What’s the deal with 3 sets/10 reps?…

Everyone has their own way of studying for a test.  You might go hard for hours with no rest in between.  You may take many breaks and focus on a lot of different info during the study session.  Or, you just pace slow and take breaks when needed.  So, when it comes to exercise why does everyone hear about and follow the same “3 sets of 10 reps” rule?

What this means is that every time you workout, you are focusing on performing the exercise 3 times.  Every time you perform the exercise it is performed for 10 repetitions.  When you have completed 3 sets of 10 reps you just performed 30 repetitions.

When you do your own research on this topic you are going to find an array of people agreeing, disagreeing, and people getting outright enraged with everyone and their theories.

First off, if you have specific goals in mind (strength gains, bodybuilding, toning, etc.) this will change the amount of repetitions you are to perform during sets.  If your goal is to gain strength, the general rule of thumb is to perform around 6 reps.  If you are looking to tone you are going to end up in the higher rep range which is around 13-20 reps.  If you want to focus on muscle hypertrophy, then your rep range is usually between 8-12 reps.  So, the amount of reps you perform is pretty much based on your fitness goals.  Since we are all individuals and our bodies are all unique, adapting to stimulus differently, even these numbers will need some adjusting during your training.

But, what about the rule of 3 sets?  Man, oh man!  There is just not a set answer out there!  The 3 sets 10 reps rule began in the 1940’s and 1950’s when an Army surgeon general concluded that three sets were better than one.  But, there are training programs that do use the 1 set rule as a training regimen.  People that use this training method of 1 set say that mental focus, intensity, and speed of the rep are detrimental to this type of training.  I have to say, aren’t ALL of those factors detrimental to any training regimen, regardless of sets?

First off, if you feel the 1 set rule is working for you I truly think it is important to at least get a warm-up set before you perform the high intensity 1 set workout. In my opinion without having a warm-up set, it is difficult to perform a heavy weight, high intensity 1 set workout.  A warm-up set can even be necessary when abiding by the 3 set rule.  Remember, it’s really all personal preference, but you don’t want your muscles to be tight and not loosened up before a workout.

Second, studies are showing that when compared to 1 set, the 3 set rule is allowing for greater strength gains…up to 46% in one study!  Some people even exceed the 3 sets rule and aim for 4-6 sets, but usually with less reps and heavier weights.  Most studies only focus on the 3 set rule, so there isn’t much data out there on strength gains exceeding 3 sets.

Lastly, just remember what your fitness goals are and find ways to adjust your workout to fit your desired outcome.  I generally do not lift to tone.  I lift to put on some muscle and am hoping in the near future I can train to put on more.  I do live by the 3 sets rule (sometimes adding in a 4th set if I’m feeling freaking awesome!)  and I lift until I cannot lift anymore, which is between 8-10 reps.  I want to lift heavy to put on muscle, therefore I do not perform a lot of reps.  If I can lift a weight more than 12 reps, I am now into the toning stage of training and my weight is not heavy enough for my training desires.  I also lift with intensity, focus, and I lift slowly-not lifting fast compromising my form.  But, I have had days where I was sick and all I performed was 2 sets of each exercise.  2 sets are better than none!

You can always change up your sets by using drop sets, pyramid workouts, circuits, 21’s, super sets (click and see super-sets for bi’s/tri’s and shoulders), negatives, partials (21’s again), etc.  Just find ways to tailor sets to your workouts.  Everyone is different and we all succeed differently.  That’s what makes us unique and allows for so much debate on the 3 sets 10 reps topic!

Check out this article for information regarding working out for beginners.  It’s great and sets forth some clear strategies and key points in exercise.

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