3 x 3 versus 3 x 10: A Study

Since I took my hiatus from posting articles to finish The Science of Weight Training, I have been meaning to do a write-up on a study by Schoenfeld and colleagues (1), which compared the effects of a 3 x 3 training protocol to a 3 x 10 protocol.

Since most recreational lifters view 3 x 10 as a classic ‘bodybuilding-style’ training scheme, while 3 x 3 is viewed to be useful for strength gains and not muscle growth, I was excited to discuss the result of this study.

Let’s get to it.

 

THE STUDY

 

PARTICIPANTS

Ages: ~23 years

Training Experience: 4-5 years

 

TRAINING PROGRAM

Duration: 8 weeks.

Frequency: 3 x per week on non-consecutive days.

HEAVY Group: 3 sets of a 3RM.

MODERATE Group: 3 sets of a 10RM.

Exercises performed included: Bench press, military press, lat pull-down, seated cable row, barbell squat, leg press, and leg extension.

All other training variables were held constant.

 

DIETARY INTAKE

Dietary intake was recorded through self-report.

All participants consumed 25 grams of whey protein isolate within 1 hour following training.

At the end of the study period, both groups had consumed an equal amount of calories and protein.

Protein intake was of an adequate amount for strength training standards (1.7 & 1.8 g/kg)

 

MEASUREMENTS

Strength was assessed via 1RM squat and bench press.

Muscle thickness was determined by ultrasound.

Muscle endurance was determined by 50% 1RM bench press to failure.

 

RESULTS

Total Volume: At the end of study, it was shown that the MODERATE group trained with over twice the amount of volume load (sets x reps x load) as HEAVY.

 

Muscle Thickness: Given the significantly higher amount of volume performed, it was unsurprising that the MODERATE group gained more muscle than the HEAVY group (2).

Interestingly, gains in muscle were relatively close for the elbow flexors and elbow extensors (with effect sizes favouring MODERATE).

In regard to the lateral thigh, MODERATE increased muscle thickness at this site by 10.4% versus a 4.1% increase in HEAVY.

 

Maximal Strength: For the bench press, the HEAVY group increased their 1RM by 14.4% while the MODERATE group had a 10.5% increase.

In regard to squat strength, HEAVY increased their 1RM by 30% compared to just a 16.8% increase by the MODERATE group.

This one shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that training closer to your 1RM would inevitably increase your ability to lift maximal loads for a single repetition.

As the researchers note, this study shows that even though the MODERATE group gained more muscle (which is a large determinant of strength), neural factors take priority in regard to maximal strength gains.

 

Muscle Endurance: Arguably the most surprising finding of the study is that both groups achieved equal gains in muscle endurance, despite the higher rep ranges used by the MODERATE group.

However, as the researchers note, the test weight used for muscle endurance was based on the subject’s initial 1RM at the beginning of the study.

Had it been based off of the subject’s 1RM at the end of study, the results may have been different.

 

FURTHER COMMENTS

While it is not surprising that HEAVY outperformed MODERATE in regard to strength gains, what was surprising was how similar the gains in upper body muscle growth were between groups.

Given that MODERATE performed more than twice the amount of volume as HEAVY, one would expect MODERATE to have significantly greater muscle growth than HEAVY in both the upper and lower body.

This may suggest that the lower body responds better to higher training volumes than the upper body, which has been suggested by other researchers (3).

Furthermore, given the short duration of the study as well as the high training status of the participants, a longer study period may have been required to elicit greater differences in muscle growth between HEAVY and MODERATE.

An additional factor that may have played a role in the results is the possibility of a ‘novelty effect’.

The researchers note that the majority of the participants regularly trained with loads >8 RM.

Since variation in training stimuli may affect muscle adaptations (4), it is possible that the gains in the HEAVY group (for both muscle and strength) may have occurred from the novelty of the training stimulus.

As a final note, it must be stressed that this study does not demonstrate a superiority of a certain rep range over another for eliciting muscle growth.

If volume load had been equated between groups, it is quite likely (based on other evidence) that muscle growth would have been the same between conditions (5, 6).

 

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

  • If your priority is to gain muscle, ensure that you train with a high amount of volume. It may be most beneficial to maximize your weekly training volume by training each muscle group at a high frequency (~3 times per week) with a bare minimum of 3 sets per muscle group per training session.

 

 

  • If maximal strength is your priority, then your focus should be on low reps with heavy loads. While periodic variations in rep schemes are warranted for maximizing strength gains (7), an emphasis should be kept on lower reps.

 

References

  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Peterson M. Differential effects of heavy versus moderate loads on measures of strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Dec;15(4):715–22.
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073–82.
  3. Rønnestad BR, Egeland W, Kvamme NH, Refsnes PE, Kadi F, Raastad T. Dissimilar effects of one- and three-set strength training on strength and muscle mass gains in upper and lower body in untrained subjects. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):157–63.
  4. Poliquin C. Five steps to increasing the effectiveness of your strength training program. Strength Cond J. 1988 Jun;10(3):34–9.
  5. Schoenfeld BJ, Ratamess NA, Peterson MD, Contreras B, Sonmez GT, Alvar BA. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Oct;28(10):2909–18.
  6. Klemp A, Dolan C, Quiles JM, Blanco R, Zoeller RF, Graves BS, et al. Volume-equated high-and low-repetition daily undulating programming strategies produce similar hypertrophy and strength adaptations. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Feb 16;41(7):699–705.
  7. Tan B. Manipulating resistance training program variables to optimize maximum strength in men: a review. J Strength Cond Res. 1999 Aug;13(3):289–304.

 

 

Comments

  1. Steve Horvath says:

    In all of the reports of such studies, one factor that seem to be neglected in the report is; Did each group use some form of progressive overload during the study? and; What criteriea was used to determine and increase in weight? Sine the rep range was fairly constant, I asume that increasing weight must have occurred. Therefore, did either group add more weight (by %age) through the duration of the studey?

    On a related note, participants in this study were young. Do you know of any study that shows muscle growth in a group of 50+ year olds with 40+ years of training experience?

    Thank you,

    • All of the subjects trained to momentary muscular failure, and the load was adjusted on all exercises to ensure they stayed within the set repetition range (which was 2-4 reps for HEAVY and 8-12 reps for MODERATE). So yes, they progressively increased the weight as the subjects got stronger.

      And I am aware of many studies showing muscle growth occurring in 50+ year-olds engaging in resistance training, however, most of these participants were untrained. I am not aware of many studies that have analyzed individuals with decades of training experience. Given what we know, it would be safe to assume that muscle gains would be extremely minimal in individuals with such a high level of training experience, as they would already be at their “genetic ceiling” for muscle gains. However, implementing radical increases in training stimuli (such as volume and training frequency) in a periodized manner would theoretically stimulate muscle gains in highly trained individuals.