Sometimes to pass the time while training at a gym I would pay attention to other people’s workouts and see what sort of reps / sets they were doing for each of their exercises. Rarely would I come across someone that was not doing 10 reps per set, or at least trying for 10. They would usually do those 10 reps for 3 sets, and then move on to their next exercise.
How did this become the standard, or holy grail, for sets and reps. Besides the simplicity of 10 reps as a base number, there actually is science behind that number. However, almost everyone using the 3×10 system is doing it incorrectly.
A study was done in order to discover what the ideal time under tension is for exercising. The results they found was of the 3×10 method, but with an eccentric lowering phase of 4 seconds. This is the concept that is almost always ignored, as most people try to rep out their sets as quickly as possible.
The eccentric phase is where a lot of the muscular growth is achieved, making it incredibly important to focus on that part each rep. There is greater muscle damage at this phase, which of course is how you attain muscle growth. Naturally, muscle growth leads to gains in strength. Increases in strength lead to greater performance in the gym, in sports, or in any other activity where strength is a requirement.
Strength of course leads to greater power. Power movements often are done at much lighter weight because of the focus on bursts of movement. A great example of this is a jump squat. The stronger you are the more you can start adding small increments of weight onto your jump squats. More weight while doing the same activity translates to greater power.
Additionally, these lifts will help your connective tissues, aka your ligaments and tendons, to strengthen as well. This translates to injury prevention. Whether or not you simply lift for bodybuilding or strength, or lift to improve athletic performance, your connective tissues will be able to withstand greater loads when they are stronger.
Another benefit that you may not expect is an increase in flexibility. Flexibility is very often overlooked in the gym, as everyone is more focused on strength and size to remember that the muscles function better when they are flexible. This is especially accurate in terms of sports, and can not only lead to increased performance, but will certainly aid in injury prevention. The eccentric part of an exercise grows your muscle fibers. This growth increases the length of your muscles and therefore leads to more flexibility. Compound these lifts with proper stretching before and after your workout and watch as your flexibility gains start to come in.
One important note to mention as well is that you should always have a spotter for these movements. Because they require more strain on the downward portion of the movement, it is not uncommon that expending more energy will lead to difficulties in completing the upwards portion of the movement. There is nothing wrong with experiencing this difficulty. In fact, many people have a spotter simply push them through the upward movement so that the they can focus on the eccentric phase even more. With any lifts you need to prioritize safety, and having a spotter will allow you to worry less about the difficulty of the lift and focus more on the exercise itself.
So is 3×10 a staple of the bodybuilding world? Yes, but not just to rep out quick sets and jot them down in our app as completed. Take your time, focus on that eccentric phase, and watch as that phase leads to muscle growth, growth leads to strength, strength leads to power, and power increases performance.