Exercise forums are littered with “programs” that follow the 3 sets of 10 repetitions model, usually targeting 2 body parts for 3–4 exercises each. For beginners, this approach works. The issue with this approach is that once you’ve plateaued your beginner gains, you likely won’t continue progressing. We’re going to explore the 3×10 and some different methods for busting plateaus.
Where did the 3×10 come from?
A 3 x 10 refers to a set and rep model, presumably made popular by Thomas DeLorme and Dr Thomas Watkins sometime in the 1940’s. At the time they were using this exercise approach to rehab soldiers who were jacked up from war as well as polio patients. There is some thought that this approach was already being used by bodybuilders and weightlifters of the time.
DeLormes research was undoubtedly successful. The 3×10 can take you from zero to 60 in mere months. But then fizzles out. For most, your main lifts will only increase for so long before this type of programming is ineffective. If you’re training purely for strength, you will not have enough intensity, or weight moved. And for endurance you won’t have enough volume, or repetitions.
Who is the 3×10 approach best for? While I do not think the 3×10 approach is beneficial to most, the science is still there. So, if you’re brand new to lifting weights or strength training, the 3×10 workout plan is a simple, straight forward approach to getting started. It’s also very possible that your trainer may find this approach to be best for you. But for many people who’ve been in the gym for some time, this approach just isn’t as efficient as others
What to consider instead.
First determine what the end goal is. Strength, muscle size, endurance, somewhere in the middle? For simplicity, if you’re looking to increase your strength only then a 5×5 program is the best option out there. If you’re looking for muscle size and hypertrophy, then a variable 4×12 program is great for most. But I take a little bit of a different approach (which is basically an amalgamated step child of 5×5 and 4×12) and prescribe our clients to a similar program, beginner or advanced.
First understand what I consider main lifts and accessories. Your main lifts are Bench press, Deadlift, Back squat, overhead press, and the power clean. Accessories are anything else.
Supersets are two or more exercises performed back-to-back with minimal to no rest. There is a lot of online debate as to what a superset is, this definition is from my NASM text book: Personal Fitness Training 7th Edition.
For main lifts, I recommend a 5×5 approach. For accessories, or accessory exercises which are exercises that aid in building up weak points in the main lifts, I suggest a 4 x 12 approach with variable sets. Below I’m going to provide two sample workouts. One will be a typical 3×10 and the other will be using a variable approach for building strength as typically prescribed by us.
3×10 Split: Chest and Tris
Bench Press 3×10
Dumbbell Fly 3×10
Flat Dumbbell Press 3×10
Cable Crossover 3×10
Skull Crusher 3×10
Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension 3×10
Cable Triceps extension 3×10
Total weight moved: 8,525lbs
We’re going to take the same bench press 10 rep max and use that max to determine the 1 rep max. In this scenario the 1rm should be around 200 lbs.
Strength Training — Variable Approach.
Bench press 5 x 5
Over Head Press 5 x 5
Flat Dumbbell press 4 x 12
Dumbbell fly 4 x 12
Super Set — Legs are trained every session in our plans, so they’ll be included here.
Leg extensions 4 x 12
Hamstring curls 4 x 12
Hanging leg curl 4 x failure
– Bring Knees to chest and lower slowly. Do not use wraps to hold onto the pullup bar.
Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension 4 x failure
Total weight moved, minus the Hanging leg curl and the Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension: 11,580lbs
I did not include the final two exercises as those are to failure. While I could have put some arbitrary number here, the numbers speak for themselves without it.
With each of these exercises, I would still progressively load over time. Here’s the best way to do it:
When training main lifts, train at the same weight range for 4 weeks. At the end of the 4-week period, if you’re struggling with the weight, keep it the same and train that weight for another 4 weeks. If it has gotten easier, add 5 lbs. to the weight range and use that weight for 4 weeks.
The same goes for accessories, if you aren’t struggling to hit that very last repetition with good form, bump the weight up 5 lbs.
With the second approach we increase total exercise intensity, which should help increase strength over time. We’ve also increased volume, which should help increase endurance.
Beginners stand to gain a lot from skipping over the 3×10 programs and jumping straight into the variable approach. Not only will they get those sweet beginner gains but will also be on a great path to bigger lifts as their plateaus will be easier to overcome.
Any weightlifting or other exercise session should include at least a 10-minute warm up.
Mixing this training approach with intermittent fasting should aid in keeping fat off and assisting in leaner gains.
Do not start any diet or exercise plan without first consulting with your physician! Let your doctor know about any drugs or supplements you are using and what the plan consists of.
This content is meant to be informative and should not be considered medical advice.
Written for Stoked American Fitness