbbell movements, and they had grown some impressive lumps. The cult grew rapidly, and its center was on the Pacific Coast (Santa Monica). Today the idea of using a group of series exercises (sets) is standard in every gym catering to musclebuilders."

      Those who trained with multiple sets developed more muscle and better physiques than those who trained with single sets. This shift in training methodology created a whole new bodybuilding paradigm, one that we still adhere to today.

    Sets & Reps: The Nut And Bolts Of Program Design!
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    James Chan

    James Chan

      With multiple straight sets, the possibilities are limitless. After all, sets and reps are really just numbers. If you're playing with numbers, then there are an infinite number of numbers to play with. Since the possibilities were endless with the set system, greater set variations evolved over time.

    Set Extenders: The Next Stage In Set Evolution

      Set extenders are techniques that allow you to go beyond a normal set for a given muscle group.

      Techniques like rest-pause, supersets and descending sets are all set extenders. The reason these techniques work so well is that they allow you to serve two masters: volume and intensity.

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      Say you perform 4 to 6 reps at a given weight. The intensity (weight) is high, but the volume (reps) is low. If you performed 10 to 12 reps, then the volume would be high, but intensity would be low.

      With set extenders, however, you increase both volume and intensity. When you can increase both volume and intensity, then you increase muscular hypertrophy.


        Supersets are when you alternate between 2 exercises for opposing muscle groups with little or no rest. A classic combination would be to superset biceps with triceps:

    RELATED VIDEO: Exercise Guides
    What Is A Superset?

    This is a good way to train if time is limited. Supersetting involves doing two exercises with no rest in between. There are a number of different types of supersets.

        Supersets provide a couple of advantages:

        • Supersetting 2 antagonistic muscles speeds up their recovery between sets. So when you're training the triceps, it will facilitate recovery for the biceps and vice versa.
        • Supersetting is more time efficient. It allows you train in less time than you would with conventional straight sets.


        This is an excellent technique for those who are fast-twitch monsters. If you respond best to heavy weight, then this technique will help you fully develop your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

        To perform the rest-pause method, take your 3-rep max and do as many reps as you can with that weight. Put the weight down and rest 10-15 seconds. Resume the set, performing as many reps as you can. Rest another 10-15 seconds and repeat one to two more times.

    RELATED VIDEO: Exercise Guides
    What Is Rest-Pause Training?

    This is an advanced technique that allows you to get more reps with the same weight. Rest-Pause Training works very well for high rep training as well when lactic acid burn forces you to stop.

        Essentially, rest-pause fractures the conventional set and makes it one long extended set. So your reps would look something this:

        3, 2, 2, 1

      Descending Sets

        Whereas rest-pause works best for fast-twitch muscles, descending sets work best for slow-twitch muscles, such as the lateral head of the deltoids and the calves. This technique also works best in a commercial gym, where you can easily implement it on a dumbbell rack or a cable machine.

        To perform descending sets, do as many reps as you can with a given weight, then lower the weight and perform as many reps as you can with that weight. Repeat this process 1-2 more times.

    RELATED VIDEO: Exercise Guides
    What Are Drop Sets?

    Do a set then decrease a preset amount of weight. Continue with that weight. Keep dropping as desired. This will thoroughly burn out a muscle.

    About The Author:

    James Chan is a police officer for the University of California. His book Strength and Physique Volume 2: Neo-Classical Bodybuilding is available at Amazon.com. For more of his insights into strength training and bodybuilding, visit his blog at http://strengthandphysique.blogspot.com.