The last time you went to the gym to lift weights, how many sets and reps did you do of each exercise? The answer is probably the same for most people: 3 sets of 10 reps.
Why is 3X10 the default set-and-rep scheme so many people use? Does it work as well as advertised? And most important, is there a better way?
Whether you’re aiming to gain muscle, build strength or cross-train, there’s a set-and-rep range that will work best for you. Spoiler alert: It’s not always 3X10, and here’s why.
THE ORIGIN OF 3X10
To learn where the 3X10 approach came from and became accepted as strength training gospel, crack open an American history book to the World War II section.
In the 1940s, army physician Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme needed a faster way to get his injured soldiers back on the battlefield. Typical rehab protocols called for light weight and high reps, but soldiers were spending 6–9 months recovering. DeLorme, an avid weightlifter himself, knew there had to be a better way.
So, DeLorme developed a regimen that called for 3 sets of 10 reps with increasingly heavier weights, a drastic change from the wimpy weights and endless reps previously prescribed. The results were outstanding, and soldiers returned to battle faster than ever.
More important than the 3X10 scheme, DeLorme’s implementation of progressive overload (i.e. gradually increasing the weight lifted over time) soon became the staple protocol for strength training. This concept is still the Holy Grail of getting stronger indefinitely: lift a little bit more than you did last time, rest and repeat.
A REP RANGE FOR EVERY GOAL
But what if you’re not an injured soldier? What if you have different goals, like losing weight or running faster? Well, then there’s probably a better set-and-rep range for you than 3X10. Here are a handful of options based on your goals.
TO LOSE WEIGHT
Intensity: 1–2 reps shy of failure
Equipment: Free weights, bodyweight or machines
When people want to lose weight, they automatically assume they should do light weights for tons of reps. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. To lose weight, you’re likely be in a caloric deficit (i.e. eating fewer calories than you’re burning), which means you won’t have a ton of energy reserved to do high reps. Instead, stick to moderate weight and moderate reps. Heavier weights also give your body a reason to hang on to hard-earned muscle as you lose weight.
TO GET REALLY STRONG
Intensity: 2–3 reps shy of failure
Equipment: Mostly free weights (but some machines are OK, too)
There’s no sugar coating it; getting strong takes a lot of work. And by work, we mean lifting progressively heavier weights over time. Skip the light dumbbells and sets of 20. Instead, opt for big free-weight exercises that use lots of muscles (like squats, deadlifts and rows) and stick with lower rep ranges. Because you’ll be using more complicated exercises, stop each set 2–3 reps shy of failure to ensure your technique is on point.
TO BUILD MUSCLE
Reps: 8, 10, 12
Intensity: 1 rep shy of failure
Equipment: Free weights or machines
While heavy weights are best for getting stronger, building muscle requires a little more finesse. As hokey as it sounds, the “mind-muscle” connection is very real. Use lighter weights and focus on feeling the target muscle squeezing and burning. Use the same weight for each set, but gradually increase the reps each set until you’re just shy of failure. This laser-like focus leads to rapid gains in muscle tone and size.
TO RUN FASTER AND JUMP HIGHER
Intensity: Light to moderate (but move the weight as fast as possible)
Equipment: Free weights
Running faster and jumping higher requires more efficient recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. While it’s usually best to lift weights in a slow, controlled manner, lifting weights explosively targets your fast-twitch fibers to make you faster and more athletic. Use lower-body free-weight exercises like squats or kettlebell swings and keep the reps low so you can put everything you have into every set. And finally, don’t go too heavy; if the weight isn’t moving quickly, lighten the load.
TO BUILD ENDURANCE
Reps: 12 or more
Intensity: Failure (keep going until you can’t do any more reps)
Sometimes one set is all it takes. If endurance is the name of the game, it’s likely you’re using strength training as cross-training for a sport like running, cycling or swimming. Being brutally strong isn’t all that important, so pick a weight, do as many reps as you can (ideally 12 or more) and move on to the next exercise. Machines work best for training to failure since you’re less likely to use poor technique compared to free-weight exercises.