Why Doing 3 Sets of 10 is DEAD

Introducing the Escalating Intensity Strategy to Help You Squeeze Every Little Bit of Benefit Out of Only 3 Sets of Work For 21st Century Results

Please tell me you haven’t been doing three sets of ten reps in your training program. Seriously, that is so 90’s. I mean, even the personal trainer at your local health club who got his cert from a mail-order catalog isn’t even prescribing that format anymore. And you know why? In a word, it’s generic. In a bunch of words, it’s generic, vague, impersonal, and lacking in all the fundamental qualities of customized program design, which doesn’t exactly work for individuals – like you and I. And that’s not exactly ideal, unless you particularly enjoy cookie-cutter, group fitness-esque training programs where everybody’s a winner, etc. etc., and you don’t really build a high standard of fitness – even though that’s what everyone wants.

female weightlifter

Now, don’t get me wrong because it’s not that doing 3 sets of 10 is inherently bad. The problem is that it was considered the gold standard for so long without ever being questioned for validity. It’s just what coaches, trainers, and instructors taught. It’s just what people did – for decades. But not anymore.

No no, today people are starting to wake up and realize that there’s more to working out than simply breaking a sweat. There’s more to working out than merely getting all your reps in. There’s more to working out than showing up, checking it off, and then going home to feel good about yourself. There’s more – much more.

Of course, you could be content with the old status quo and keep obtaining your marginal results – at least until you plateau, get injured, give up, and restart the process all over again. Be my guest, and let me know how that works out for you.

Now, you and I both know that that’s not really what we want. We want to not only clock in and do the work, we want to make the most of every second that we devote to bettering ourselves physically and our quality of life as a result. We want to milk it for all it’s worth – and a’milking we shall.

So, I’m going to show you one simple way to improve your training program by super-charging the simple 3×10 formula by making it a little bit more personalized (BIG step in the right direction to go with your training as a whole). The key is that we’re looking for quality here, people. And so, without further adieu, here’s the formula that I’ve used with great success with my clients and personally…

The 3-Set Escalating Intensity Strategy

The whole idea behind this strategy is to build intensity from set to set with the ultimate goal of peaking on the last set for an optimal performance. We want one really good set of work for the chosen exercise. A really good set is one in which excellent technique is maintained throughout and you’ve met or exceeded your target intensity level (e.g. your target rep range – or higher). In other words, you want to work as hard as you can safely maintain excellent technique and avoid muscle failure.

So, assuming you’re ready to do the work portion of your strength training session (ie you’ve already warmed up, and are primed and ready to lift, swing, etc.), you will complete the following:

First set (low intensity) – The first set is a warmup set performed at approximately 50% of your maximum ability. So, if you can perform roughly 12-15 repetitions in the chosen exercise with the chosen load, then your warmup set should be somewhere around 6-7 reps. The focus here is grooving optimal technique. Smooth and controlled repetitions should be used in most cases. Obviously, you will be able to do much more, but don’t give in to the temptation. Stop once you’ve hit 50% of your maximum ability and trust in the system to work even better if you save your effort for the last set.

Second set (moderate intensity) – The second set is meant to start building intensity and should be performed at approximately 60-70% of your maximum ability. When in doubt, err slightly on the lower repetition side (do one or two less than you think is necessary if you’re just not sure what 60-70% would be). The goal of this set is to send your body a signal that it’s going to have to work hard soon. But this should not be a high intensity set and should not fatigue you very much. Again, save it for round three.

Third set (high intensity) – The last set should be a near-max effort. I say near-max because you should not train to muscle failure. As long as you can maintain excellent technique, you should stop one rep short of failure. This is where you really crank up the juice and go to work. And chances are, when you first start feeling really tired, that’s when you’re about 50% done. Decide beforehand that you’re going to press through the discomfort and put in a full effort. Expect to surprise yourself, and visualize yourself succeeding. This is where you figure out what you’re really made of. So, go get it.

*Rest and Recover for 1-2 minutes between sets.

Note: this “straight-set” method is ideal for hitting a new repetition personal record, and is great for testing purposes in this context.

Also note: when applying this basic formula to weight lifting, changing poundage should be unnecessary from set to set. You will simply start with your normal working weight that is appropriate for the final set. Obviously, this formula is not suited for low rep lifting and one rep max testing, which should use very different protocols. I’d only recommend using this formula for sets of 8 or more repetitions.

Now, the basic straight-set method that was outlined above works great in-and-of-itself, but there are at least a couple other ways to program this strategy, too – each with their own unique advantages.

How to Apply the 3-Set Formula to a Superset

This is a good format if you prefer training antagonistic muscle groups in pairs, or if you like training complementary movement patterns. Exercises will be done back to back with no rest until after each superset. For example:

1A: pushup (low intensity)
1B: pullup (low intensity)

rest 1-2 minutes

2A: pushup (moderate intensity)
2B: pullup (moderate intensity)

rest 1-2 minutes

3A: pushup (high intensity)
3B: pullup (high intensity)

rest 1-2 minutes

How to Apply the 3-Set Formula to a Circuit Set

While I do love using the straight set formula for PR testing and supersets are great in the right context, I have a special place in my heart for using this method with circuit training. It’s identical to the superset formula above, except more exercises can be included. I’d recommend somewhere in the range of 3-6 exercises for one circuit. Again, exercises will be done back to back with no rest until after each circuit. For example:

1A: bodyweight squats (low intensity)
1B: pull-ups (low intensity)
1C: walking lunges (low intensity)
1D: pushups (low intensity)

rest 1-2 minutes

2A: bodyweight squats (moderate intensity)
2B: pull-ups (moderate intensity)
2C: walking lunges (moderate intensity)
2D: pushups (moderate intensity)

rest 1-2 minutes

3A: bodyweight squats (high intensity)
3B: pull-ups (high intensity)
3C: walking lunges (high intensity)
3D: pushups (high intensity)

rest 1-2 minutes

What makes this kind of circuit so special is that you’re gradually building the intensity of not just one exercise, but throughout your entire training session – resulting in a circuit of optimized performance at the end if you follow the formula. In my experience, the benefits from using this exact method are far superior to most other circuit training strategies I’ve ever tried. Peaking during the last round will provide a huge, positive training stimulus. It’s as simple as that. You can thank me later.

The Bottom Line

I’ll give it to you straight, but only because I like ya. 3×10 is dead, and a new age of fitness training has emerged. Training can and should take into account your personal needs and conditioning level. A one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it. It must – MUST – be customized, and fortunately, this is where the future of strength and conditioning is heading.

So, next time you have the opportunity, try out this super-charged strategy and pay attention to how much better it feels. If you follow the formula, you should feel tired, yet energized – not exhausted. So, get out there and do it.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking. – William B. Sprague

If you found this article helpful, please share it with your friends and tweeps:

Health-First Fitness Coach

P.S. If you liked this post, then please signup for the newsletter, or follow me on Facebook or Twitter for daily updates and other interesting info.

P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/imagesbywestfall/

6 Responses

  1. Hey John, Excellent post. I’ve been doing near the same thing for a bit now…in part I intutited it as what made the most sense. Us great minds think a like after all ;-) One other point.. this same approach can be applied to other training modalities across the physiologic spectrum also.. for instance the same approach in interval training. Have had phenomenal success with such with my athletes.. and as a more ‘seasoned’ runner ( ahh cough) find it not only more effective (it works thru the different energy systems) for myself but less ‘violent’ than conventional interval protocols.

    • Indeed, great minds think alike, Joe. And you STOLE my thunder buddy. A follow-up post about applying this strategy to the tabata-inspired HIIT is forthcoming. Stay tuned.

  2. I never said a word, really. ;-)

  3. Great article, John! I had trained for some time on EDT – Escalating Density Training by Charles Staley – which has some similarities to this. EDT served me very well before I got into Kettlebells, Clubbells, Tacfit, etc. EDT does not exactly utilize the escalating intensity as you’ve described here. But I actually found myself doing this intuitively. (Maybe I was doing EDT + EIS combo?). I had found myself getting stronger around the 2nd or 3rd set of each exercise. I attributed this to my muscled being pumped after a couple of sets because I always warmed up thoroughly (although without weights) before each session. So I often increased the weight in the middle of my workout. Since EDT workouts are designed to be at weights of moderate intensity like you described (70% max), I was maybe approaching high intensity poundages but not as high as you mentioned. Very interesting…thanks!!!

    • Thanks for the note, Paul. EDT is a great training method, and hence, was the inspiration for naming this little protocol. That’s an interesting idea to combine the two. I’ll have to try that sometime.

  4. Scott Sheaffer

    The 3 sets of 10 rep scheme was first popularized during World War II by Dr. Thomas Lanier Delorme as a method for rehabing injured soldiers. At first Delorme tried 7 sets of ten, but over time, and after a number of studies he settled on 3 sets as the most effective. Delorme’s patients began doubling their strength within a few weeks. Soldiers who were told by other doctors that they would never be able to walk without knee braces again were soon able to discard the braces. Three sets of 10 also proved effective for polio patients too. From there 3 sets of 10 entered the popular consciousness.
    Delorme’s approach to how to do 3 sets of 10 was an escalating intensity strategy similar to what you propose here. The only difference is you change the number of reps each set, Delorme changed the weight. Delorme’s first set was at 50% of the patients’ 10 rep max. The second set was 75%. The third set was at 100%, but patients were supposed to try to get more than 10 reps. Once they could, they increased the weight and the corresponding percentages. Delorme also advised against going to failure. So while you change reps each set and Delorme changed weight, the broad outline is the same, a low intensity first set, followed by a moderate intensity second set, followed by a high intensity final set in which the trainee tries to as many reps as possible in good form.
    If Delorme’s 3 sets of 10 was cookie cutter, it would be understandable, it was implemented by limited staff in hospitals deluged with rehab patients. However, carried out with the escalating intensity Delorme called for it was actually just as flexible as what you outline here.
    All this doesn’t mean someone should automatically choose 3 sets of 10. Different set and rep schemes can server different purposes. As a kid, I started with 3 sets of 10 because as you noted here, it was pretty much what the most widely advocated set and rep scheme, so that’s what I learned. Later I became more interested in strength, and
    I gravitated to lower rep schemes. When I resumed lifting after a break of many years, I found sets of five were great for my purpose. (And while some 5 rep protocols call for sets across, others like Bill Starr’s 5×5 escalate intensity by changing the weight between sets.) Currently, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of variations of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. Again, 5/3/1 has escalating intensity between the three work sets. Many standard variations also call for getting as many reps as possible without going to failure on the third work set.
    My point is that you and the guy who popularized 3 sets of 10 were both on the same track in believing in escalating intensity between sets.
    Here’s an in depth article about Delorme. Note that his physique in the pictures from the 1930s was developed decades before lifters and bodybuilders started using steroids. (Steroid use amongst lifters and other athletes seems to have started when Ziegler started conducting experiments with Olympic lifter Bill March after experiments with synthetic testosterone like that which the Soviets were using in the 1950s proved unsatisfactory.

Leave a Reply