All in all, this should be a pretty quick post. I don’t want to dive too deep into the rep-range discussion pool, so I’m pretty much going to explain why you may want to think about using eight reps as the upper limit for your sets. And like all of my posts, this isn’t just for bodybuilders, powerlifters, men, or women. It’s for anyone that enjoys the feeling of breaking through weight room plateaus and looking better naked in the process.
Let’s think about something for a second: if we decide to do anywhere from 1-6 sets and use anywhere from 0-10 reps for any given exercise (assuming we do at least one set), we literally have 1,610,510 rep scheme options. (That’s 11 to the fifth power, multiplied by ten for the first set because we must do at least one rep.)
1,610,510 rep schemes.
So how do we choose? Well typically, when a young exercise enthusiast first enters the weight room, the standard three sets of ten takes its rightful place as the scheme of choice. But where did it come from?
According to this blog post, the 3×10 scheme was developed in the 1940s by Army doctors and was used to rehabilitate injured soldiers. It has stood the test of time for its simplicity and effectiveness and has found it’s way into thousands of gyms across the country.
3×10 is a great starting point for most. It forces you to use a light weight and perform a moderate amount of reps, perfect for a beginner to learn exercise technique. And this makes sense given the fact that beginners can make strength gains using as little as 40% of their 1RM.
Now, literature tells us that our muscles typically hypertrophy in the 8-12 rep range, making three sets of ten the perfect rep scheme for hypertrophy. But literature also tells us that after the “beginner” stage of lifting (whatever that means), an intermediate lifter needs a stimulus of at least 70% (or somewhere around there) to force the body to adapt. As lifters progress, that number climbs to 85% or even above 90% for a lifter to continually gain strength.
And as we all know, your ability to gain size is directly related to how strong you are. Lifter A with a training max of 315 lbs in the bench press will be performing multiple rep-sets with Lifter B’s training max, which is only 225. A lifter needs to perform lower reps through those higher percentage ranges to gain strength.
So how does this relate to the 3×10 thing? Well, practical experience tells us that on any given day (even considering things such as poor diet, poor sleep, stress, or losing one of your limbs to a Godzilla-like creature), most lifters can hit three reps with 90%, five reps with 85%, and about ten or eleven reps with 70% of their 1RM. I call these practical maxes.
In my own experience, no matter whats going on that day, I can typically hit these numbers for one set. So let’s take that 70% number. If we can hit that for ten reps. We can probably hit multiple sets with 70% for eight or nine reps.
A Quick(-ish) Conclusion
That being said, you may want to consider leaving your assistance work to eight reps or lower if you want to maximize mechanical tension and metabolic stress and consistently work with enough of a stimulus to elicit a response. Consider achieving high volume through multiple sets or increased exercise frequency.
*What I will say here is that, for a bit, I followed a 5×10 protocol and did find myself gaining a ton of weight. Somewhere between five and ten pounds actually, I suspect from increased glycogen storage capacity. If you are on a simple quest to increase the number on the scale, this “bodybuilding” style protocol is pretty darn awesome.*
But make no mistake, professional and natural bodybuilders are still damn strong and are probably warming up with your max right now. They may use ten reps at times, but they’re also performing singles, doubles, triples, and sets in the 4-8 range. It is possible to achieve size with the 3×10 protocol, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter. However, I challenge you to up the ante by relying on a range of different rep ranges, from one to eight. Not only does less than eight reps almost guarantee adequate stimulus, but it also produces strength rather than size the closer you get to one.
*And just to cover myself for that last sentence, it’s definitely possible to grow using a low rep range but the volume must still be high enough to produce sufficient metabolic stress.*
Remember, there are 1,610,510 rep schemes to choose from, so why limit yourself to the standard 3×10?
P.s. I Googled around a bit to find Arnold’s best lifts, and the consensus seems to be that his squat and bench were in the 400 lb range and his deadlift was just shy of 700 lbs. He was also able to put up over 200 lbs in each of the Olympic lifts. You don’t make your way to these numbers performing three sets of ten.