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Sets and Reps
Breaking the 3 Set, 10 Rep Mentality

Workouts stuck in the 1940s?
Workouts stuck in the 1940s?

Exercise routines tend to follow rules. Rules that dictate the best times to workout, how long each session should last and how often each week you should train.

Over time, carefully conducted studies have given us more insight into how the human body works. That insight has allowed us to update and refine almost all those rules. All the rules it seems, but one.

The single most pervasive rule I encounter is how many sets and reps someone should do to see results. Since the 1940s, the rule has been simple—three sets of 8 to 12 reps per set.

(For those of you who don't know the difference between a set and rep, here's what they mean. Rep is short for repetition. Each rep is one lift or complete exercise movement. A set is the number of reps you do in a row before stopping.)

It all came from a couple of studies published by Doctor Thomas DeLorme. In the 1940s, Dr. DeLorme was working with injured military personnel. He believed strength training might be beneficial for patients with back pain. Dr. DeLorme's original protocol had patients engage in 7 to 10 sets with 10 to 12 reps per set. (That's 70 to 100 reps per muscle group!)

The first sets were lighter and used to warm the subjects up. The weight was made progressively heavier until the last set, when it was at the highest weight a person could handle while still completing 10 full reps. Using that program of sets and reps, Dr. DeLorme documented improvements in his patients and published his observations in 1945.

In 1948 DeLorme and Watkins published a follow-up that stated, "Further experience has shown this figure [of sets] to be too high." The number of sets was reduced from 7-10 to a much more manageable 3. During the first set, weight was at 50% of the person's 10 rep max. The second set it was increased to 75% and it finished at 100% of the subjects 10 rep max. This became known as the "DeLorme Technique" and it's still the most common way people train today. But it may not be the best option.

Not all bodyparts need the same level of attention or emphasis. Some muscles may be getting overworked with traditional programs. Biceps are a good example. Most back exercises also involve the biceps. Your back is a much larger group of muscles, yet many people work the back AND biceps separately. That hits the smaller bicep muscle twice and the larger back group only once. Overtrained muscles are often the result of programs like this.

Following are some set and rep combinations better tailored to specific goals.

Strength - If your goal is just to get stronger, don't do more than 2 to 6 reps. Rest 3 to 5 minutes between each set, so you fully recover and keep the total number of sets to just 2 or 3. Don't push each set to failure. Simply training at 60 to 80% of your one rep maximum will produce the greatest gains.

(Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005 Aug; 19(3):689-97 "Moderate Resistance Training Volume Produces More Favorable Strength Gains than High or Low Volumes During a Short-Term Training Cycle.")

Muscle Mass - For those who want to get more size, 6 to 12 reps is better. Keep the rest between 20 seconds and 1 minute between sets and vary the sets based on the bodypart you're training. If you're working larger groups like back or legs, as many as 4 to 8 sets can help. If you're working smaller muscles like the biceps, only 1 to 3 sets are needed.

(European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2002 Nov;88(1-2): 50-60 "Muscular Adaptations in Response to Three Different Resistance-Training Regimens: Specificity of Repetition Maximum Training Zones.")

Fat Loss & Muscle Mass - This is a little trickier because to burn fat, you need to introduce an aerobic element to the routine while still building mass. 15-20 reps work well for the first set (this part is more cardio), decreasing the number until you're as low as 4 reps, pushing your muscle group to failure. 2 to 4 sets work well as long as you don't overtrain any particular muscle.

(Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2004 Nov;18(4):730-7 "Muscular adaptations to combinations of high- and low-intensity resistance exercises.")

If you're still doing the same old "3 Set, 10 Rep" program, maybe it's time to look at your goals and start doing things differently.

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Updated 3/24/2015

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  • UPDATE 2015 - In a study carried out on Brazilian Navy cadets, they were broken into three groups. For six months, the cadets did either one, three or five sets per exercise. At the end of the study, the group that did five sets per exercise gained significantly more muscle mass than the other two groups.

    The study was carried out on physically fit, younger adults. Unless you're already in reasonably good shape, you probably shouldn't suddenly start increasing your sets without supervision.