When starting a strength program, one of the very first hurdles many people need to overcome is the question of "How many sets/reps should I do?" It is a great question and there are a lot of trainers and coaches out there who think their program is the best for a variety of different reasons. So who should you listen to?
Unfortunately, the fitness industry loves to make things more complicated than it should be. We often put unnecessary barriers on exercise that make it harder for your average person to feel like they are doing an appropriate job of exercising. Ultimately, if you are trying to determine how many sets/reps you should do to gain strength at a certain movement... my big recommendation is to KEEP IT SIMPLE.
For example, start with a light weight and attempt to do 12 repetitions. If you get to number 12 and you think to yourself... I could've done more. Let's add weight. If you cannot complete 4 quality reps... then let's decrease weight. Ultimately, you should pick a weight that you can complete between 4-12 reps of on that given day. Do that weight for 3-5 sets.
You should ask yourself: Is this challenging? Can I do 4-12 reps? Can I repeat this for 3-5 sets? If you answered yes to those 3 questions... then you are getting 98% of the benefit that strength training has to offer. It really is that simple.
Now, what about that extra 2%? We can modify and structure intense strength and conditioning programs to maximize your body's ability to lift and gain strength. For most people, this doesn't really matter because they want to be happy and strong and healthy and that's it. However, for those athletes looking to maximize their body's potential... then continue reading and we will dive into the differences between more scrutinized set/rep schemes.
Where did “3 sets of 10 reps” originate?
3x10 (3 sets of 10 reps) was a training program started in the 1940’s by Dr. DeLorme, an avid weightlifter and army physician. Dr. DeLorme was responsible for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers, and was frustrated by the current protocol of injury rehab, which focused on lifting light weights for many reps. DeLorme noticed this method was stalling the soldier’s injury recovery and return to work, keeping the soldiers out of battle for 6+ months,
Thus, DeLorme experimented with doing 3 sets of 10, starting at 50% and increasing to 100% (very heavy) on the final set of 10. He found great success in how quickly and fully his soldiers were recovering from injury, and coined the rehab protocol “progressive resistance exercise,” a concept we still apply in strength training today. While it is clear that DeLorme’s use of progressive overload is still necessary for strength increases and can improve outcome in rehab programs, the amount of reps, sets, and rest time has more gray area in the modern fitness world.
How many sets do I do? How many reps? What weight should I put on the bar? 3x10 may not always be the answer. There is a lot of confusion surrounding how many sets and reps to do for varying goals. Today we will discuss the sets and rep ranges for 4 different training goals: strength, hypertrophy, power, and endurance.
Strength refers to the amount of force you can produce and increasing strength leads to an increase in the amount of weight you can lift. For example, people often train for strength when they want to increase their 1 rep max for one of the big lifts. Strength is one of the primary focuses of many olympic weightlifters (snatch and clean & jerk) and power lifters (squat, bench, deadlift).
Some of the primary strength movements (squat, bench, deadlift, rows, and olympic lifts) utilize a barbell because of how much weight can be loaded, but dumbbells and other equipment can be used to increase strength as well. Because you’re using more weight, more rest is required than if you were doing 12-20 reps at a lighter weight.
Strength, in contrast to hypertrophy (discussed below), is how strong your muscles are (how much weight can you lift?) rather than how big your muscles are. While there will obviously still be growth in the size of your muscles when training for strength, the ultimate goal here is increasing the amount of weight you can lift rather than the size of your muscles.
When working to increase the strength of your muscles, train with the following rep ranges, sets, intensity and rest periods:
Reps: 6 or less.
Intensity: ~85% or more
Rest: 2-5 minutes
Hypertrophy refers to an increase in actual muscle size. Some people will also see an increase in strength when training for hypertrophy but just because your muscle size increased does not necessarily mean that the strength of that muscle also increased and vice versa.
To better understand the difference of strength vs. hypertrophy, let’s take a look at olympic lifters vs. bodybuilders. Bodybuilders primarily train for hypertrophy in order to have the biggest muscles on stage, and often have bigger muscles than an olympic lifter. However, 99% of the time, the olympic lifter is going to be stronger and able to lift heavier weights than a bodybuilder because strength and power is the focus of an olympic lifting program. This is a good example of how “strong someone looks” not being a true determining factor of their strength.
When working to increase the size of your muscles, train with the following rep ranges, sets, intensity and rest periods:
Rest: 30-90 seconds
Power refers to the speed and explosive ability of the muscles. This is the goal of most athletes, as explosiveness is key in many sports. Olympic lifters also place a great emphasis on power in a training program.
One of the major components when lifting for power is speed. How fast can you move the heavy weight? For example, getting out of the heavy squat as quickly as possible or getting the barbell from your hip to overhead as quickly as possible in a snatch. Training for power can greatly benefit explosive abilities on the field, court, or platform.
When working to increase the explosiveness of your muscles, train with the following rep ranges, sets, intensity and rest periods:
Rest: 2-5 minutes
Muscular endurance refers to how long your muscles can work. This can be the goal of a rehab program or endurance athlete, like runners, cyclists, and swimmers in which strength training is supplemental to the endurance aspect of their sport.
Lighter weights, higher reps, and shorter rest periods are utilized for muscular endurance and training to failure (doing as many reps as you can) is optimal here. For example, using 20 lb dumbbells and doing as many reps as you can for a shoulder press would work on improving your muscular endurance, rather than grabbing the heaviest dumbbells and doing less reps (which would work on improving your strength).
When working to increase the endurance of your muscles, train with the following rep ranges, sets, intensity and rest periods:
Reps: 12 or more
Intensity: ~60% of your 1 RM or less
Rest: less than 30 seconds
How do you know which category you should be training for? All 4 training goals: strength, hypertrophy, power, and endurance have their place, but knowing when to train each one is important. Most people know that a runner is going to prioritize endurance more than a weightlifter. But the training goals can be more confusing in the world of P.T. How would training goals differ for a Crossfitter with an overuse injury to the shoulder vs. a baseball player with an acute injury to the shoulder? This is where hiring a licensed coach or physical therapist is crucial.
Here at Prime, we specialize in creating a training program based on your individual goals, movement background, and injury. We believe that 3x10 can be beneficial but may not be the only answer to rehabbing an injury or reaching a fitness goal. Interested in developing an individualized workout plan tailored to your fitness or rehab goals? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org today to set up an initial consultation.