What is it about sets of three?
Except when you have to do five. Plus: the swole women of Sparta; Tracy Anderson's "cutthroat empire"; skip the long run. This is Link Letter 73!
One of the most common questions that comes up about LIFTOFF is about the variations in the number of sets and/or reps for each lift. Why are squats done for five sets of five reps, but deadlifts are three sets of five? But we could easily ask of almost all workouts: Why is almost everything in workouts done for sets of three? Why not sets of two? Why not sets of four? Five? Seven?
Truth be told, books on how to write training programs don’t ride as hard for three sets as you would think, given how ubiquitous they are. They recommend programming movements for anywhere between 2 and 6 sets, and sometimes as many as ten sets. They recommend programming movements so that a total number of sets are done in a week (specifically in one of my trusted books, 10-20 sets per week, at a frequency of 2+ times per week). Squats are tricky to get right but not as taxing as deadlifts, and the lower-body volume to build strength has to go somewhere. So instead of three sets of squats: Five sets of squats. This means on weeks when you squat twice, you do 13 total lower body sets. Weeks when you squat only once, 11 sets. All else being equal, I’m still taking it pretty easy on you.
But still, there doesn’t seem to be incontrovertible scientific evidence as to the magic of three sets; science can barely agree that, at least for somewhat experienced lifters, one set versus 12 sets per week makes a difference for strength gains[^1]. At some point in the 50s, bodybuilders seemed to begin to gravitate toward three sets, especially three sets of ten. Why?
There is something about three. Plays have three acts; there are three Bronte sisters and Stooges and Hocus Pocus witches. Three members of The Fugees and Nirvana. Three wise men.
You could probably get similar results from two sets, or four sets, or five sets. But semantically, two feels like not quite enough. And why do four or five, when you can get away with three? (You can’t always, so: Five sets of squats.)
In practice, I find that three sets feels like it can smooth the noise in working out, without belaboring the point of the movement. Noise can come from not being warmed up enough, or not dialed in enough to what “the right amount of hard effort” feels like. In the first set, you’re laying a foundation; in the second, you’re getting your bearings; in the third, your taking what you learned in the first two sets and making sure you’re ending up where you needed to be. One for you, one for me, one for the swole gods.
~Discord Pick of the Week: Higher body fat ratios don’t blunt hypertrophy. In other words: You don’t need to have low body fat in order to build muscle (a long-held and even cherished belief of lifters and especially bodybuilders). ~
If you know me, you know I’m rarely coming down the pike with life hacks, pro tips, things of this nature. But once in a blue moon, I come up with something. Recently, I came up with “storing leggings in one of those little hanging scarf grids you can get at IKEA for like $9”:
Never fold a legging again!
The swole women of Sparta danced, ate, and drank.
This is an oldie and yet still somehow my North Star: Nora Ephron on the bullshit artistry of the egg-white omelette.
How deadlifts helped me accept my body.
Remi Bader on her struggle with an eating disorder and her unease at becoming an unwitting face of “body positivity.”
We are using big spoons wrong.
The Stronger By Science Comprehensive Core Training Guide. Note that this is a guide on appropriately supplementing core movements to support overall total body strength, not a workout in and of itself.
Inside Tracy Anderson’s cutthroat empire. It’s very funny to me to imagine Tracy Anderson losing sleep over anyone stealing her moves. Relax, babe, you just get people to burn calories and sweat more than they need to in your moldy 95-degree studio rooms in order to feel like they “got a good workout”; there is nothing magical about this. No, I’m not joking about “moldy”:
The studios’ humidity caused other issues. Mold frequently grew in the locations in Studio City in Los Angeles and Tribeca in New York, several former employees said. “It was so humid—like a breeding den of bacteria,” the former upper-level employee in New York said. The former New York-based trainer said that in addition to her period stopping, she frequently developed athlete’s foot and bacterial vaginosis that she attributed to the constant sweat from teaching in the heated room.
Blueface did one hitching deadlift and people lost their minds. You’d all exhaust yourselves spectating any powerlifting meet! This is maybe not ideal, but normal.
Eating the dinner that will be served to the celeb attendees of the Oscars.
When a famous long runner tells you to skip the long run, you listen.
A friend turned me on to the YouTube channel of Summoning Salt, whose thing is obsessively documenting the history of people beating speedrunning records in video games. This is priming me to watch Running with Speed.
I’m trying to limit how much I even read about AI, because AI is the definition of “boondoggle that resurges every couple decades to froth investment at tech companies,” but some of it is so stupid as to be genuinely entertaining. To wit: lmfao.
If you haven’t already unsubscribed to the New York Times: the “times” is now! Pathetic and willfully misleading response to fair criticism of its bigoted coverage of trans people.
That’s all for this week! Next week you’ll be getting an update on Run Fast/Squat Heavy weeks 2-4. I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—
[F1] Source. For the record, I believe there is so much going on in any meta analysis that I would deeply question basing programming off of this; my personal experience suggests I absolutely could not gain the same amount of strength on one versus 12 sets per week. But it is funny, and instructive about how hard it is to do research on this stuff, how quickly practical learnings can be lost in the noise of meta-statistical analysis.