As far as I can gather this idea of 3 sets of 10 goes back to the 40’s when it was published by Mr Thomas Delorme in the archives of physical medicine. He found that 3 sets of 10 was as effective at building muscle as 10 sets of 10 (which we now refer to as GVT (German Volume Training)). Since then, however there have been quite literally 1000’s of other articles claiming that there are other combinations of sets and reps that are more effective than 3 sets of 10, so why has it stuck for so long? NOT A CLUE!! I cannot find any plausible reason as to why this theory has been so etched into the psyche of people in the fitness industry, so I’m gonna give you my own reason. People who train aren’t always the brightest (I’m including myself in that so don’t get offended) and with all the available blood rushing to the muscles being worked and away from the brain counting to more than 10 is sometimes a stretch. As for the 3 sets it’s simple – 2 is really easy, and after 3 it starts to get boring so you need to move on.
Now I’ve told you that this is a myth what do I recommend? Well that isn’t an easy questions to answer. As a general and very basic rule of thumb you should be looking at 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps if you are looking to build size. I say this is a basic rule but this depends on how many different exercises you are doing, are you super setting, have the smaller muscles been used doing the compound lifts and so on. All I will say is mix it up a little bit. Your body is inherently lazy! If you always do the same number of reps it will find the easiest way of completing it, and your gains will quickly diminish.
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