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Simple Rep Range Rules for Strength Training

I remember the first time I ever picked up bodybuilding magazine with the intention oflearning how to train and grow. I knew nothing at the time but was ready to soak up all the information that this magazine was ready to give. I found the workout of the biggest guy in the magazine (an IFBB pro who shall remain nameless). This magazine listed his favorite workout plan and his reasons why it was his favorite.
One statement gave me an answer I was looking for. This bodybuilder stated, “When I am trying to get big, I lift heavy for low reps, but when it is time to get lean for a show I lift light weight for high reps. This is what really burns the fat.” I figured this had to be true since he was huge and lean.
As I became more embedded into the bodybuilding world, I would hear this same bit of “knowledge” over and over again. In my never-ending search for knowledge it did not take me long to discover that this common mantra of, low reps for mass and high reps for cuts, was just plain wrong. The truth about rep ranges is something that is largely unknown within the bodybuilding community.
I work with clients of all different experience levels. Some have been competing for years and have reached top levels of competition, while others are just starting out on their bodybuilding journey. It doesn’t matter the level of the trainee, I am always shocked to find that this is a rather simple topic that is largely misunderstood.
Well, no more! I want to clear the air. This may not be groundbreaking new information to the bodybuilding world, but it is something that every bodybuilder should know.

Low Reps (5 reps or less)

In weight training, one adage has stood the test of time: To get big, you have to get strong. Taking that to an extreme, many lifters adopt a powerlifting approach, coupling very heavy weights with low reps. Take a look around your gym, and you're likely to find an aspiring bodybuilder or two struggling through sets of squats or bench presses with weights at or near their one-rep maxes.

This method is a sure strength builder, and if you take a close look at any successful powerlifter, you'll notice the added mass in his frame. However, low-rep training has one significant shortcoming: Muscle-fiber stimulation, and thus growth, is correlated closely to the amount of time a muscle is under tension. Short, intense sets of 15 seconds or less will develop strength, but they simply aren't as effective in prodding a muscle to grow as sets of 30 to 60 seconds.

Moderate Reps

The time-under-tension theory leads us to our third suspect: eight- to 12-rep sets. At a cadence of two seconds on the concentric (lifting) action and two seconds on the eccentric (lowering) movement, your set will end up smack dab in the middle of the optimum 30- to 60-second range.

Why is that range critical? Because when the set lasts longer than a few seconds, the body is forced to rely on the glycolytic-energy system, which leads to the formation of lactic acid. You may think of lactic acid as a bad thing, since it's mistakenly associated with the muscle ache you feel days after a workout, but that soreness is actually a very fleeting reaction that's vital to new muscle-tissue production.

When lactic acid, or lactate, pools in large amounts, it induces a surge in anabolic-hormone levels within the body, including the ultrapotent growth hormone and the big daddy of muscle-building, testosterone. These circulating hormones create a highly anabolic state within the body and if you're after more muscle, that's exactly the state you want to be in.

The increased time under tension also leads to more muscle damage, imperative if you plan on getting larger any time soon. Theoretically, the longer a muscle is contracted, the greater the potential for damage to the tissue.

The moderate-rep range, when coupled with a challenging weight, will also bring about a much-desired condition: the muscle pump. That tight, full feeling under the skin, caused by blood pooling in the muscle, has value beyond its ego-expanding qualities. Studies have demonstrated that the physiological conditions which lead to a pump activate protein synthesis and limit protein breakdown. Thus, more of the protein you eat goes toward muscle construction instead of being burned off for energy. In a scientific twist of good fortune, the fast-twitch fibers appear to be the biggest beneficiaries of this phenomenon.

High Reps

By now, it's probably ingrained in you that you need to perform high reps per set (I'm looking at you, bodybuilders). Let me clarify that I define high reps to dawdle in the 8-12 rep range but could be as low as 6 reps per set.

There shouldn't be anything really earth-shattering here. If you train with high reps, your goal is to build a bigger muscle.

Some folks call this "structural hypertrophy" since the higher rep sets allow you to focus primarily on the muscles themselves. They also lend themselves to fewer total sets per exercise. By virtue of slowing down the movement, coupled with the sheer amount of reps you do per set, you're going to increase time under tension, which is a necessary stimulus for hypertrophy. No doubt, gains in strength will come along for the ride, but increases in muscular growth will outpace the increases in strength.

But what happens if you spend all your time here? Quite simply, your body will adapt to your training in this rep range if you continue it for extended periods of time. Furthermore, training in that zone will ultimately limit the amount of intensity you can use as well.

Do high-rep sets (15, 20, or more reps per set) have a place in programming? Sure, but they're probably the exception rather than the rule.

The solution here is clear: Focus on getting stronger! This brings me to my next point.

Comparing The Ranges

So you now know what function each rep range serves, but that is not the whole story. To really be able to put this knowledge to good use you really need to be able to interpret this info. Let's take a closer look.

Even knowing all of this info there are still those that say high rep training is not necessary and it is best to train only with low to moderate rep ranges and focus solely on progressive overload. A fairly recent study recently proved that this is just not true.

This study took 15 young men and compared two protocols in the leg extension. The researchers compared the protein synthesis response from 4 sets with 90% (RM) taken to failure, with 4 sets with 30% (RM) taken to failure. This study found significantly higher protein synthesis rates after the high rep protocol (Burd et al. 2010). This means that the old saying, low reps are for size and high reps are only for fat loss is way, way off.

There is still one problem with high rep training that cannot be ignored. As stated earlier, high reps do very little for increasing strength gains. Progressive overload is essential for growth to continue and this should lead us to one conclusion. While a high rep protocol will work well in the short term, the lack of continually increasing the resistance will eventually lead to a stall in growth.

There is actually a way around this stall though. By training with low to moderate reps and loads you can increase strength over time. These strength gains in the 1-5 rep range will have sort of a "trickle down” effect. This means that strength gains in the 1-5 rep range will transfer and lead to more strength in the other rep ranges. If a bodybuilder increases his one rep max from 250 lbs. to 350 lbs. on the deadlift, you had better believe that his 20 rep max will increase as well. This is what I mean when I say the strength will trickle down.

So using a variety of reps and loads will have a synergistic effect. Rep ranges are not independent of one another. Improvements in one area will lead to improvements in other areas. This exchange is important to understand when putting the whole picture together.

The Takeaways

There are actually two main takeaways from all of this information. All rep ranges will increase muscle growth but through different pathways. Therefore all ranges should be utilized, no matter if you are gaining or cutting.
Do not use high reps to stimulate fat loss. All weight training will stimulate the metabolism and cause a calories burn. No one rep range will cause significant fat loss over another. Diet and cardio should be the primary tools you use to shed fat and get lean. Let the weight build muscle, let your diet cut the fat.
As you can see, there are no rep ranges that are magically going to make you lose fat or get shredded more than other rep ranges. There is also no merit to the idea that high reps will not allow you to gain lean mass. If you are dieting for a show, just trying to drop a few pounds, or trying to gain as much muscle as possible you must use every single rep range to maximize growth to your fullest potential. So how do you apply this to your own workout? It depends if you are training a muscle group once or twice per week.

If training a muscle group only once per week the best way to work in all rep ranges are as follows:

  • First 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with heavy loads in the 1-5 rep range with compound movements.
  • Next 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with moderate loads in the 8-12 rep range with mostly compound movements.
  • Last 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with light loads in the 15-30 rep range usually with an isolation movement.
When training a muscle group twice per week this really allows you to specialize and focus on one type of training at a time. This is why I most often recommend more frequent training to my clients. Here is a good way to split it up:

Session 1

  • First 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with heavy loads in the 2-4 rep range with compound movements.
  • Next 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with moderate loads in the 4-6 rep range with mostly compound movements.
  • Last 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with light loads in the 6-8 rep range usually with an isolation movement.
Session 2
  • First 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with heavy loads in the 12-15 rep range with compound movements.
  • Next 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with moderate loads in the 15-20 rep range with mostly compound movements.
  • Last 1-2 Exercises – 3-4 sets with light loads in the 25-30 rep range usually with an isolation movement.

The bodybuilding world is filled with misinformation. It is important to constantly question everything. The guy at the gym that is a legend in his own mind is not the only one spouting nonsense. Even top level pro bodybuilders are often misinformed themselves.
I say it all the time, for every method you use in your training and diet it is important to ask, “Why I am I doing this?” If you don’t have a good, scientifically sound answer, then it’s time to reevaluate your methods. The outdated ideas about rep ranges are now a thing of the past.
So get out there, lift brutally heavy weight, achieve skin tearing pumps, and burn it out with high reps. Do this and you’ll be good to grow!