Sets and Reps: A Better Way

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sets-and-repsNote: I focus on the 3×10 scheme throughout this article because it’s the foundation upon which many training programs are created. However, much of this article could also apply to other popular “sets and reps” training models (e.g., 5×5, etc.).

Whether you’re new to resistance training or a grizzled vet, at some point you’ve probably relied on the classic “3×10” approach to training, which means performing three sets of ten repetitions for each exercise. Is this the best way to train? It depends on your goals and training experience.

For many, the goal of resistance training is hypertrophy, or increasing muscle size. Bodybuilders are especially concerned with hypertrophy, so it seems reasonable to follow a bodybuilding protocol if increasing mass is the goal. A traditional bodybuilding training model is 3×10.

Why three sets? Because multiple set training is generally superior to single set training for promoting hypertrophy.

  • When one set is performed, the training stimulus may be intense but the workload may not be large enough to stimulate growth
  • When more than three sets are performed, the intensity of training must be reduced to accommodate the workload
  • An intensity/workload compromise is three sets

Why ten repetitions? Because, for most muscle groups, a repetition range of 6-12 is generally superior to other repetition ranges for promoting hypertrophy.

  • A lower repetition range is preferred for developing strength
  • A higher repetition range is preferred for developing endurance
  • A strength/endurance/hypertrophy compromise is ten repetitions

Taken together, we might consider the 3×10 approach to be a “work” compromise. In physical training, work = force x distance. Force is achieved when heavy weights are lifted. Distance is achieved through repetition volume or duration. A balance between force and distance can be achieved with 3×10. It’s an adequate strategy for beginners and anyone looking for simplicity.

What’s the Problem with 3×10?

deadlift

Following a 3×10 program for strength and hypertrophy is like training for a 100m sprint by running mile repeats. You may experience improvements, but it will take a long time and, even if you work hard, you may never fulfill your potential.

For maximal gains, remember this: The most important contributor to improvements in strength and hypertrophy is progressive overload. In a nutshell, this means that development depends on regularly increasing resistance once a training weight becomes manageable.

Same Weight Each Set = Slow Gains

Some who follow the 3×10 protocol use the same weight for each set. The primary limitation of this approach is that strength gains are poor. This is because, to complete all three sets, the trainee must use significantly less weight than what would be used in a maximal-effort single set.

Consider, for example, a hypothetical athlete who can bench press 240 lbs. for 5 repetitions, 210 lbs. for 10 repetitions, or 180 lbs. for 3×10. By adhering to the 3×10 protocol, it would take an unreasonable amount of time to ultimately perform a 3×10 routine with 240 lbs. This is an undesirable strategy for efficiently employing the principle of progressive overload.

Increase the Weight Each Set = Premature fatigue

Others who follow the 3×10 protocol gradually increase the resistance after each set. Using the previous athlete as an example, the weight progression used for the three sets might be 170, 190, and 210 lbs. This “within-workout” approach to progressive overload is superior to using the same weight for each set, but it’s still limited because the resistance used for the final set falls short of the overload that can be achieved with a maximal-effort single set.

The Solution: Strength First, Volume Second

Note: With all resistance workouts, it’s important to complete a sufficient warm-up before work sets are performed. It’s particularly important with this strategy because of the risk of injury associated with extremely high-intensity training.

The most efficient way to develop strength and hypertrophy is to perform a low-repetition, maximal effort first set, followed by sets with less resistance but more volume. Example:

Set Weight Repetitions
1 250 3-5
2 225-230 6-8
3 215 6-8
4 200 10-12

The advantages of this approach are

  • force production is emphasized, which promotes strength development
  • the maximal effort set is consistent with ability because it’s performed before fatigue occurs
  • training volume is appropriate for hypertrophy
  • it’s ideal for achieving “between-workout” progressive overload

If you’re stuck in a rut, give this system a try. You’re likely to experience rapid gains in strength and size.

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  • http://welcome2mycave.wordpress.com Erin

    I’ve applied the strength first, volume second to my KB clean and presses and Turkish Get Ups. I have noticed an increase in my strength in those two exercises. Now I just have to make sure I stay consistent.
    Great article!

    • http://www.joelminden.com Joel Minden

      That’s great, Erin! Thanks for the kind words. It can be difficult to use this approach with movements like those that require more technique than some of the traditional exercises, but I’m glad you’ve been successful with it!

  • Markus

    I’ve personally enjoyed 4×10 approach.
    3 of the sets being at the same weight then increasing the weight on the 4th set.
    Then after a week or so increase the 3rd set’s weight.

    • http://www.joelminden.com Joel Minden

      Hi Markus, thanks for the comment! Sounds like you’ve found a strategy that works for you. I wonder if you’d develop strength faster by lifting your heaviest weight in the first set. Might be worth a try.

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