When I started lifting most of my exercises were done in 3 sets of 10.
I do not know the exact source of these two magical numbers but there is an aura about them.
Everything was done in 3×10 from main lifts to accessory work. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with this for a long time.
When I got to college and a friend of mine would write workouts for me I realized that not only was I allowed to do reps for less than 10, I didn’t have to do 3 sets either.
There are a lot of people out there that still follow the idea of 3×10 in order to get bigger and stronger.
What they do not know is that their system is flawed and needs to be modified.
Training for strength needs a little more attention that just doing 3 sets of 10 on everything from squats to bicep curls.
Determining the Number of Reps
There are some general guidelines when it comes to selecting a rep range to train in.
12-15 reps for muscular endurance
8-12 for hypertrophy or size
1-6 for strength (and also power)
These are pretty good guidelines from a strength training perspective because working in the 1-6 range is typically enough weight to elicit the right effects.
Higher rep ranges are great for doing accessory work and getting the type of volume work in that is necessary.
These guidelines work perfect for someone that has a history of strength training.
Someone new to the iron game will struggle with 2’s and 3’s if they haven’t spent enough time developing the neural efficiency to lift.
Beginners need to spend time doing the higher rep ranges. At first they will make a ton of progress since no matter what they do will provide a training stimulus.
It also takes 6 weeks for a beginner to develop their nervous system to the point that strength and hypertrophy can be trained for.
Once a beginning lifter has mastered their technique, they should spend about 3 weeks at 10 reps and another 3 weeks at 8 reps.
One last side note to teaching technique: when learning technique it is best to do more sets at lower (5-6) reps in order to teach the technique before fatigue sets in. Fatigue will ruin technique and it is not the time to do tons of volume.
Determining the Number of Sets
The number of sets has a little bit more gray area when it comes to choosing a good range.
The guidelines are as follows:
2-3 for muscular endurance
3-6 for hypertrophy
2-6 for strength
I have seen sets as high as 10 and have even done some exercises for just 1 set as well.
This all depends on the lift, the ability of the lifter, and the goal.
Sticking to these ranges is a good way to go, generally speaking.
When training for strength it is not very often that I go as high as 6 sets for an exercise but it happens. When it does it is usually in a 4 week cycle that builds up to the 6 sets and deloads the next week.
An example of that may be:
Week 1- 4×4
Week 2- 3×4
Week 3- 6×3
Week 4- 2×3
This is called non linear periodization because it does not follow a straight line of progression.
In linear periodization someone may stick with sets of 4 but drop the reps by two every other week. This is optimal for new lifters.
Beginners must get through a linear periodization before they can even think about getting too creative with reps and sets.
Wrapping it Up
In order to actually build strength we cannot just stick with 3×10.
Even beginners should start with 3×10 for 2-3 weeks but start working toward heavier weights and less reps.
Once we can start training for strength we will not only get stronger, but we will be building muscle as well.
Just because we didn’t do reps in the hypertrophy range doesn’t mean that we do not get any muscle growth.
In order to adapt the muscle has to grow. Body builders have their own systems for training but the average person does not need to worry about maximal hypertrophy.
The stronger we get, the more muscle we develop. The more muscle we have the leaner we will be and stay. Strong people move and feel a lot better than those who are not.
If you want to get stronger, lose fat, or just feel better you have to train for strength and move beyond the old notion of 3 sets of 10.