Idaho Kettlebell Strength and Conditioning’s “Three Sets of Ten”
Three sets of 10 reps of a given exercise is a generic recommendation for any number of exercises. You’ll see this in different popular exercise magazines and sometimes given out as a basic recommendation as a basic starter’s workout plan at a commercial gym.
It goes something like this: 3 sets of 8-12 reps of bench press, 3 sets of 8-12 reps of lat pulldown, 3 sets of bicep curls, etc. Rest and work periods are sometimes addressed, but usually not stressed or strictly enforced.
At IKSC, we quickly borrowed some key concepts from various strength and conditioning protocols from sources like Charles Poliquin, Valery Fedorenko, Vince Gironda, etc. to form our own version of “3 sets of 10.”
Instead of 10 reps of each exercise, it became three 10-minute “sets” of three basic exercises: A single compound lower-body exercise, a upper-body pull, and an upper-body push. The most common is some variation of squat, some variation of pull, and some variation of a push.
Timed Sets Borrowed from Kettlebell Sport
The concept of timed sets comes from the kettlebell sport world and the World Kettlebell Club’s Strength and Conditioning Quotient, albeit in a very modified format. It also closely mirrors the International Kettlebell Lifting Federation’s BOLT (Believe Overcome Lift Triumph) competition. In these arenas, sets are measured in minutes – not necessarily repetitions – although work is measured in reps per minute (RPM) for training purposes.
So, a 5 minute set = 5 minutes spent on an exercise. Training sessions are measured not just in max reps completed, but also in the RPM. For example: If I do an 8-minute set of bicep curls at 8RPM, I am doing eight curls each minute for eight minutes. The protocol for this exercise would be at the start of the minute, I’d do eight reps (which would probably take me 30 seconds) and then rest the remainder of the minute. Start the next set of eight promptly at the top of the next minute. I prefer using an analog wall clock, since the visual of the sweeping second hand is a good cue, but any stopwatch will do. If you aren’t timing in some form, you aren’t training.
3 Sets of 10 Utilizing Squats, Pull, Push
Back to our basic 3 Sets of 10…
Don’t overthink this. “Paralysis by analysis” is a fatal flaw when it comes to exercise. Our bodies are only designed to move so many ways, and when you take an effective multi-joint movement and load it properly, we don’t have to worry much about working each little muscle in isolation. Don’t major in minor things. Our bodies are pretty smart, and when you load things up enough the system ends up working pretty well if you work long enough and hard enough.
A full-range squat loaded with any kind of free weight, or even body weight squats will utilize every muscle of the body, but will mostly be using the legs. A kettlebell or dumbbell goblet squat is nearly a full-body exercise, in that the core musculature and grip is also heavily tasked. Any type of squat could be used, however. I’ve even used back squats, loaded with my bodyweight for this type of work capacity training.
Likewise, a pushup works the chest, shoulders and triceps, but is also a full-body exercise. But, any kind of pushing exercise could be used, just make sure it uses every muscle needed to push. Standing overhead presses are also great choices.
Pulling can be many things. For advanced people, pullups or horizontal rows are good choices, but seated or dumbbell versions of these are also good choices.
One deceptively simple exercise that can be used on its own or as an extra is the loaded carry. Just pick up something heavy (even a pair of dumbells) and carry it for a distance at the start of each minute. Carrying for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off is a good full-body workout, and is thought by some to be the one of the best single measures of one’s overall strength and functionality. Grip strength, core strength and stability, pelvic stability, balance, and metabolic conditioning all come into play during extended bouts of loaded carries.
3 Sets of 10…Let’s Go!
Pick a squat or lower body exercise and pair it with a weight you can do 10 good solid repetitions with. You’ll also need a clock or stopwatch.
Do a five reps at the top of the first minute. Rest until the next minute starts. Do another set of five. It will be easy for the first few sets. It is designed to be that way. It is about doing quality reps for many small sets with restricted rest periods. Err on the side of light. You can always amp things up next session, but starting out with too much is a sure way to discourage a repeat session. Don’t underestimate this protocol. It can be as hard as anyone can stand.
After the 10 minutes of squats, rest a few minutes and move to the pull and push. Ten minutes of each, using the same format. I use a notebook and a pen or a dry erase board to keep track of minutes, it is easy to talk yourself out of one of the sets.
There Are Sets and then there are Sets.
Some confusion comes up when we start calling timed sets of exercises “sets.” Sets, in the traditional sense means a specific number of repetitions, say five reps. In this sense, if we were to do five sets of five it would mean five repetitions, rest and then repeat that sequence five times.
Here we are calling both the timed period a set and the number of repetitions completed each minute a set. If we were to write out each 10-minute block, it would look like this:
10 X 5, or 10 sets of 5 repetitions each. In our case, we are doing this at a rate of 5 reps per minute to complete all 10 clusters of 5 reps.
Our ultimate goal is to get a volume of quality reps with a weight we would not normally be able to. This is 50 reps of each compound exercise per session. That is a lot, especially if using a challenging weight and exercise.
Frequency and Recovery
I would recommend 48-72 hours between sessions, although you could break it up into a lower-body one day, and upper-body another day. For many, doing all three exercises in one gym session is very time-efficient. You are in and out in well less than an hour, with really only 30 minutes of total working time. It’s not how much time is spent, but the quality of that time that matters. And when doing focused, timed sets each minute, you compact a lot of quality reps into that time. Advanced people often need a few days between sessions because they can literally load this to the point they are absolute jelly at the end of one session and require 4-5 days to fully recover.
This is a general protocol used to build work capacity. While some strength adaptations will occur, it is not a maximal strength program. The goal is to be able to adapt to doing a good deal of work in a given time. This also builds metabolic efficiency.
With that in mind, we don’t increase the weights used unless it is just too easy after the first session. The ideal weight is one that is easy for the first few sets and slowly becomes very hard during the final minutes of each set, but that is still doable. The goal is to do demanding reps successfully, but not to failure.
I recommend changing things up after three to four sessions. In this case, we do this by decreasing the time it takes to do roughly the same amount of total volume. We’ll call these progressions “blocks.”
3, 10-minute sets of 5 reps per minute. Repeat 3-5 sessions.
3, 8-minute sets of 6 reps per minute. Repeat 3-5 sessions.
(We are doing about the same amount of total work in less time. Note: This means less rest time)
7, 7-minute sets of 7 reps per minute. Repeat 3-5 sessions.
What Should I Do When I Finish?
This is normal question. My usual answer is just to focus on the next day’s work and don’t worry as much about what to do afterwards. This represents what is known in the strength and conditioning world as a meso-cycle. It takes roughly a month, give or take. One thing I’ve found training for years is that everyone is unique, and will require different things at different points, and 3-4 weeks is about as long as a given program is good for. I always thought I was somehow deficient when I wasn’t very good at programming out for 3-6 months in advance, until I listened to an interview with Charles Poliquin in which he said that even top people take a few weeks to adapt, and then some kind of change is needed. This doesn’t necessarily mean different exercises, but maybe just a change in sets or reps.