High reps? Low reps? At one extreme you have the powerlifting and functional strength camp swearing by heavy loads and lower rep ranges. Then in the other, you have the bodybuilders convincing us that chasing the “pump” is what creates size and growth.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
Like many questions in life, the answer is not exactly cut-and-dry.
Muscle is an adaptive tissue. It responds to stress (i.e. exercise) by becoming stronger, larger and more enduring.
This also means that when exposed to a repeated stressor, your muscle will become more efficient at handling it and stop having to adapt. When that happens, we can either increase the intensity of the stressor or swap it out for another stressor at a similar intensity (i.e. less weight but more reps).
For a time, the fitness profession thought that meant we should “confuse the muscles” by doing as many new exercises week after week.
What the scientific literature and the case studies of powerlifters, bodybuilders and all sorts of lifters in between show that exposing the body to a variety of rep ranges within workouts and over macrocycles (3 months) of workouts (mainly consisting of compound movements accompanied by some isolations) lead to the most muscle development.
More plainly: within workouts you should train through all rep ranges, emphasizing and switching between higher or lower reps every few months to develop the most muscle (and burn the most fat).
If we were to refer to Dr. Brad Schoenfeld’s meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies), we find that all rep ranges stimulate the most muscle growth.
It makes sense because muscles are composed of different fiber types that all respond by adapting to higher or lower rep ranges. So by engaging them across a variety of rep schemes, they are forced to grow.
What do you do with that information? How do you actually use it to achieve your muscle growth and fat loss goals? Here’s a few guidelines:
- 80/20 Rule
- Specificity Principle
- The Exception (What if You’re an Athlete)
Most of your workouts need to consist of the following six primal patterns:
- Push (Benchpress)
- Pull (Bent Over Row)
- Twist (Russian Twists)
- Squat (Front Squat)
- Lunge (Split Squat)
- Bend (Deadlift)
Why? Two reasons. 1) Compound lifts or primal patterns are movements that stimulate the most muscle groups and demand the most tension. This amount of muscle fiber recruitment leads to superior growth. 2) They are called primal patterns for a reason, being that they mimic the 6 basic human locomotion patterns (squat mimics getting up off a chair, deadlift mimics picking up furniture, etc.). If you want to be a healthy, fit, self-sufficient human who can protect themselves and not pull a back muscle while lifting a couch, I suggest you train in a way that the body is meant to move.
Maybe you’re training for a sport, or just to be brutally strong. Perhaps you’re trying to train for a marathon. In either case, you’ll want to exist within the rep ranges associated with strength or endurance, respectively.
For example, if you’re trying to bench 3 plates, you’re going to want to bench singles, doubles and triples or less than 6 reps for multiple sets fairly regularly. Likewise if you’re trying to train for a marathon, you’d want to be squatting in the higher rep ranges, say 15+ to condition your quads to withstand work for long periods of time, like when running 22 miles.
Every so often, say 3 months, you want to switch your overall approach to rep ranges. Here’s what I mean.
We all naturally have a certain inclination to certain training styles. I think that most people fall into one of three training camps, which are 1) the high rep, crossfitty range, 2) the middle rep traditional bodybuilding zone, and 3) low rep strength and conditioning zone.
To avoid your body adapting and keep it on its toes, you’ll want to shift the emphasis up or down every few months.
Now this is different than confusing the muscle because 1) the bulk of your training is focused on the 6 primary movements with ever increasing loads 2) you’re not switching rep emphasis week to week or workout to workout like a crackhead.
All the while ensuring that within individual training sessions you’re working up and down the spectrum, engaging all muscle fibers, always.
The Exception (What if You’re an Athlete)
This advice serves the general public and our customer base: those who want to change their bodies and change their lives. In other words, those pursuing general health and aesthetic goals.
But for the pro footballer, MMA fighter or ultramarathoner, these guidelines are not enough and can even be disastrous. If you’re one of them, you need to find 1) a strength and conditioning coach and 2) a sport specific coach to meet the demands of your sport.
For the majority of us (or 99.99999%), these guidelines will be all you need to create a more muscular, leaner and healthier physique of your dreams.
The Short and Sweet
All rep ranges work, and are required to grow the most muscle. But that doesn’t mean you should confuse the muscles (trading focus on the compound lifts with random variety). It means most of the time you should be lifting in the compound movements, some of the time in isolations, but in every workout employ all rep ranges. Every quarter or so, shifting emphasis on one of the three rep ranges.
Hope this helps and thank you for reading thus far!
Power to You!
P.S. If you’re local the Union/Essex County Area in NJ and are interested in our locally famous 6 Week 15-20lbs Sexy Slimdown/Summer Shred, send me a text at 9082306281 (that’s my personal cell) to sign up :). Looking forward to hearing from you!