The Efficacy and Simplicity of a 70-Year-Old Training Protocol

More than one person is credited with saying, “The more I learn the more I realize how much I don’t know.”  Regardless of who said it, I subscribe to it.

An addendum to this for me would be, “The more I learn the more complex I make things.”  And complexity is the enemy of execution.  Yep.  Guilty.

In over 20 years in the fitness industry, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different studies, research, programs, philosophies, and exercises.  And I’ve tried many of them.  Some things work better than others.  Other things longer than some.  Everything works . . . if only for a little while.  But is everything necessary?

I recently discovered a “new” program developed by Drs. Thomas DeLorme and Arthur Watkins.  They implemented their new strength-building program with seriously injured soldiers returning from war.

(Which war?  World War II.  Okay, so it’s not new.  But even after nearly 70 years, it has stood the test of time.  And although I called their work “new”, I’ve known about it my entire career.  I just didn’t know to whom went the credit.  A fascinating article I read about Dr. DeLorme referred to his protocol as “permanently etched into the collective subconscious of the fitness community.”  Yep.  Etched.)

The DeLorme-Watkins protocol consists of three progressive sets of an exercise based on your 10-repetition maximum (10 RM) with a two-minute rest between each set.  (A repetition maximum is the maximum number of reps you can perform at a given weight before the loss of form.)

Set 1: performed with 50 percent of your 10 RM

Set 2: 75 percent of your 10 RM

Set 3: 100 percent of your 10 RM

The first and second sets serve as a light and moderate warm-up set.  The third is high-effort and provides the strength-building stimulus.

When comparing training programs (or diets), we tend to look at the differences.  Something I’m learning is to look not at the differences but the similarities.

As complex and different as so many training programs are, so many of them have these four things in common:

  • Exercises involve the major muscle groups
  • 1-3 sets of each exercise are performed
  • 8-12 reps are performed per set
  • Each exercise is progressively overloaded (weight is added) when the prescribed number of reps are achieved.

Although these guidelines are simple—three sets of 10 reps—they aren’t easy.  Nor are they ineffective.

During my career, mounds of research have been conducted using the above guidelines.  And what they’ve found is this.  Resistance training programs that follow (or are similar to) the DeLorme-Watkins:

  • Increase lean muscle mass
  • Decrease fat mass
  • Increase strength
  • Increase muscular endurance
  • Increase flexibility (yes, enough with the “muscle-bound” business)

Never mind all the benefits for your blood and brain chemistry.

So, how would you use the DeLorme-Watkins protocol today?

I recommend performing a total-body training program no less than twice weekly (but I’m a BIG fan of thrice).  Although I’m partial to free weights, this program works just as well with machines.  Here’s how it might look:

Squat: Goblet Squat, Split Squat, or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Hinge: Kettlebell Deadlift or Trap Bar Deadlift

Vertical Push: ½-Kneeling Landmine Press or ½-Kneeling Alternating Dumbbell Press

Vertical Pull: Chin up or Band-Assisted Chin Up

Horizontal Push: Dumbbell Bench Press or Barbell Bench Press

Horizontal Pull: Inverted Row or DB Row

After that, I suggest some targeted abdominal work.

It may take a couple of weeks to get the weights dialed in.  Remember, although this protocol is simple, it isn’t easy.  Your third set will test your mettle.  You’ll be performing as many quality reps as possible.

After those first couple of weeks dialing in your weight, when you’re able to complete 10-12 reps on your third [working] set, increase the weight the following workout.  Upper-body exercises may only require 2.5-5-pound increases.  Lower-body exercises can be increased by 5-10 pounds.

Although the DeLorme-Watkins protocol calls for a two-minute rest period between sets, you’d do well to keep it at a minute.  Whether you choose to rest one minute or two, keep it consistent.  If your rest is erratic, your performance will be too.  You’ll not have as accurate a measure for when to go up in weight, or if you’re progressing.

I acknowledge the DeLorme-Watkins protocol isn’t the only method (as mine varies).  Other combinations certainly work (as I’ve witnessed).  But in terms of efficacy and simplicity, there may be few better.

If the complexity of training has kept you from executing, first, I wanna apologize on behalf of my industry.  Second, it doesn’t have to be difficult.  It can be simple.  It can be effective.  It can be rewarding.