3 Sets Of 10: Mainstay Or Myth?

Everyone has something that annoys them about the fitness industry. For me it is program design. The 3 sets of 10 reps program got its start in the '40s and '50s in some early strength training experiments...

Everyone has something that annoys them about the fitness industry. From supplement companies' unsavory marketing tactics to self-proclaimed guru's unfounded claims, most every self-respecting fitness professional has some pet peeve which the mere mention makes them cringe. For Paul San Andres, that pet peeve is in the area of program design…

Case Studies Of Clients

A friend of mine asked me the other day what I would consider to be the most frustrating part of my job as an educator in the fitness field. After thinking about it for a second I told him that the most frustrating part of my job had to be grading the case study portion of the ISSA's independent study test.

For those who don't know, the ISSA offers an independent study option for it's Certified Fitness Trainer (CFT) course, and part of that study option is 5 case studies. Case studies are where you are given a scenario for a potential client and you are asked to devise a 12-week periodized training program based on the information given and what you have learned through the course. While it intimidates some initially, most ultimately find it's really rather simple, especially if you truly are ready to be a personal trainer.

However, even among those that do pass that portion of the examination, I have noticed a disturbing trend - a large number of students/ trainers rely heavily on the 3 sets of 10 reps approach. While this style of program where you select an equal number of exercises for each bodypart and perform 3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise is good, it certainly doesn't represent the best approach to designing a program.

 The 3 sets of 10 reps program got its start in the '40s and '50s in some early strength training experiments. An army surgeon named De Lorme presented some research data supporting the 3 sets of 10 reps protocol, and it became permanently etched into the collective subconscious of the fitness community. I agree that 3 sets of 10 can be effective, especially for beginners, but you have to remember that anything will be effective for a while, especially the first time you try it.

However, exercise science has come a long way since those early days, and we now know much more about the human body and the way it responds to training. In light of this newer information, the 3 sets of 10 reps approach is far from the most effective program for several reasons.

And yet, most mainstream fitness mags continue to espouse the 3 sets of 10 reps philosophy like it was not only the best way but the only way to train, and it reflects in the programs that some new students turn in. The 3 sets of 10 approach will eventually fall short for a few key reasons, and hopefully my pointing these reasons out here will save someone from having to learn them the hard way.

The most glaring problem with 3 sets of 10 for everything is that not all exercises deserve the same emphasis. Think about it - what logical reason could you give to devoting the same amount of attention to the leg extension as you do to the squat? The squat is far more functional, uses more muscle mass, burns more calories, creates a higher anabolic response, and basically gives more bang for the training buck. Wouldn't it make sense that this exercise might deserve a little more attention than leg extensions? Yet the 3 sets of 10 approach does not take this into account, allotting equal attention to all exercises, when equal attention is obviously not deserved.

In addition, not all bodyparts deserve the same amount of volume. Your biceps are a small muscle group, why would they need as many exercises, sets and reps as your back? Also keep in mind that any pulling motion, which is involved in just about every back exercise, involves your biceps as well. That means, all told, that you are devoting twice as much attention to your biceps as you are to the large muscles of your back. That much work for a muscle group that wasn't designed for it will eventually lead to overtraining. This is why most people find their arm development takes off when they cut back or even stop training arms completely and concentrate on basic pulling and pushing movements.

The 3 sets of 10 approach also does not allow for much as far as volume (reps and sets) and intensity (% of 1 RM being lifted) variations. Your body adapts very quickly to the training stimuli and eventually you will stop responding to those same ranges. Most people will switch their exercises and exercise order every 4-6 weeks, but to continually progress you must eventually break out of the 3 sets of 10 mold. This gets into the concept of periodization, which is beyond the scope of this article, but I wanted to take this opportunity to once again point out the importance of periodization in any programs long-term success.

So now that I've shot the 3 sets of 10 reps approach full of holes some of you may be wondering "what should I be doing"? If the 3 sets of 10 reps approach isn't the best way, what can I do today to break out of that rut? Well, as you will see its really quite simple…

Training Parameters

Before I get much further I do have to set down some different training parameters for 3 basic things that can be emphasized during a mesocycle. There are obviously many other things to train for and different methods of training for them but for the sake of giving you a practical example in this article I'm keeping it simple. These are well accepted parameters in the strength training field and I'm not going to go into the specifics behind why these parameters are what they are, you can just trust me when I say I'm not out on any limbs here.

For those of you who aren't very trusting (and I hope most of you don't take everything you read at face value), you can confirm these numbers by reading such fine training texts as Tudor Bompa's Serious Strength Training, Charles Poliquin's Poliquin Principles and Charles Staley's The Science of Martial Arts Training. Now, on to the parameters…

Anatomical Adaptation/ Active Rest

      Type of program suggested: Circuit Training

      Intensity level: Low (30- 60% of 1RM)

      Repetitions: 15- 20

      Total sets per muscle group: 1-3 per exercise

      Number of exercises per muscle group: 1

    Rest between sets: 0- 60 seconds

Hypertrophy (Muscle Mass)

      Type of program suggested: Some type of training split tailored to your schedule

      Intensity level: Moderate (60- 80% of 1RM)

      Repetitions: 6- 12

      Total sets per muscle group: Large Muscle Groups- 4- 8

      Small Muscle Groups- 1- 3

      Number of exercises per muscle group: 1- 4

    Rest between sets: 60- 120 seconds

Absolute Strength

      Type of program suggested: Some type of training split tailored to your client's schedule

      Intensity level: High (80- 100+% of 1RM)

      Repetitions: 1- 5

      Total sets per muscle group: Large Muscle Groups- 5- 10

      Small Muscle Groups- 2- 4

      Number of exercises per muscle group: 1- 2

    Rest between sets: 120- 240 seconds

Now that we have those established let's move on. There is a simple equation that can be used to construct daily workouts. It states that the when constructing a workout you must first determine what qualities (anatomical adaptation, absolute strength or hypertrophy) are being trained in that mesocycle. The qualities determine intensity, intensity determines reps, reps determine sets, sets determine how many exercises per bodypart, and number of exercises used determine what exercises are chosen. Most people will usually pick the exercises first and tailor the program around those exercises, but as you will see this is not the best way.

 To give you an example let's look at how you might construct a chest/biceps workout for workout during a hypertrophy phase. Since you know what you're training for in this mesocycle, you can determine the intensity range you would want to use. A moderate intensity approach usually works best for hypertrophy so you should keep the intensity level in the 60%-80% of 1RM range. The exact percentage you use can differ for each individual muscle group, so try to be flexible.

Along with moderate intensity, a moderate volume of work also works well for hypertrophy -- so you should keep the reps in the 6-12 range. To get the desired training effect at 6-12 reps you will need to perform a moderate amount of sets as well, in this case 4-8 for large muscle groups and 1-3 for smaller muscle groups.

If you decide on the lower end of the rep range you will want the higher end of the set range and vice versa. Let's say we've narrowed it down to 6-8 reps per set. This would mean you would prescribe 8 sets for large muscle group (pectorals) and 3 sets for the small muscle group (biceps). Now that we have figured out how many sets are being done we can decide how many exercises to use per bodypart.

Conventional wisdom says to pick a variety of exercises for each bodypart to hit the muscle from all angles. This is not necessarily the best idea. Not all muscles groups posses the multiple origins and/ or insertions necessary for "muscle shaping". For example, the pectoral muscle group does have more than one origin and insertion, meaning that might make sense it to hit the this particular muscle group from more than one angle, in this case perhaps using a flat and inclined bench. What doesn't work is using a wide grip to hit the outer pecs, close grip to hit the inner pec, ect.

Other muscle groups often associated with muscle shaping just do not have the structural qualities necessary to justify a multi- angled approach. The arms are a great example of this. It seems that most muscle shaping myths are based on arm training, yet the biceps and triceps do not have the structure necessary for this theoretical concept to work for them.

All this boils down to the fact that it is all right to simply pick one or two exercises per muscle group and hammer away on them. For the larger muscle groups make sure you pick at least one compound exercise and devote more than half the allotted sets to that exercise. Sticking with our above example, we have determined we will do 8 total sets for pecs and 3 sets for biceps. This would mean we could pick two exercises for the pecs, making sure to include at least one compound exercise, but since we only have 3 total sets for biceps it would be wise to just stick with one exercise for them.

Now lets look at how a workout would shape up using the information we gathered using the above steps. We've planned on doing chest and biceps on day one of our program, so our two exercises for chest could be the flat bench press and incline flyes, and for biceps we could pick preacher curls.

This is one way you might arrange such a workout:

Exercise Sets Reps
Bench Press 5 6- 8
Incline Fly 3 6- 8
Preacher Curl 3 6- 8

Remember that you can add in some abdominal, lower back work or rotator cuff work at the end of the workout. Some might say that the 3 sets of 6-8 reps is pretty close to 3 sets of 10, and they would be right. Remember, I never said that 3 sets of 10 did not work, just that it would not work forever, or if used in an uniformed manner. Now, your 3 sets of 10 prescription for an exercise is arrived at through a logical and scientific manner which makes all the difference in the world.

My friend later asked me during the course of our conversation if I thought the fitness community would ever get passed the 3 sets of 10 reps protocol and end my frustration. After a minute of contemplation, I told him that I really didn't think so.

As long as the mainstream fitness mags continue to think that they are doing people a favor by spoon feeding them antiquated fitness theories, the newcomers to the industry will continue to get the impression that said information is the best way to train.

If you designed your last workout using the 3 sets of 10 method, please look over your program and see if it truly seems logical. Do you have the same number of exercises for each bodypart? Does every exercise get the same emphasis? If so then it's time to take your understanding of the principles behind the design of a strength training program to the next level. Put what you've just read to immediate use. Go get 1 (or all) of the books I suggested to check up on my numbers and stop settling for old info and second rate programs.