3 sets of 10…Strike that, reverse it

The most common workout plan involves 3 sets of 10 reps of each exercise. This comes from various bodybuilding resources from many years ago. According to this plan, 3 sets of 10 reps is the “sweet spot” for muscle growth and fitness.


I always find it comical how the design of our bodies can be supposedly optimized by something so round and specific.

Some other things that I find odd:

-30 minute window to ingest fast absorbing protein after a workout

-Eat every two hours or your muscles will catabolize (eat themselves)

-Hold this stretch for 30 seconds

If something seems so oddly specific, it makes me want to question it immediately. I think, “Wow, such an even number? Damn.”

This is how I feel about 3 sets of 10. It’s not a bad idea, it’s just not the magic that it is purported to be. There are better ways to approach your training.

When I think of training I think about how we adapt—through practice. We adapt best through the highest quality of practice. This is evidenced by the 80% rule. We can all agree that the highest quality of practice can be attained through a lower number of reps for the following reasons:

-Less chance for fatigue and “forced reps”

-Higher level of concentration for each repetition

Next is the problem with 3 sets. 3 sets is hardly enough to start to really encourage real change. It has been shown numerous times that the brain and nervous system adapt better and more quickly to a stimulus if it is experienced more frequently. So let’s flip it to 10 sets.


Imagine only doing 3 sets of handstands–you’ll never get good with that amount of practice.

So 10 sets of 3 is probably better than 3 sets of 10? I would say definitely.

Depending on the situation I would even recommend 15-20 sets. If you prioritize the thing you are trying to improve and stay within the “smooth and easy” effort level (80%), you can get a lot more quality reps in, thereby facilitating the optimal adaptation. That adaptation could be strength increase, skill increase, or muscle growth.

Try to get out of the mindset that 3 sets of 10 is the “best” way to go. Realize that getting more quality reps in is going to give you the most bang for your buck, and that staying in that 80% effort zone, though it seems counterintuitive, is going to give you the best results.

Let’s look at this in a simple way:

Pavlov’s Dog, is a well documented example of classical conditioning:
Doctor rings the bell, gives food.

Repeats until dog anticipates food and salivates in response to bell. This is how learning works. This only works after a certain number of bell rings because it takes time to make that association. More bell rings means a stronger association. Greater learning.

Every ring of the bell is a set of your exercise.

More sets=faster adaptation=faster learning.

Less reps. More sets. More strength and flexibility gains.


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2 thoughts on “3 sets of 10…Strike that, reverse it

  • Max Shank

    Hi Lok!
    Yes that is exactly right. Better to do more sets and less reps. Rest as much as needed (maybe 90 sec-120 sec). Enjoy!

  • Lok Tang

    Excuse me, I'm Chinese and maybe my English is not good enough. Do you mean that we should make each rep done perfectly and then more sets is better than only 3 sets ? And could you tell about the rest interval between sets ? Thank you very much ! ^_^