Train less, gain more with the 3/7 method.
Yes, it does sound like a bad infomercial. But, based on the promise of equal or better gains in far less training time, there has been a surge of interest in the 3/7 training method in recent months.
But can you really make the same or even greater gains training just half the time?
Below we take a look at some of the research, how you’d programme the 3/7 method, and why you may or may not want to run it.
What is the 3/7 training method?
The 3/7 method is a high intensity lifting protocol. The numbers refer to the rep range completed in each set.
Starting with 3 reps you incrementally increase by one rep until you reach 7, taking a 15-second rest between each set. The weight remains the same throughout.
To make it really clear, the process for one complete ‘set’ is as follows –
- Complete 3 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Complete 4 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Complete 5 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Complet 6 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Complete 7 reps
In total your are completing 25 reps. So roughly equal to 3 sets of 8 reps, but in far less time.
Taking a rough average of 2 seconds per rep you can complete a 3/7 set in around 110 seconds.
For comparison, undertaking a more traditional 3 sets of 8 reps is likely to take around 220-230 seconds (assuming 90 second rest periods between sets).
Obviously, heavier sets, more reps or longer rest periods will all impact the total time it takes.
But, as a rough rule of thumb, you are completing a similar amount of work in 40-50% less time.
When multiplying this up across all your exercises in a complete session you can substantially cut the amount of time you spend in the gym, while still maintaining a similar level of volume and intensity.
This is key as we know two of the principal drivers for muscle growth are training volume and intensity.
So, provided you hit an appropriate volume and intensity level, does it matter how you got there? I.e. slow and steady over 4 sets with moderate to long rests or rapidly in one set?
Where did the 3/7 method come from?
Emmanuel Legard, a french strength and conditioning coach, is credited as devising the 3/7 method after first publicising it in his 2014 book ‘Strength training and bodybuilding‘.
The 3/7 method then got ‘scienced’ in 2016 by Cedric Laurnet et al who looked at the efficacy of the 3/7 method compared to more traditional 4×6 (4 sets of 6 reps) and 8×6 (8 sets of 6 reps) regimes.
The study found that participants on the 3/7 protocol saw greater 1 rep max strength gains than those on the 4×6 regime.
However, those on the 8×6 protocol saw greater gains still.
As total training volume is such a key determinant of muscle strength increases, the fact that the higher volume protocol (the 8X6) produced the greater change is perhaps not surprising.
But it’s interesting that the 3/7 method was shown to be more effective than the 4×6, especially when you consider the overall volume, in terms of total reps, is the same.
But the 3/7 approach took less than 2 minutes, where as the 4×6 took over 8. Demonstrating that you can get the same benefit for considerably less time in the gym.
Further research into the efficacy of the 3/7 method
A further study by Stragier, S., Baudry, S., Carpentier, A. et al. Efficacy of a new strength training design: the 3/7 method in 2019 again explored the efficacy of the 3/7 method but this time with an eye on both strength and hypertrophy.
In this second study, the authors compared the 3/7 method to an 8x6 protocol (8 sets of 6 reps).
The 3/7 group performed 2 rounds with 150 seconds rest in between. So overall rep volume was comparable across the 2 groups. The 3/7 group performing a total of 50 reps (25 in each 3/7 ‘round’) and the 8×6 group performing 48 reps.
The study had trainees in both groups perform a bicep curl for the above number of reps/sets, twice per week and for 12 weeks. The weight was the same across both groups, being 70% of a participants one rep max.
The results? The 3/7 group saw both greater strength and muscle thickness gains over the 12 week period.
Slam dunk for the 3/7 method?
So, case closed and we should all ditch the traditional 3-4 sets x 6-12 reps per exercise?
Although the study did see greater size and strength improvements in the 3/7 group, there are a few key caveats that question whether this result would translate across to a real-world training scenario.
The key one being that the weight was the same for both groups. This is understandable as the study needed a benchmark to enable comparisons. Thus the weight and overall volume were the same.
However, real-world training protocols see the weight increase as the reps decrease. Thus for sets of 6 reps you would be pushing more than 70% of your one-rep max (the weight used in the study), especially so when you have a relatively long rest between each set, 150 seconds as per the study.
With just 15 seconds rest between sets you barely have time to put the weight down, thus the 3/7 group are pretty much performing 25 reps in one go. This is great from a time under tension angle, which is a very strong contributor to muscle growth, but does mean that the weight lifted will be far lower.
For an experienced lifter, it could be argued that 70% of a one-rep max for 8×6 is too low an intensity. And if the weight were increased to something more appropriate the results may have been different.
Furthermore, we have an obvious limitation in that the study only looked at one exercise, a bicep curl. If we translated the study to more movements it is likely the results would be different, particularly if we looked at compound movements. Movements such as the squat and deadlift generally deliver better results at low to moderate reps. A squat weight that allows you to perform 20-25 reps, for instance, generally results in failure due to cardio shortcomings, more than quad fatigue.
It’s also worth noting that studies of this type are often fairly limited in scope and we rarely know about the training experience of the participants.
This matters as the amount of lifting experience you have greatly influences how you react to different training protocols.
Early in your fitness journey pretty much any regular stress you apply to your body, so pretty much any training protocol you adopt, will produce results. This isn’t the case for more experienced lifters, however.
You also have to take account of the relative scale of studies of this type, regarding the number of participants.
It’s a fact that most are fairly limited with just a handful of participants thus making it difficult to draw absolute conclusions for the wider population.
What can we take from this?
Both studies reviewed demonstrated that you can make gains utilising the 3/7 method and that it can greatly reduce your time in the gym.
The results may also add weight to the idea that rep range and weight is less important than training intensity.
What may matter more is the act of taking a muscle to, or very near to, failure. Doing so in one high rep set may well be sufficient to stimulate growth.
We’d be inclined to agree with this line of thinking for less experienced or novice lifters. Pretty much any and all stimuli you apply in the early days of your training will be effective.
In this case, therefore, the 3/7 method will absolutely be effective. And if you want to minimise your time in the gym and maximise efficiency the 3/7 approach may well be the way to go.
As your training experience grows, however, volume, weight, frequency and intensity all become equally as important and just taking a muscle to near failure once per session will likely no longer suffice.
Variety in your training (undulating periodisation) also grows in importance. Thus one or 2 sets of 3/7, day in day out, is unlikely to yield continuous results.
It isn’t a given, but we’d still lean towards a more traditional approach to programming for intermediate and advanced lifters, in lieu of any broader studies looking specifically at trained individuals.
3/7 method workout
As above, we do know that the 3/7 programme can deliver results, especially for more novice lifters, and can be a useful tool in your training arsenal when short of time.
So, how would you go about planning a session using the 3/7 approach?
Incorporating the 3/7 protocol into your training is straightforward. For any exercise where you planned to complete 3 sets you instead complete one round of the 3/7 protocol.
Taking an upper day as an example, rather than completing 3 sets of bench press for 8-10 reps you instead complete one round of 3/7. You then move on to your next exercise, say a barbell row, and again complete one round of 3/7, then move onto a DB chest fly and complete one set of 3/7, lat pulldown for one set of 3/7, and so on until you’ve completed all your exercises.
You can see how using the 3/7 protocol can greatly speed up your sessions as, time wise, you complete just one ‘set’ per exercise.
It’s not an absolute, but equating 3 sets to one set of 3/7 is sensible.
Where you want to hit higher volumes, say 6-8 sets, you should complete 2 rounds of the 3/7 protocol with 2-3 minutes rest between each round.
As with any set/rep range, intensity is key. You want to be finishing each 3/7 ‘round’ at or very close to technical failure, with just 1 or 2 reps left in the tank.
You’ll have to experiment to get the right weight for each exercise, but a good rule of thumb is to start around 60-70% of your one rep max.
You can sub in the 3/7 for any exercise, but we’d suggest taking a cautious approach if utilising for the big compound moves.
You may want to experiment at a lower weight for a few sets or sessions and work up to an appropriate working set weight.
Reps in reserve (RIR) and relative perceived effort (RPE) are both excellent tools to help gauge effort and progress in the gym.
Progressive overload is perhaps the most important law in strength training and bodybuilding. How should you utilise it for maximum gains?
Why you may want to skip the 3/7 method
As the research shows, you can absolutely make gains utilising the 3/7 protocol.
But, as with any training plan, it does have limitations and there are a few key reasons it may not be right for you.
You like spending time in the gym
Many of us work out because we love working out and we enjoy spending time in the gym.
If this is you, great, you don’t need to worry about speeding up your workouts and spending less time there.
As we stress time and again, overall weekly volume and intensity are the keys to muscle growth. Making sure you hit these thresholds is arguably more important than how you hit them.
You will be no worse off sticking to the more traditional multiple sets of 8-12 reps and 60-90 minute gym sessions.
Again, total weekly volume and training intensity is what matters. And, as the research suggests, at higher volume levels you are probably better served with a more traditional approach.
The 3/7 protocol has reduced scope for progressive overload
If you solely used the 3/7 approach for all your working sets, which we wouldn’t recommend, you’d have less scope for subtle changes in training intensity from session to session.
You can increase weight but that’s about it. Yes, you could increase volume but adding in another round of 3/7 for a particular lift is a big jump.
More traditional gym protocols do provide more scope for changing up your training intensity.
That said, it is perhaps best to look at utilising the 3/7 approach as another tool you could use temporarily to change up intensity, or where you are pushed for time, rather than something you would use week in, week out.
Your focus is on strength and smashing one rep maxes
An obvious caveat, but if your focus is powerlifting and max weight shifting then the 3/7 will be less than ideal for your routine training.
As covered above, the high rep ranges of a 3/7 protocol means that the weight you lift, as a % of your one-rep max, will be reduced.
If you really want to blow up your bench, squat and deadlift you are better served working with lower reps, longer rest periods and at a higher per cent of your one-rep maxes.
Does the 3/7 method work? Absolutely.
Is it better than more traditional set/rep protocols? Not necessarily. And we’d argue that it may be detrimental for more advanced trainees looking to maximise either muscle hypertrophy or 1 rep maxes, due to its inflexibility regards volume and a requirement for lower weight.
But it can provide a sufficient training stimulus to see results. And if it works for you at a point in your training when you are particularly time-constrained, then great.
Ultimately effective training is about accruing sufficient total weekly volume at adequate intensity.
As a beginner or intermediate lifter, how you reach these thresholds may be less relevant than actually reaching them.
To this end, there isn’t an absolute right or wrong way to train, just different ways of reaching the same outcome. And certain training protocols may work better for you at different times in your training.
So, if you fancy the 3/7 protocol and/or know you will be particularly time-constrained for a few weeks then give it a try.
Or if you have the odd day where you are really pressed for time, subbing in rounds of 3/7 to replace your normal 3 sets per exercise will provide sufficient stimulation.
But try not to get too fixated on one particular protocol, or believe there is a magic regime that delivers extra gains.
Again, the most important aspects of any training programme are sufficient volume and intensity – the workouts you choose should be shaped by these requirements and then fitted into your weekly availability to hit the gym.