The 10/8/6 Formula for Muscle Building Success

One major issue in the iron game is deciding which training system is best. There?s no workout that works for all purposes, but there are many programs that have a proven record of success for beginners. But first, let?s start with a brief history of modern program design.

Early research in North America on periodization tried to find the single best training protocol, such as 3 x 10 or 5 x 5 ? even protocols consisting of only one set were studied. One popular model from a while ago that has been promoted by the National Strength and Conditioning Association involves a combination of several different protocols spaced over a 17-week period. Such an approach is intended to add variety to the training cycle and help prevent burnout, at least from a psychological standpoint.

Designed by Dr. Mike Stone and his colleagues Dr. Harold O?Bryant and Dr. John Garhammer, this particular model was published in a 1981 paper entitled ?A Hypothetical Model for Strength Training.?

With this approach the protocols shift from high reps/low sets to low reps/high sets, or to use the more scientific terminology, from low intensity/high volume to high intensity/low volume. It is based upon a periodization model that Russian sport scientist Leonid Matveyev introduced in 1964. This program was designed so that a trainee would be able to lift the most weight at the end of the cycle for 1 repetition (1 repetition maximum, or 1RM), thereby hitting a peak. Here are the four phases of the program, with each phase lasting about 3-4 weeks:

Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps x 3-5 sets, using 67-85 percent of 1RM
Basic strength: 6 reps x 3-5 sets, using 85 percent of 1RM
Strength and power: 1-5 reps x 3-5 sets, using 75-90 percent of 1RM
Peaking or maintenance: 1-3 reps x 1-3 sets, using very high to very low intensity.

In recent years a hot topic in program design has been a system called nonlinear periodization. Rather than changing repetition protocols every few weeks, repetitions in this approach are varied every workout! In their book on nonlinear periodization, Optimizing Strength Training, authors Steve Fleck and William Kraemer introduced a 16-week workout that uses the following rotation of repetitions:

Monday: 12-15 reps
Wednesday: 8-10 reps
Friday: 4-6 reps
Monday: 1-3 reps
Wednesday: 3 reps or fewer
Friday: 12-15 reps

Although repetition protocols do need to be changed frequently, this program doesn?t make sense from a physiological standpoint because the body doesn?t know what it is supposed to adapt to. Performing sets of 12-15 reps will develop the ?slow twitch,? Type I muscle fibers; sets of 1-5 will develop the ?fast twitch,? Type II muscle fibers. Although some sport scientists contend that the Type I muscle fibers can be converted into Type II muscle fibers, this has not been proven in the literature ? although certainly with aerobic training Type II fibers can take on the characteristics of Type I muscle fibers (and all you need to prove this theory is to ask a marathon runner to flex).

As you can see, designing periodization programs can be a complex subject, which is why so much time is spent on the theory and technical portions of the Poliquin International Certification Program (PICP). Now let?s step this discussion down a few levels and look at a workout protocol that is especially effective for beginners. It?s called the 10/8/6 system.

Revisiting the 10/8/6 Training System
With the 10/8/6 program, you perform three sets with a descending repetition progression: first set, 10 reps; second set, 8 reps; third set, 6 reps. Of course, the 10/8/6 rep/set scheme is not appropriate for all exercises, especially the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean and jerk) and their assistance exercises, due to the technical nature of these exercises.

Getting into the details of the training protocol, the first set should be light (about 50 percent of your maximum result for 10 reps), and as such it is used as a warm-up. The second set uses a medium weight (about 75 percent of your best result for 8 reps), and the third set should be with a weight that enables you to perform just 6 reps. If you perform only 5 reps (or fewer) on the last set, then use the same weights on your next workout. If you perform 6 or more reps, then increase the weights for all sets on your next workout. Here is an example of an individual who can bench press 175 pounds for one repetition:

Workout 1: 10 x 75, 8 x 115, 5 x 150
Workout 2: 10 x 75, 8 x 115, 6 x 150
Workout 3: 10 x 80, 8 x 120, 4 x 155
Workout 4: 10 x 80, 8 x 120, 7 x 155
Workout 5: 10 x 85, 8 x 125, 5 x 160
Workout 6: 10 x 85, 8 x 125, 6 x 160

Using repetition conversation tables, after the sixth workout this individual should be capable of a 1-rep-max bench press between 190 and 195 pounds. Again, we?re talking about a beginner ? it would be unrealistic to expect an individual with a 350-pound bench press to add up to 40 pounds to their personal best after just six workouts, performing only 3 sets per workout.

The 10/8/6 program is especially motivating for beginners because the fewer reps on the second and third sets enable them to use heavier weights ? in effect, it gives trainees the illusion of getting stronger throughout the workout. Because this is a protocol designed for a beginner, 3 sets are enough for a beginner to make progress.

After an introduction to training with this type of program, a trainee can move on to another program for variety, such as by doing permutations such as 12/10/8/6 if the goal is more muscle mass, or 10/8/6/4 if the goal is greater strength.

One similar program, the 5/4/3/2/1 method, was a favorite of former world powerlifting champion Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale. One problem with many weight trainees who use relatively higher reps is they don?t know how to recruit higher-threshold muscle fibers. They might be able to bench press 300 pounds for 10 reps but might have trouble with 325 for a single; even though they are strong, they cannot demonstrate their true strength with a 1-rep maximum. By gradually adding 2-3 percent more weight per set, the 5/4/3/2/1 method ?teaches? the lifter to recruit those more powerful muscle fibers.

Vince Gironda, a bodybuilding pioneer who trained first Mr. Olympia Larry Scott, used a variation of the 10/8/6 program, adding a fourth set with 15 reps with a weight that was 35 percent of maximum effort. The criticism of Gironda?s 10/8/6/15 program is that the repetition bracket is too broad, such that the body does not know what strength quality it is supposed to adapt to.

The 10/8/6 training system is not the single best workout program, because such a program doesn?t exist. Nonetheless, this simple approach allows beginners to make progress for quite some time. There are many other ways to train, but the 10/8/6 system is a good place to start.