Set/Rep Schemes: Is 3x10 King?

We received a question recently about set/rep schemes (for SAPT-ers, those first two columns on your program sheet) and I thought it would be a fabulous blog post. "What's the right formula for number of sets and number of reps for an exercise? I'm so used to hearing '3 sets of 10,' is that right or wrong?"

Excellent question, especially since the coaches at SAPT don't really program 3 sets of 10 on a regular basis. Hasn't this been a burning question on your mind? Of course it has, so let us dive in.

First, a brief history lesson. The famous "3 sets of 10" actually came out of the brains of two fellows named Dr. Thomas Delorme and Dr. Arthur Watkins. They were the first ones to develop a structured weight training protocol based on progressive overload. They wrote a paper (1948), and later a book (1950-ish), detailing their research findings. One quote I thought was rather lovely:

“The number of contractions per bout is arbitrarily set at ten. If fewer repetitive lifts were required, the resistance could be increased. Whether ten is the optimum number for rapid increase in strength has never been established in terms of criteria other than the empirical practice of weight-lifters. It is probable that the number closely approaches the optimum.”

See? 3 sets of 10 reps is not set in stone; it's just the numbers the good doctors worked with and recorded their results. You can read about it here, if you want.

Now, moving onto why we've expanded upon Drs. Delorme and Watkins' work. Subsequent research as led to insights on how muscles work and grow stronger. In the effort of remaning true to the KISS principle, I'll list a small snippet of the knowledge out there. Keep in mind that this is merely a scratch upon the surface of what goes on physiologically during weight training. (such as, energy systems used, hormonal responses and what types of conditions elicit the various physical responses of the body. It will blow your mind. Mine is continual blown up every time I read more about muscles. )


- As load increases, reps decrease and vice versa.

- As total exercise volume increases, intensity will decrease and vice versa.

- Muscles will adapt to the demands placed upon them (SAID principle).

So how does that help us coaches (and self-trained folks) determine set/reps. Well, as always, it depends.

If your goal is strength (which, by the way, it should be), you'll want to stick to lower rep ranges (1-5) with weights closer to your 1 rep max. I shall NOT be diving into percentages and what percentage matches with what rep scheme as I've found they're wildly different person to person. Generally, the closer you approach your 1 rep max, the less repetitions you can perform. As a coach, the exercises that stay in this range, typically, are the money-makers: squats, deadlifts, chin/pull ups, and presses.

If your goal is strength, which it should be, (no, this is not a typo. Strength is the KING of physical adaptations.) using the 6-8 rep range lends itself well to assistance lifts such as single-leg work, rows, pushups, anything-that's-not-your-main-lift, again, you can lift a heavier load for 6 reps than you can for 10, so... strength means picking up heavy things. This rep range affords a longer time under tension (meaning the muscles are working longer than say a 2 rep deadlift set), therefore building up their strength-endurance a bit instead of, say, a max-effort strength.

Now, this is not to say that you can't get stronger using the 3x10 protocol (assuming you're increasing the load), but it tends to only work for a little while, and it works best with beginners. In order for muscles to adapt to lifting heavy things, you have to impose that demand upon them by lifting heavy things. It would be more effecient to lift a lot of weight a few times than a little weigh a lot of times (this goes back to the energy system and hormonal response thing I mentioned earlier. This will be a future post... but for now, from a physiological standpoint, you'll get stronger faster lifting more weight a few times.)

Comic break.

Another reason, outside of the strength reasons, SAPT coaches use sets less than 10 is technique. We've found that having someone, especially a beginner, perform sets of 10 squats just ends up in fail. Form goes out the window as muscles get tired and attention wanders. There's a lot going on in the big lifts (chest up, butt back, toes up, on your heels, brace... etc) and it's difficult to keep it all in your head when you're first learning for extended sets. Thus, sets of 5, for our beginners, works out nicely. Our more experienced athletes stick with this rep range as they progress, well, because they're lifting heavier things.

Brain overload...

We do program sets of 10, but usually it's a corrective or mobility exercise, such as a facepull or wall slide, or sometimes we'll throw in some reverse crunches so our athlete's can "feel the burn."

In the end, we stick to the lower rep ranges to either practice technique (beginners) or elicit strength adaptations (experienced). As the smart Drs. said, the reptition number was arbitrarily set at 10. Later, research found that strong people lift heavy things a few times. The set/rep combinations are endless; train for strength, keep it simple, and have a fun workout!