3 Sets of 10 Repetitions? Can We Do Better?

One of the most annoying things I have seen in the rehabilitation profession over the last few years has been whenever introducing any sort of exercise or stretch is the “3 sets of 10 repetitions” rule. Where did that come from?


I don’t just mean from a training perspective but also from a rehabilitation perspective. Who came up with the magical set and repetition number of three sets and ten repetitions. It seems to roll off the tongues of many physical therapists, chiropractors, and personal trainers.


Invented back in the late 1940s by United States Army medical doctors, Dr. Thomas L. DeLorme and Dr. Arthur L. Watkins. They created the progressive resistance exercise model.

The three sets of ten model is often used for beginners or in the case I’m going to be discussing, it’s often the recommended volume patients use for their home exercise programs until there next visit.


Or when a new exercise is introduced, often dubbed a “progression”, the patient gets the magical recommendation…three sets of ten repetitions. Whether or not the patient is ready for it, the patient gets “fancier” exercises and then once again given the three sets of ten repetitions instructions. Why can’t we do better?

General Rep Range Scheme (without general weight % recommendations)

Maximal Strength: 1-5 repetitions with 3-5 minutes rest between sets

Speed & Power: 1-3 repetitions with 3-5 minutes rest between sets

Muscular Strength: 6-8 repetitions with 2-4 minutes rest between sets

Hypertrophy: 8-12 repetitions with 1-2 minutes rest between sets

Endurance: 15-20+ repetitions with 45 seconds – 90 seconds rest between sets

Set range scheme is a bit more varied. Some us the rule of thumb, more sets corresponds with less repetitions and vice versa. 

Maximal Strength: 1-6 sets (some programs have 3×3, 5×5 programs)

Speed & Power: 3-5 sets (I have seen programs up to 10 sets)

Muscular Strength: 4-6 sets

Hypertrophy: 4-6 sets

Endurance: 2-4 sets


As healthcare providers, if your goal is assist in the rehabilitation of general population or athletes. Remember what you’re trying to help build. Don’t just throw out “3 sets of 10 repetitions,” for the sake of making them do work or so that you can bill “Therapeutic exercises or Therapeutic activities.” Treat their rehabilitation program like a training program, because that’s what you’re doing anyways. You are training them and physically preparing them after surgery or from injury.

Help them build a foundation (endurance sets) or help them improve their muscular strength (4-6 sets x 6-8 repetitions). Or if you know you need to help them build strength, recommend, short sets with short repetitions with substantial resistance. When you’re progressing patients, pick the weight according as the set and repetitions scheme. There’s more to rehabilitation than three sets of ten repetitions. You didn’t go to school for 7 years just to recommend that.

Disclaimer: If you are new to weight training, it does not matter the sets and repetition scheme you use because the concept of weight training is new to your system. You’ll have improvement from muscular strength, muscular size, muscular endurance regardless. As you consistently train, then it may be wise to invest more into changes with sets and repetition schemes.

Disclaimer 2: If you say your goal is to help them build strength and you have them do one set of ten repetitions and then say go home and do [said] exercise, that’s not building strength at all. That’s just being lazy as a practitioner. 

Disclaimer 3: If your practitioner recommends you do three sets of ten repetitions, ask them why! 




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