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Three sets of 10 is the foundation for most weight-training programs. And when you look around any gym, it’s the set and rep configuration most guys are cranking out with every exercise they do. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the 3×10 approach, and it’s an effective touchstone for beginning lifters, but restricting yourself to an exact number of reps for each set may actually be holding you back.
Let’s say you can bench press 185 pounds for three sets of 10 on a good day, approaching failure on your third set. The following week, if you’re not having a particularly good day, you may not be able to complete all 10 reps for all three sets. This is because your state of readiness for each individual workout depends on myriad factors like the amount of sleep you’re getting and your emotional state, much of which is out of your control.
“A lot of guys try to bang out a rigid set and rep scheme, and on bad days when they’re not 100%, they’re going to hit failure before they get all the reps they planned to do,” says Kenny Hinchman, a competitive powerlifter and strength coach in West Babylon, NY. “At that point, they’ll just say, ‘Oh, well. I didn’t hit it today. I’m done.’ ”
There’s a better road to consistency, however, and it has nothing to do with predetermined sets. The idea is to plan out your total volume for each individual workout, increasing it incrementally over time as your general physical preparedness (GPP) improves. Instead of plotting out three sets of 10 for an exercise, you’ll perform a specific number of total reps in as many sets as that takes to complete, using the same weight for each set.
Programming your workouts this way enables you to keep things uniform and organized by allowing you to decide in advance how much weight you’re going to throw around in each individual session. Once you establish a baseline standard for the volume your body can tolerate, you’ll understand the importance of monitoring these levels. Once you’ve done things this way for a while, you’ll develop the ability to recognize your performance patterns and program your workouts weeks in advance with a high degree of accuracy.
The next advantage of total volume programming is psychological. “Training like this gives you a break mentally,” says Matt McGorry, a trainer at Peak Performance in New York City. “Instead of telling yourself you have to get a certain number of reps, you can just concentrate on nailing the precise amount of reps you’re capable of doing at that exact moment. That makes you perceive training as being easier. Meanwhile, you’re getting a very similar training effect from what you’re doing.”
Depending on your training goals, total volume programming can be customized to accomplish whatever you want it to. If you want to get stronger, limit the rep ranges of your sets, lift explosively, and avoid training to failure. If you’re looking to add mass and size, you can raise your volume within each set and add sets to failure if you’re feeling up to it that day. Your options here are limitless.
The other way to customize this system is through manipulation of your rest periods. For strength, regardless of what exercise you’re performing, increase your rest periods and let your central nervous system recover between sets. For mass and size, cut back your rest time. “Let’s say I want to do 30 total reps of a given exercise,” says Hinchman. “If I do 10 sets of three with two minutes’ rest between sets,I’m going to get a completely different training effect than I would with two sets of 15 reps with 45 seconds in between.”
For each workout, you’ll perform one or two main lifts to start—the bench, squat, or deadlift, for which you’ll need to know your one-rep maxes—followed by a series of assistance lifts.
Assistance work is where total volume programming really comes into play, because it’s up to you to decide how you want it to work for you. The idea, as outlined earlier, is to choose the number of total reps you want to do, but this doesn’t have to be an arbitrary call on your part.
Instead, use these guidelines for the following routine: choose a weight you can perform for 8-10 reps, then do 20 total reps your first week. Each week, increase your total reps with this exercise by 5-10 total reps until you can perform 50 reps in five sets or less. When you can do this, you’ve “mastered” this weight— for our purposes here, at least—so the following week, you’ll increase your load, drop back down to 20 total reps, and start the climb again.