What rep range should you use?
If you read a magazine or ask a trainer about the number of reps you should be doing for your sets you’ll probably get the following breakdown:
- If you want tone/endurance, do high reps i.e. 15-20
- If you want the combination of strength and size then do medium to high reps i.e. 8-12
- If you want to concentrate on strength but not emphasise size then do low reps i.e. 3-6.
This is the zeitgeist or prevailing fashion of the fitness world and has been for as long as I have been training.
As you can see, these rep recommendations are based on the results you can achieve from using them. You can simplify them by substituting each range for a result:
- Equals lean and defined
- Equals mass and bulk
- Equals lean but strong
Nice and comparmentalised, right? The funny thing is the truth is much simpler than that.
First off, let’s once and for all discard the first one. The only thing that high reps are useful for are as cardio: it doesn’t matter how much those 1 kg dumbbells are making your shoulders burn, it is not going to ‘define’ that area.
The build-up of lactic acid is making it sore, but that is not making the muscle develop: equally it doesn’t matter how developed you muscles are if you have high bodyfat you still won’t look ‘toned’.
For evidence, look at powerlifters, who specialise in being as strong as possible. Being able to bench press 200 kgs their muscles are evidently well-developed, but looking at many of them you’d say they look fat.
So let’s put it to rest: forget about high reps if you have muscle-building or muscle development goals.
So what about 2 and 3?
There is some validity in these two assertions. Essentially the idea is that doing more reps increases the ‘time under tension’ of the muscle fibres which causes more micro-damage. The more ‘trauma’ afflicted on the muscle, the more repair and growth that takes place during recovery.
Doing low reps with a heavy weight is more of a training of the ‘response’ of the central nervous system (CNS): while you’re obviously loading and conditioning the muscles strength training is primarily a training of the coordination and efficiency of the ‘firing’ of the muscle contractions.
One of the reasons experienced lifters can lift more than beginners or intermediates is because they have a better ‘mind-muscle’ connection and a more acutely coordinated CNS.
So there is some merit in considering the two rep schemes depending on your goals.
However it is important to know that in terms of building muscle ALL REP RANGES BETWEEN 1-15 WORK.
Strength and muscle size are linked. If you want to grow muscle you have to get strong.
I remember when I was younger being told that bodybuilders had ‘show muscle’ and weren’t actually that strong. The idea was that by working out a certain way they were just generating muscle size but not that much strength.
Even if we factor in drugs, this is nonsense- they might not be as strong in a 1 rep max as some powerlifters of a similar size but everyone who is muscular has a decent level of strength. You just can’t build muscle without moving heavy weights, it’s that simple.
There are essentially two types of ways that muscle grows-
- Enlargement of the muscle fibres themselves (myofibrillar hypertrophy)
- Increase in the volume of the ‘plasma’ around the fibres (consisting of glycogen, water etc.) called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
The only way to stimulate growth of the fibres themselves is through using heavy, challenging weights, which by default means you’ll be doing them for low reps (if you can do a weight for 8-10 reps then it is not heavy for you).
As a natural trainer you have a genetically defined limit of how much actual muscle you can build in your career (I’m not talking about weight increase, I’m talking actual real muscle- when the scale goes up a lot of the extra weight can be fat or water).
As I’ve defined in my article about natural muscle limits, it’s probably not as much as you are led to believe.
So you actually need to take advantage of the muscle development of both types of muscle growth, in order to fully achieve your potential.
However, moving heavy weights (relative to your strength levels) in the 1-4 rep range is a skill that can be risky if you’re a beginner. Therefore I would follow these guidelines:
- Beginners should stick to developing their strength base in the 8-10 range. This is not going to hit your muscle fibres as hard as if you were working at lower reps but at this stage the most important thing is to be getting lots of reps done to ‘groove’ your form and get used to lifting. Reps are practice.
- At this stage you need to condition your body to handle the intensity of moving heavy weights later, so don’t worry too much about doing lower rep sets.
- Once you’re intermediate/advanced (i.e. you are confident about the form and you have built a decent strength base in the 8-10 range, for instance being able to deep squat your bodyweight for 10) you can move to exploiting the lower rep ranges.
Once you’re ready to start doing lower reps then you can maximise your workouts by using the whole spectrum of reps (like 3-12) to make sure you induce both types of muscle growth.
For instance, you can warm up to a heavy weight on a compound movement for 3-5 for two sets then strip some weight and do 2 sets for 8-10. Then you can follow up with some accessory work for 10-15 reps to finish.
In this way you can make sure that you’re maximising your workouts. As long as you’re getting stronger over time, then you will be progressing and growing muscle.
Just remember that growing muscle takes time. If you just workout in the 8-10 range you won’t build more muscle or look bulkier than if you just did lower reps. The 8-10 rep range is not the ‘bodybuilder’ zone which will get you looking like Arnie sooner.
Unless you’re on drugs muscle growth require consistency and heavy lifting, over time. Utilise the whole rep spectrum and you’ll be able to build a physique much closer to your potential, as well as being strong and functional.
The most important thing is getting in there consistently week-in, week-out. If you do that, whether you do 5 reps or 10 you’ll still get results.