Flick open any Men’s Health or Muscle & Fitness magazine and the chances are that you’ll find at least one recommended workout that tells you to perform THREE sets of TEN reps on each prescribed exercise.
Until at least five years ago, it seemed like this was all you’d ever read, but now, you’ll see the rep range and set volume is getting re-mixed like a chart-topping pop song! So, what’s it all about? Why has “3×10” been such a sacred number, and what impact do these numbers have on what we’re actually signalling our bodies to do? Let’s find out…
Winding the clock back to the turn of the millennium, I had just started to whet my palette when it came to starting my journey of discovery into the world of weight lifting, nutrition and supplementation.
Back in the day, I was playing rugby, basketball, athletics (track & field), and had been allowed to start using the weights room with the blessing of the sports coaches at my school; keep in mind, I was only about fifteen to sixteen years old at the time, so… quite young for hauling iron. I swore that I would be careful and responsible, and not to try lifting stupid amounts of weights – after all, at the time, I weighed in at a relatively scrawny 154lbs!
I was fascinated by all the posters and illustrations of human anatomy that showed which muscle groups were worked using particular exercises or machines. It helped that my favourite science at the time was biology, so a lot of what I was looking at very quickly made sense to me.
However, how heavy should I go? How many times should I lift/press/push/pull? I turned to sports and fitness magazines as a fountain of eye-opening information that was actually just perfect for a beginner like me [at the time].
‘… and they were like beasts in the gym because of it!’
So, what I read was that you should perform the given exercises for ten repetitions at a time, and do that three times before moving on to the next machine or free-weight. What it didn’t tell me was *Why*… but at the time, I didn’t really care too much. I understood that that was how many times I was supposed to lift, and that when lifting a certain amount of weight became too easy, that I should then look to increase that weight!
“Progressive loading” – although I didn’t know the term at the time, was what would ultimately lead to me seeing quite decent results in both improved strength as well as putting on a couple of pounds of lean muscle over time. Then one day I read a workout that prescribed FOUR sets… wait, *four*? Okay… well hey, that’s just one extra set, so that’s manageable. But no change to the reps, so I guess it made sense, right?
I started taking protein shakes, and even looking into other supplements; I knew of a couple of guys in the years above me who had been taking something called Creatine, and they were like beasts in the gym because of it! (Again, keep in mind, I’m talking about back when we were teenagers, and these guys were only 18, so for us – at that age – it seemed big).
I would try to vary up my exercises every couple of weeks and try working the same muscle but in different ways; over the course of the next year or two, I would very steadily go on to gain a solid 14lbs of muscle! Still though, only weighing in at a humble 168lbs – still barely a “middleweight” in boxing classes, so not really that heavy; but I was *lean*.
But okay, I know – ‘Chris, “Sets & Reps” – get on with it, dude!’… So, I had been on something of a solo journey those first couple of years, and then I started to workout with and learn from other people once I had gone on to university. My eyes were opened up to higher reps and lower reps, doing “warm up sets”, and doing 5-6 (+) sets of exercises! What became instantly noticeable was how massively different an exercise would feel if you lifted for – say – 20 reps versus lifting significantly heavier for only four or five reps.
I’ve gone ahead and re-created the diagram that most clearly demonstrates the effects of rep range here:
Now, here is where training starts to take on new dimensions: Strength, Hypertrophy and Endurance. Each of these will achieve something entirely different, however, you can work them into your training program with a high degree of synergy if done correctly. First though, let’s get a better understanding of what each of these terms means…
The best place to start is with “Endurance”; now I don’t say this just as a topic in this post, but actually, endurance training is actually the best place to start for anyone who is new to lifting. Back in the day, I skipped right on up to Hypertrophy (without even realizing it), but it might have been wiser to have started here. See, when you lift for 12-15 reps [or more], you will have to lift a significantly lighter load than you may do for five or six reps, for example.
The reason is obvious: the fewer times you have to lift something, the heavier load you can actually manage. Consider removal men – they’ll often lift huge beds and sofas that weight a TON (not literally), and really, they’ll only want to have to lift it up *once*, shimmy it over to where it needs to live, and then set it down. Smaller items like TVs and boxes, however, they can easily pick up and put down as many times as needed.
By lifting a weight several times (twelve or more), you are teaching your muscles to “endure” a lot of resistance in terms of having to repetitively lift the same load again and again many, many times. This is why if you go to a Les Mills class (take Body Pump as the BEST example), you will most likely perform anywhere up to a HUNDRED repetitions of the same exercise before moving onto the next. So, for a lot of people who are used to curling 16kg (35lbs) dumbbells in each hand [for 7-10 reps], if they decide to “mix things up” and try out something like a Body Pump class, their ego is quickly put in check as they realize that they can only lift barelyyyy half that “normal” load for so many more reps.
‘… a Body Pump aficionado is flat out just NOT going to be particularly strong…’
So, the one thing I notice about Les Mills advocates is that while they’re not necessarily “ripped” or “huge”, they are very “fit” in that they can *endure* a lot of exercise! And that’s all good and well, but it isn’t conducive to a well-rounded level of fitness; I say this not because we should all be “ripped & huge”, rather that there are other realms that we can (and debatably shoullld) explore, such as Strength, and even POWER! (The latter will see its own post soon!).
See, a Body Pump aficionado is flat out just NOT going to be particularly strong [in the traditional sense] if that’s all they do week in, week out; nor will they have much in the way of “explosive” power… but they will outlast many of us who neglect to incorporate endurance training into our programming!
Then we have this fancy term: Hypertrophy (the pronunciation for which is hotly debated – is it hy-PER-trophy, or hyper-trophy?). All it really means (roughly) is “building muscle”. And this is that “7-10” rep range that you can see on the diagram [above]. Soooo… back when I was harping on about ‘3 Sets of 10 Reps’ – this is what all these “muscle magazines” were touting: the “perfect” range of repetitions to instigate/promote the MOST muscle *growth*.
Of course, you look at the cover models on these mags, and they’re all glistening Adonises whose bodies are the envy of the masses. Therefore, it only makes sense that for years the most highly prescribed rep range was *10* reps, after all – a) it’s a f*cking simply number to remember/count to, b) it’s been shown by science to be the most effective number of reps to trigger muscle growth, and c) that’s what we all wanted to read for decades, so why recommend anything else?
Volume is another issue. For endurance, it’s simple and effective to keep your number of sets lower – doing one big ol’ set of 100 reps, or doing a couple of sets of 30, or a fewww sets of 15(ish)…
‘… “5×5” is the “classic” Strength lifting volume.’
A lot of the selection there depends largely on how intense you want your sets to be. But with Hypertrophy, again – three sets is just simple to adhere to, and so is four. But let’s consider ‘German High Volume Training’ for a moment; TEN *sets* of ten reps… ‘This is madness’, I hear you utter. Madness you say? This. Is. Well… not Sparta… but taking the lands of muscle building and cultivating new possibilities! Now, I’ll expand on GHVT another time, but just know that if you should wish to try it, it is long, hard, gruelling, and a tad boring… but the results can be quite astounding!
But now, let us quickly consider volume in the context of Strength training: generally, it is recommended that you should perform more SETS when you train for strength, the most concise and obvious reason being that you’re only lifting the weight a handful of times (at best), so to get the most benefit from it, it makes sense to do this for more than just a couple of sets per exercise. You’ll typically find that ‘5×5’ is the “classic” Strength lifting volume.
So, with that said, let’s segue into Strength (regarding *reps*) right here: as seen in the diagram, you’ll notice that you’re only lifting the weight for about 2 to 5 repetitions (only ONCE if you’re testing your “one rep max” – more on that another time). Now, there’s a good reason why the diagram is in the shape of a pyramid, and why I said before that *endurance* is a good place to start… it’s illustrative of the order that you should look to progress your training.
If you’re totally new to lifting, then it is highly unlikely that you will have the kind of raw strength needed to truly benefit from Strength training, so you should look to work on your muscular endurance first, potentially add some muscle mass next, and then develop strength afterwards. Once you have progressed through these “levels”, you can then “mix & match” a little more creatively as your body becomes adapted and you earn more experience as a lifter.
One thing that is markedly different with strength training – other than just lifting far heavier than the other two methods – is that you’ll need to ensure that you take adequate rest periods in between sets!
Generally speaking, with endurance and hypertrophy training, you only need to rest for *up to* a minute (90secs MAX – much more and you’re just wasting time). However, the load and stress that you put on the nervous system during strength-based training is significant, and so, not only do the muscles need longer to recover between sets, but your entire body (CNS – central nervous system) does too!
Therefore, you’ll want to take *at least* two to five minutes rest between sets. Now, you may think, ‘But Chris, if I take that long, I’ll be there forever!’. Not the case – don’t forget, you’re only lifting the weight a few times (maybe up to five), not ten, fifteen, thirty times; so it’ll take about the same amount of overall time, depending on how many exercises you perform.
You’ll probably only want to do about a handful of BIG lifts for Strength training, whereas, with hypertrophy and/or endurance, you may want to do several different exercises.
Last thing I want to touch upon before we wrap things up here: Exercise Selection… Now, like with so many things, I can write an entire post on this topic alone, but let me just leave you with the basics for now.
So, when selecting exercises for your Strength routine, you’ll want to look at performing “compound exercises” – ones that involve more than just one muscle group (the technical definition being one that involves movement at more than one *joint*). So, something like a Deadlift is a phenomenal compound move because it involves numerous muscle groups and multiple joints; or even something as basic as the Bench Press – you’re moving through the shoulder joints, elbows and wrists, and using the pectorals and triceps (primarily, also other smaller muscles as stabilizers). These work well for strength-based training.
However, if you’re looking to build muscle (Hypertrophy training), then “isolation exercises” – ones that only move through a single joint (and focus on one muscle group, though often involve additional ones that perform the opposite part of the movement) is going to work very well for this.
Endurance is kind of a middle ground when it comes to reaping benefits from isolation or compound exercises because the load being moved is so light that actually doing either will work well; though – arguably – compound exercises are best all-round as they’re highly more functional by nature.
So that’s it for today’s post. As you’ll have seen – sets and reps do mean something, in fact, they mean a lot! And although this is a mammoth-sized post, it really only barely covers the true extent of detail that could be gone into. Selection of rep range and set volume is largely based on your specific training goals, and if you’re a more experienced gym-buff then it doesn’t hurt to change up your routine and try something new!
I hope you found this article useful, and as always, wish you the best in your fitness endeavours.
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO