Question: I am confused about 3×3 workouts compared to single set high intensity strength training workouts. First, is one meant to go to failure on each set of the 3×3? Second, if a person can do multiple sets during 3×3 then why is it not recommended during strength training? I know a single set to momentary muscular failure “is all” that is requires for hypertrophy but then surely doing the circuit again at perhaps slightly lower weight would give best of strength training and the metabolic/ cardiovascular conditioning achieved with 3×3. IF I am correct in my above assumption and I was to play devils advocate, my question would be why even bother with 3×3? Why not just do a round of single sets to failure then do the whole circuit again and then maybe a 3rd time?
Answer: First, each of the sets in a 3×3 workout should be performed to momentary muscular failure.
Second, multiple sets are not recommended during regular high intensity training workouts because they do not stimulate greater improvements in muscular strength and size than performing a single set to failure, and exercise volume must be limited to avoid overtraining or compromising intensity of effort. Single set workouts make it possible to perform a greater variety of exercises while keeping the total volume of exercise relatively low, which improves overall muscular development.
Limiting the rest between sets appears to be beneficial for the purpose of stimulating improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, but this is not always practical with single set workouts because you are moving between different pieces of equipment after each set. If you work out at a busy gym during peak hours you may have to wait several minutes between exercises, compromising the cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning effect of the workout. A 3×3 is a workaround for this problem, which sacrifices exercise variety to enable you to move quickly between sets.
For example, you can place a barbell or dumbbells in front of a chin-up/dip station and move very quickly between deadlifts, push-ups or dips. If your gym has a power rack with a chin-up bar you can set a pair of dumbbells inside it and move very quickly between squats, standing dumbbell presses, and chin-ups. This is difficult to do with machines in a busy gym, but if you have a couple training partners you can hold on to three machines if they are close enough to each other. Each of you begins with a different exercise in the circuit, and once the last person has finished their set you all rotate immediately, preventing others from taking the machines and making you wait for them.
If you work out at home where nobody else can get in your way, or if you train with bodyweight, I recommend performing a single set of a larger variety of exercises rather than several circuits of only a few. You can still follow the 3×3 pattern, but perform different compound leg, pushing, and pulling exercises for each of the three circuits, and follow up with one or two direct exercises for smaller muscle groups not directly worked. One of my personal favorites is a bodyweight variant of the “Cerberus” 3×3 workout from Project Kratos:
- Dip or Diamond Push-up
- One-legged Squat
- Inverted Row
- Pike Push-up
- Squat Hold