Note: 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?
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.
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:
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.