Perhaps you're reading this as you are interested in strength training. Perhaps you are a fitness or health professional. Or maybe just curious. Regardless.. hi hello.
I've wanted to read a bit more myself about this subject for a little while now. As you know, I am a Physiotherapist and prescribe exercise A LOT for A LOT of people. If you work in this industry and you find yourself 'doing what has always been done' and all too often prescribe 3x10 with most resistance-based exercises, perhaps this blog will encourage you to re-evaluate this and be a bit more mindful of the exercise prescription process. Alternatively, maybe you go to your (now) home gym and never really know how many reps and sets you should do to really get the benefits you're looking for?
Well. I recently found some interesting results from a meta-analysis (the gold-standard of research) that you may want to hear about. The study is not that recent, but a good reminder of some basic strength training principles.
Let's get straight to it.
A Meta-analysis to Determine the Dose Response for Strength Development by Rhea et al. 2003.
The aim of this study was to identify the relationship between the dose of exercise e.g. 3x10reps and the strength responses in the body. The researchers wanted to analyse the magnitude of strength gains elicited by various levels of training intensity, frequency and volume in order to clarify to effort to benefit ratio. Approximately 140 studies were included in this review.
So what were the results?
INTENSITY = the level of effort one exerts during exercise relative to one's maximum effort.
- Untrained individuals (with less than one year of consistent training experience) get maximum strength gains with a mean training intensity of 60% of their 1repetition max (RM). This is equivalent to being able complete a maximum of 12 reps per set at any given weight. Diminishing returns appear to begin in untrained individuals who train above this and caution should be used when prescribing high intensity strength training to avoid overtraining.
- In experienced individuals, a mean training intensity of 80% of their 1RM elicits the greatest strength increase, which is equivalent to a maximum of 8 reps per set.
FREQUENCY = how many training sessions one performs per week.
- Untrained individuals who train three times per week (per muscle group), elicit the greatest increase in strength.
- Trained individuals show similar strength improvements with two sessions per week but at higher volumes i.e. more sets and reps per session.
VOLUME = the number of muscles worked, exercises, sets, and reps during a single session.
- In both trained and untrained individuals, strength increases with multiple-set protocols (most commonly four sets per muscle group). Diminishing returns begin after four sets.
- Untrained individuals have been shown to be more sensitive to an increase in volume compared to trained individuals. This means that there is more potential for strength improvements in untrained populations. In fact, trained individuals have to complete four sets to get the same magnitude of strength gains as an untrained individual would get with a single-set!
- Be careful to not overcook the volume with individuals who are fairly inexperienced. They could easily lose motivation and commitment and there's risk of injury.
So, what's the moral of the story?
Progressively overload - gradually increase the amount of stress on the body during exercise - start with a low intensity/volume/frequency if you're prescribing exercise for a newbie or starting strength training from scratch. Perhaps 1-3 sets of 12 bodyweight squats once per week is good to start with if you haven't done them before.
Vary the training load and dose. Strength gains found with four sets of an exercise at 80% of one's 1RM could also be achieved with three sets of the same exercise at 90% of one's 1RM.
If you are an exercise professional, think long and hard about what your intentions are with your client's exercise selection. Then plan and progress.
If you want to start strength training and all this is quite confusing for you, find yourself an experienced training expert who can assist you. You can discuss how much strength gain is desired or required by you, then they can plan accordingly and be clear and open about the effort required by you to achieve that.
You can do it!