If you use the words "sets" and "reps," or even practice "progressive resistance," you need to thank a brave World War II doctor name Thomas DeLorme. And the best part: You can thank him by following his namesake training method, the DeLorme protocol. I remember a coach telling me in 1979 that no one has ever been proven to find a better training approach than DeLorme's, and in 2019, the same may still be true.

Here's what you need to know to put one of the all-time best training approaches to work for you.

The Bama Hercules

The great strength historians Jan Todd, Ph.D. and the late Terry Todd, Ph.D., along with Jason Shurley, Ph.D., have written extensively on DeLorme's influence. The story goes somewhat like this: After being bedridden by illness as a young man, DeLorme was told by physicians that he should avoid strenuous activity for life. Instead, he read issues of Strength and Health in bed, became obsessed with weight training, and became determined to "prove the medicos wrong." He later recalled, "Upon leaving my sick bed, I started a comeback campaign." 

Using homemade equipment made of scrounged scrap metal and old narrow-gauge train wheels, DeLorme got seriously strong, to the point that he would stage lifting demonstrations at halftime during Alabama Football games—earning him the nickname "The Bama Hercules." But he also got seriously educated. He went to medical school and became an army physician during WWII. After the war ended, he began experimenting with weight training as a rehab technique for the vast population of injured soldiers coming back from battle.

In 1945, DeLorme's work culminated in a paper, "Restoration of muscle power by heavy-resistance exercises," published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.

In 300 cases, he found "splendid response in muscle hypertrophy and power, together with symptomatic relief," by following his method of 7-10 sets of 10 reps for a total of 70-100 repetitions each workout. The weight would start off light for the first set, and then get progressively heavier until a 10RM load was achieved.

Sound like a lot of volume? He thought so, too. By 1948 and 1951, DeLorme and his co-author Arthur Watkins, M.D., noted, "Further experience has shown this figure to be too high and that in most cases a total of 20-30 repetitions is far more satisfactory. Fewer repetitions permit exercise with heavier muscle loads, thereby yielding greater and more rapid muscle hypertrophy."

A series of articles and books followed where DeLorme and Watkins recommend 3 sets of 10 reps using a progressively heavier weight in the following manner:

  • Set 1: 50 percent of 10-repetition maximum
  • Set 2: 75 percent of 10-repetition maximum (Later, many started just doing 5 reps here, which I prefer, as well.)
  • Set 3: 100 percent of 10-repetition maximum
The DeLorme protocol recommends the Overhead press as one of several exercises.

In this scheme, only the last set is performed to the limit. The first 2 sets can be considered warm-ups. Simple enough, right? But this approach inspired more than just standard issue 3x10 workouts. It's also the template for high-intensity training, where you go all-out after a couple of warm-ups. And DeLorme and Watkins knew their rep scheme was definitely not the only approach.

"By advocating 3 sets of exercise of 10 repetitions per set, the likelihood that other combinations might be just as effective is not overlooked," they wrote in their 1951 book "Progressive Resistance Exercise." "Incredible as it may seem, many athletes have developed great power and yet have never employed more than 5 repetitions in a single exercise."

Today, there are still those who don't believe that we can build power (and bulk) through low reps (reps of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5), but simply viewing elite strongmen, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters certainly should convince many of this fact.

How to Use DeLorme Today

I have come back to this method time and again with my personal and professional work. One reason is that it works with just about any equipment you have on hand. Although I don't have access to machines often, I've found in the past that it works with machines, as well as with free weights. You can take the 3 progressive sets of 10 approach and apply it to any split, but I've found that it works particularly well with full-body training. Here's how it could look:

  • Overhead press: Single-arm presses are always fine, as are double-arm ones.
  • Vertical pull: Whatever variation is appropriate for you shoulder health and abilities.
  • Horizonal press: Bench is certainly fine, but know yourself.
  • Horizontal pull: Any member of the row family, done strictly without "bouncing."
  • Squat: Any variation with barbell or kettlebells. These are difficult!
  • Deadlift variation: As appropriate for higher reps. I prefer rack pulls, but many like the trap bar deadlift.
The DeLorme protocol encourages the use squats in any variation, including the kettlebell.

After all that, I would suggest ab wheel roll-outs, 1 set of 10 or 2 sets of 5, for abdominal work. That's it.

It usually takes a week or two to get the loads dialed in. I often recommend doing the second and third sets one minute after the preceding set. The accumulated fatigue of the light and medium sets puts some restraints on the last set.

At some level, I have always thought there was value in this idea of pre-fatigue in hypertrophy work. The last set, after a short build-up period to dial in the reps, should be done for as many quality reps as possible. Those reps can give insights about the next workout. And the workout I outlined will definitely keep you honest about what you can squat and deadlift!

How to Progress the DeLorme Protocol

Bryan Mann, Ph.D., from the University of Missouri did an interesting study on using the DeLorme and Watkins protocol. His insight on a standardized progression was very helpful, as was the fact that he proved that the old-school methods still work. You can use the following general template to adjust the load for future training sessions.

Based on the number of reps completed for set number three, reduce, maintain, or increase as follows:

  • 4-5 reps: Reduce the weight by 5-10 pounds next time.
  • 6-8 reps: Maintain weight or reduce by 5 pounds next time.
  • 8-12 reps: Maintain weight next time.
  • 12-15 reps: Increase the weight by 5-10 pounds next time.
  • 15 or more reps: Increase the weight by 10-15 pounds next time.

If you or your client only gets 3 reps on the heavy set, you either seriously overshot the weight estimate, or there's something else going on. When the numbers for each of the third sets put the client in different categories (for example, 7, 9, 12, and 15), you may need to make an educated estimate for the next session.

DeLorme used homemade equipment made of scrounged scrap metal and old narrow-gauge train wheels to train after recovering from illness as a young man in Alabama.

If you decide to continue doing this for up to six weeks, you may discover that you can't continue to progress with load. When that happens, here's what I like to do:

  • Monday: Medium day, with loads that feel good throughout and you get the 10 reps comfortably, but with some focus.
  • Wednesday: Light day, with loads you can easily finish.
  • Friday: Heavy day, where you continue to strive for more weight.

That's just one approach and one schedule, though. To continue progressing, you could move to the Reg Park workouts of 5 sets of 5, utilizing the medium-light-heavy day schedule as you continue. Find what works for you, but definitely don't overlook the classic, old-school methods. They work!

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About the Author

Dan John

Dan John

An All-American discus thrower, Dan has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games, and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.

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