Skip to content

3 sets of 10 repetitions (3 x 10): The story, the logic, the argumentation

3 Sätze a 10 Wiederholungen (3 x 10): Die Geschichte, die Logik, die Argumentation

Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with a friend of mine who recently completed his training as a physiotherapist. As we discussed the relative merits of different training protocols, my friend lamented that people in his profession rely too heavily on standard protocols for rehab training their patients. In his view, many physical therapists tend to prescribe programs of 3 sets of 10 repetitions to their patients regardless of training experience, age and personal preference.

My friend has been strength training for about a decade, which may explain his enthusiasm for varying repetition ranges for different populations. Over the course of their training careers, exercisers use 5 x 5, 3 x 8, 1 x 20 and a variety of other set and repetition schemes. For this reason, they know the effects that different training protocols can have. But even outside the world of physiotherapy, it is common to see exercisers following certain training protocols with almost religious fervor. When was the last time you heard anyone promote a program with 4 sets of 11 repetitions? That would be sacrilege...repetition ranges must be divisible by 2 for the vast majority of exercisers!

In fact, it's not just the world of physiotherapy that has fallen in love with 3 sets of 10 repetitions. Many programs for beginners and advanced exercisers also propagate this scheme. When I completed my first "real" 5 x 5 program, I was encouraged by older exercisers to move to a 3 x 10 program as an introduction to bodybuilding. With that in mind, in this article I'd like to explore the history of the 3 x 10 training program - a training protocol favored by many exercisers and physical therapists alike.

In search of the founder...

In my articles, I regularly deal with the fact that exercisers take conventional wisdom in the field of weight training and bodybuilding for granted without questioning it. Barbell squats appear to be a timeless exercise, but if you take a closer look at their history, you will see that they only appeared on the scene in the early twentieth century. The same applies to the traditional bench press. Our basic exercises are actually quite modern. The same is true for a 3-set, 10-rep workout - a training protocol popularized during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

However, our story begins in the early decades of the 20th century with a boy from Alabama who was born in 1917. Thomas Lanier DeLorme experienced a number of adversities during his formative years. He struggled with the poverty of the "Great Depression" years and a nasty bout of rheumatic fever. His youthful body was therefore quite fragile. Although he eventually reached a height of over 180 centimeters, DeLorme was confined to bed for four months during his teenage years to aid his recovery from a fever that had slimmed him down to 63 kilos. As reported by ranking physical culture elders Jan and Terry Todd, DeLorme used his time to study both medicine and muscle building.

Initially, DeLorme chose to study medicine because he wanted to help others who needed help. This selfless goal was accompanied by his second decision to not only rebuild his body, but to improve his physical development as well. Therefore, this young man spent his time flipping back and forth between medical textbooks and issues of Strength&Health - a strange, but admittedly profitable combination. In 1939, DeLorme was accepted to the University of Alabama for medical school. From there, he went to New York to continue his studies and change the world of mucoskeletal rehabilitation.

The war, weightlifting and Watkins...the experiments begin

Once in New York, DeLorme was contacted by a sergeant named Walter Easley, who wanted to discuss his recent knee surgery with DeLorme. After being told by doctors that his knee would never fully recover, Easley sought out the young man from Alabama in his search for help. Easley had followed instructions to do light training for his rehabilitation with almost religious fervor. Such advice was backed up by leading American physiotherapist R. Tait McKenzie, who believed that heavy training was counterproductive on the road to recovery. This advice was followed by many physiotherapists. But DeLorme was not one of them.

Instead, DeLorme advised Easley to use the maximum amount of weight with which he could perform as many repetitions as possible. Using iron shoes, Easley performed up to 70 repetitions of leg extensions per leg. This was an unorthodox approach that resulted in near-complete rehabilitation. As news of Easley's rehabilitation spread, DeLorme's reputation and notoriety increased. Other members of the Army began to follow DeLorme's advice, which promoted heavy resistance training.

Fortunately for DeLorme - and unfortunately for his patients - the United States was in the midst of World War II when DeLorme's career in rehabilitation began. This meant an almost endless supply of soldiers looking for help rehabilitating and healing damaged ligaments, bones and stress fractures. These were the perfect subjects for DeLorme's theories. DeLorme soon joined the Army with Dr. Arthur Watkins, who held similar views, and these two men began to make history.

In 1945, DeLorme wrote a paper entitled "Restoration of muscle power by heavy-resistance exercises," which was published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Using 300 case studies, he observed an excellent response in muscle hypertrophy and strength combined with an improvement in symptoms when patients followed his method of 7 to 10 sets of 10 repetitions. The exercisers started with a relatively light weight and increased it until they reached their maximum weight for 10 repetitions.

In 1948 and again in 1951, DeLorme and Watkins changed their views as experience had shown that this volume was too high and in most cases 20 to 30 total repetitions led to better results. Fewer repetitions allowed training with heavier weights, which led to stronger and faster muscle hypertrophy.

Training with progressive resistance: 3 x 10 Magnum Opus

DeLorme and Watkins therefore began to promote fewer repetitions and a focus on heavier weights instead. They did this using scientific studies. Studies that were more replicable than the advice of the muscular guy in the gym. Along with several other authors, the two wrote the scientific treatise Progressive Resistance Exercise, a medical textbook published in 1951 and one of the first large-scale exercise books of the era. This book was in many ways a starting point for exercise science.

Frustratingly, I owned a copy of this book, but unfortunately it was lost when I moved house. Such is life... But thanks to the excellent Dave Draper Forum(https://www.davedraper.com/fusionbb/showtopic.php?tid/21871/ ) we can find some excerpts of this book on the internet without buying a new copy.

On the speed of repetition:

"The development and release of tension should be smooth and without pause at the highest or lowest point of the movement. The weight should neither be moved ballistically upwards with momentum nor dropped downwards under the influence of gravity."

On the number of repetitions:

"The number of contractions per repetition is arbitrarily set at 10. If fewer repetitions were necessary, the weight could be increased. Whether 10 is the optimal number for rapid gains in strength has never been determined by any criteria other than empirical experience of exercisers. However, it is probably the number that is close to the optimum."

On the duration of rests between sets:

"The length of rest intervals between bouts is important only insofar as it affects the total work that can be performed during a treatment phase. Short rest intervals are likely to reduce the number of repetitions that can be performed with the prescribed number of repetitions of 10. All existing data tends to suggest that prolonged training is not the primary prerequisite for increasing strength. Strength development - the amount of work performed within a unit of time - is important. A short but intense effort is the goal that should always be kept in mind."

On warming up/increasing weight from set to set:

"The increased temperature within the muscle is believed to affect the viscous and elastic properties of the contractile tissue in a way that increases the work performed during the same energy production, based on an acceleration of the chemical processes involved.

By initially using light weights and increasing the weight after each set of 10 repetitions, the muscle is warmed up and prepared to release its maximum force for 10 repetitions...

Performing only 10 repetitions with the 10RM weight would result in roughly the same strength gains as performing 3 sets. If it were not necessary to physiologically prepare the muscle for a maximum effort, then one set of 10 repetitions would be sufficient.

This has been demonstrated time and time again in the clinical treatment of injuries in young athletes... As amazing as it may seem, many athletes have developed great strength by never performing more than 5 repetitions of a single exercise. The amount of weight moved appears to be the key factor in stimulating hypertrophy.

Some scientists believe that it is the amount of work performed in a unit of time that is responsible for strength. Although not conclusive, observations suggest that it is the tension that the muscle has to develop that is largely - if not exclusively - responsible for stimulating hypertrophy and increasing strength.

The warm-up should not interfere with performing 10 repetitions with the 10RM weight. In other words, if the patient is too fatigued to perform 10 repetitions with the 10RM weight after performing the first 10 repetitions with the first weight (50% of the 10RM weight) and 10 repetitions with the second weight (75% of the 10RM weight), only 5 repetitions should be performed on the first two sets so that the patient is fresher and more rested for the 10 repetitions with the 10RM weight.

Another option is to skip the middle set of 10 repetitions (75% of the 1RM weight) and go straight to 10 repetitions with the 10RM weight after the first set of 10 repetitions with 50% of the 10RM weight.

Patients are regularly unable to perform 10 repetitions with the 10RM weight if they have not previously performed a set with a lighter weight."

On the training effect on the muscle:

"An increase in strength is accompanied by a measurable increase in size, which is attributable to hypertrophy of pre-existing muscle fibers rather than hyperplasia. The amount of connective tissue also increases and the sarcolemma becomes thicker. There is an increase in the number of capillaries and the content of muscle hemoglobin, phosphocreatine and glycogen increases. The net effect of these changes is an increase in endurance, which is sometimes impressive."

On the optimal number of total repetitions:

"In the first publications dealing with progressive resistance training, 70 to 100 repetitions were advocated, with these repetitions performed as part of 7 to 10 sets of 10 repetitions. Further experience has shown that this number is too high and that in most cases 20 to 30 total repetitions provide far more satisfactory results. Fewer repetitions allow training with heavy weights and lead to stronger and faster muscle hypertrophy."

Perform three sets of 10 repetitions. On the first set, use 50% of your maximum weight for 10 reps. Use 75% of your maximum weight for 10 reps on the second set and use 100% of your 10RM weight on the last set.

An explanation for the popularity of this training protocol

For physical therapists, the appeal of this program is easy to explain. DeLorme and Watkins had provided replicable evidence that this program helps build muscle and make patients more flexible and stronger. This was scientific evidence at its best. In addition, this program was easy to explain to patients and short enough to ensure compliance.

Whether the modern physiotherapists my friend referred to actually follow these protocols to the letter is another matter. It seems that many simply recommend 3 sets of 10 reps, with no emphasis on progressively heavier weights. However, this is a completely different story for another day and is no doubt influenced by the fact that for some strange reason, not everyone has the ability or interest to go to a gym.

When it comes to bodybuilders, the appeal of this approach is a little harder to pin down. While DeLorme and Watkins were primarily targeting the medical community, their interest in training brought them into contact with the world of bodybuilding and strength training. In fact, in the 1940s, DeLorme was known to be in contact with the likes of John Farbotnik, the 1950 Mr. America.

There is also speculation that bodybuilder George Eiferman knew DeLorme, although this is harder to pin down. The truth may in fact be that DeLorme and Watkins had simply found the scientific rationale for a training protocol that had been used before in the field of bodybuilding. Certainly the old Bob Hoffman courses already propagated 10 to 15 repetitions.

What was probably new about the DeLorme and Watkins approach was the recommendations on the weights used (i.e. 50%, 75% and 100%). The longevity and popularity of their protocols could be attributed to the fact that they are effective. This is something that anyone who has tried them will tell you and for this reason, this approach is still being promoted by modern trainers.

Source: HTTPS://PHYSICALCULTURESTUDY.COM/2017/08/04/3-SETS-X-10-REPS-THE-HISTORY-LOGIC-AND-REASONING/#MORE-10233

Previous article The definitive guide to preventing muscle loss