The Not-So-Famous DeLorme Scheme

If I asked what the most popular set/rep scheme in strength training is, most people would respond with 3 sets of 10 reps. It seems to be the universal training prescription, but where does it come from?

The concept stems from a 1948 paper by Dr. Thomas DeLorme and Dr. Arthur Watkins where they recommend 3 sets of 10 reps using a progressively heavier weight in the following manner:

Set #1  50% of 10 repetition maximum
Set #2  75% of 10 repetition maximum
Set #3  100% of 10 repetition maximum

In this scheme, only the last set is performed to the limit. The first two sets can be considered as warm-ups. A few years later in their 1951 book, Progressive Resistance Exercise, DeLorme & Watkins state: “By advocating three sets of exercise of 10 repetitions per set, the likelihood that other combinations might be just as effective is not overlooked.” Still, the majority of trainees today automatically adopt the 3×10 scheme as if it were written in stone.

Now, let’s take a little journey back in time to 1945 when the same Dr. Thomas DeLorme unleashed a powerhouse of a paper titled, “Restoration of muscle power by heavy-resistance exercises,” published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Back then, far more than 3 sets were recommended per exercise with great results.

The clinical observations made on 300 cases showed a “splendid response in muscle hypertrophy and power, together with symptomatic relief,” as DeLorme put it. Why change the system then?

We’ll explore that in a minute, but first things first…

The 1945 DeLorme method consisted of 7-10 sets of 10 reps per set for a total of 70-100 repetitions each workout. The weight would start off light for the first set and then get progressively heavier until a 10 repetition maximum (RM) load was achieved. The workouts were short (on average about half an hour), but they were repeated frequently during the week.

In most high-volume systems (like German Volume Training, for instance), each body part is trained once in a 5-7 day period. With the 1945 DeLorme system, however, the injured body part is trained once a day for 5 days straight! Of course, the difference is due to the direct relationship between intensity and recovery – the greater the intensity, the more recovery is necessary, and vice versa.

If you adopt this approach, you’ll be sore initially, but the soreness will subside after a week or so. And after just a few weeks, while others are complaining that they can barely move and are in an extreme amount of pain, you’ll be sporting improved hypertrophy, strength, mobility, and function.

But why change from as many as 10 sets to only 3 sets?

This is what DeLorme & Watkins (1948) had to say:

“In the initial publications concerning progressive resistance exercise, 70 to 100 repetitions were advocated, the repetitions being performed in 7 to 10 sets with 10 repetitions per set. Further experience has shown this figure to be too high and that in most cases a total of 20 to 30 repetitions is far more satisfactory. Fewer repetitions permit exercise with heavier muscle loads, thereby yielding greater and more rapid muscle hypertrophy.”

That sounds reasonable, but before we go on let’s establish two relationships:

  1. There is an inverse relationship between intensity and volume (i.e., the higher the intensity, the lower the volume, and vice versa).
  2. There is an inverse relationship between intensity and frequency (i.e., the higher the intensity, the lower the frequency, and vice versa).

If intensity starts to increase yet the frequency stays the same, something has to give!

At a higher intensity, one all-out 10RM set can be performed five days a week. It’s really only a total of 5 sets spread throughout the entire week. (Remember, the first two sets are merely warm-ups.)

Contrast 5 sets to as many as 50 sets (although not all 50 sets are taken to the limit), and you can see why the 1948 “3×10” method was considered superior to the 1945 “10×10” method. That original method still has merit though and can provide a “more satisfactory” result if it’s implemented in a specific manner.

If intensity increases and volume stays the same, the variable that must decrease is frequency to allow for sufficient recovery. Using the 10×10 method might actually be superior if the frequency is altered as follows:

Stage #1:  5 days a week (Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri)
Stage #2:  4 days a week (Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri)
Stage #3:  3 days a week (Mon, Wed, Fri)
Stage #4:  2 days a week (Mon, Thurs)
Stage #5:  1 day in a 5-7 day period

How long each stage will last depends on the individual and their injury, but the key is to make progress each week and once that starts to stagnate, it’s time for the next stage. Think of it as progressive resistance meets regressive frequency!

By Stage #5, muscle strength, mass, and range of motion should be back to normal. This is the frequency used in most high-volume training routines.

Try this new twist to the original concept introduced by Dr. DeLorme over 60 years ago.

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