I’m a member of a peer group of local business leaders that meets monthly. Each month, we have a top-notch speaker come and talk. It’s usually around a business-related topic. However, once year, there is a speaker that comes to talk about health and wellness. While most people in the group dread this topic, I get very excited. This past month, we had a speaker that came to talk about fitness. The speaker was Luke Carlson (great first name) and the title of his presentations was “Sharpen The Saw: Evidence-Based Fitness For The High Performing Executive”.
Over the almost four hours of time he talked with us, he not only debunked several workout and training myths that most people believe, but he also presented a simple resistance workout that anyone can fit into their busy schedule. You can learn more about Luke and his training program at his website: https://www.discoverstrength.com/
One of the more interesting subjects he approached was how many reps and sets you should do when lifting weights.
I started lifting weights around age 13. My Dad knew the benefits of resistance training even back in the early 1990’s. There was some good information available thanks to Joe Weider’s books and magazines and the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger. My Dad encouraged my brothers and I to lift weights to not only get stronger for sports, but to feel better and have more energy. We had some old concrete dumbbells, bars and a bench in the basement and would lift several days a week after school.
Even way back then, everywhere you read told you to do 3 sets of 10. That’s 10 repetitions of the specified weight, followed by a rest period, 10 more reps, rest and then a final set of 10 reps. With the exception of a few periods of time off here and there, I’ve pretty consistently lifted weights for the last 30 years. Throughout that time, I’ve always fallen back to doing something close to 3 sets of 10 whenver I'm in the gym or lifting at home. I would adjust how heavy I lifted depending on my goals at the time but would always do multiple sets of 8-10 repetitions. But why? Where did this 3 sets of 10 come from? Why does everyone do it?
Where Did 3 Sets of 10 Originate?
What I learned during Luke’s discussion was that the thoughts around 3 sets of 10 in strength and conditioning was first coined in 1948 in a paper by T.L. Delorme and A.L. Watkins titled, “Techniques of Progressive Resistance”. The idea seems logical. 3 separate sets of 10 exercises allow muscles to gain strength and endurance. Moreover, in addition the rest period between each set, the first 2 sets ramp up muscles for an intensive third set. But is this the most effective or efficient way to lift weights?
Turns out exercise science has come a long way in the last 70 years, and we now know much more about the human body and the way it responds to training. Many studies over the last decade show that the 3 sets of 10 reps approach is far from the most effective program for several reasons.
Despite this information, most mainstream fitness publications and websites continue to promote the 3 sets of 10 reps philosophy like it was not only the best way but the ONLY way to train. The 3 sets of 10 approach also does not allow for customization of volume (reps and sets) and intensity (amount of weight lifted).
If you have ever started a new training program, you know that your body adapts very quickly to the training stimuli and eventually you will stop responding to doing the same workout over and over. In order to continually progress you should consider breaking out of the 3 sets of 10 mindset.
What Should We Be Doing Instead?
When lifting weights, the goal for most people is to get strong. You may also lift to improve cardiovascular health, reduce blood pressure, increase bone density, improve cognitive and mental health, live longer or even just look better naked. Regardless of your personal why, you should maximize the amount of time your muscles are under tension. Accomplishing this is not possible if you limit yourself to a specific number of reps. If you can easily do 20 or more consecutive reps of the weight you are lifting, why would you only do 10? If you load up a weight that you can only do 6 times, is it too heavy since you can't get to 10 reps? Studies show that, regardless of the weight, it is best to do as many reps as possible until you physically can’t anymore. You’re trying to make your muscle tired. You’re trying to feel something by the end of it. Lifting until you can’t do another will accomplish this. Slowing the amount of time you take to lift and lower the weight can also increase your time under tension.
You should not even have to count the number of reps you do. Simply choose a weight and do as many reps as you can perform of the exercise until you fail. You can even just do one set. That’s right, just one set to failure of any given exercise while maintaining proper form and technique. Not counting is going to be hard for me to do as I often even find myself counting the number sips I take from the water fountain at the gym or counting the steps as I leave. Counting has always been part of my lifting routine, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
A study from the Journal of Sport and Health Science published in November of 2022 found that that a lower volume, higher effort approach should be encouraged. You can read the entire study here, but below are some of the quotes from the conclusion:
“encourage people to perform resistance training to momentary failure or as high an effort as they feel comfortable”
“ideally a trainee is less focused on performing a given number of repetitions and more focused on performing as many as possible”
“This guidance allows the freedom to prescribe exercise based on a more time-efficient, effort-based paradigm as opposed to on load/volume/repetitions, as has typically been suggested.”
If your goal is to gain muscle mass, drop sets is a great way to efficiently lift weights. A drop set is when you perform the exercise until failure, then lower the weight and continue with no rest in between. Or if you have a partner, you can do “negatives” or “eccentric” lifts, where you have assistance lifting the weight and then do reps lowing the weight slowly until failure.
I tried this single-set to failure approach for the first time this morning at the gym. I plan on using it for the next few months to see how my body reacts. I’m excited to not only see the results, but to be able to do more with the 40-50 minutes I have to lift in the mornings.
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Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,