If you’re getting into the gym or workout studio on the regular, at some point the question of “how many reps to do?” has most probably entered your mind at some point.
Maybe it was a fleeting thought, but you carried on in blissful ignorance, assuming the answer was always ‘as many as possible’.
Or perhaps it really got you thinking about getting the best bang from your buck from your workouts, and whether you were training ‘right’ for you goal.
Either way, you’re reading this post now (well done 👍), so lets lay to rest the confusion and ensure you are training inline with your goal, as opposed to naively or randomly.
A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
It would be easy to just say do 8-12 if you want to build muscle, and that would be that. However, that be a gross simplification and not the whole truth. You see, resistance training has a dynamic effect on your body, depending on the relative intensity, volume and set duration.
There is no clear cut sign posts where distinct things happen to your body based on doing say 7 verus 8 reps. Instead, the effect(s) increase and decrease, on a spectrum of neural adaptations on one end and metabolic conditioning on the other.
Take a couple of minutes to review and digest the below spectrum map. It does a good job of explaining the effects of weight training reps on the body.
Picking The Right Tool For The Job
If You’re Primary Focus Is Improving Maximal Power
PERSONA: Powerlifter or Strongman
If you’re focus is to build your maximum strength and power, then you’re be looking at improving your one rep max (1RM). The rep range that will help you command maximum control and connection to your central nervous system and maximal contractile muscle strength will be the 1-3 Rep Range.
Max power and strength is not just about being jacked, albeit musculature is absolutely indicative of strength. More importantly, you need to be able to instruct as many muscle motor units to fire up simultaneously as possible, and to do so you need to practice commanding full control of your nervous system. That’s a mental game, as well as one of purposeful form and recruitment patterns.
The 1-3 Rep Range has obvious value to building overall strength, which of course happens as a result of developing denser thicker muscle fibres.
However, you can’t get overly specific on body parts to develop in this rep range as it’s most suited to compound lifting. You also cannot train exclusively in this rep range as it’s just so damn demanding on your nervous system, joints and body.
Therefore, you find that power lifters will do a lot of work in the 4-7 Rep Range to develop overall strength as well some 8-12 Rep Range work for some lagging body parts.
If You Want To Have A Strong Athletic Physique
PERSONA: Most Men & Women wanting an attractive shape
If you’re goals are generally focussed on maximising your body confidence – both through aesthetic improvements and having a strong functional body, then you can’t go wrong with spending the majority of your training time in the 4-7 & 8-12 Rep Ranges. Otherwise known as the Sweet Spot for most gym-goers.
Moreover, if you train to also support athletic performance where both power and strength are important – such as Rugby, Sprinting, American Football, Basketball etc, then training in these rep ranges with have optimal carryover (relevant exercise selection is important too).
The beauty with the 4-7 Rep Range is that it is significantly taxing on your nervous system, forcing you to train with great bursts of intensity, but is not too hard where risk of injury is disproportionate to the reward.
Plus, Progressive Overload (check out this AdapNation Podcast for the full low down) is most impacted by increasing volume each week, where Volume = Weight x Reps x Sets, so lifting heavy and for a good few reps packed in high quality volume.
Most importantly, the linkage between Hypertrophy (muscle growth) and Strength is very strong. If you can build a solid foundation of strength in the Big Compound Lifts, you increase your muscle density and overall body strength, which in turn allows you to command more weight in the ‘Classic Hypertrophy’ rep range.
As such, the 4-7 Rep Range (or more favourably the 4-6) should be where you spend the majority of your annual training time when doing Bench Press, Squats, Deadlifts, Overhead Press and the various variations. That said, mixing it up is CRUCIAL. Keep reading…
The 8-12 Rep Range is considered the ‘Classic Hypertrophy’ Rep Range, where it is suggested most muscle growth occurs. That’s not strictly true, as significant muscle mass occurs when using the 1-3 and 4-7 Rep Ranges.
However, it is both the most accessible Rep Range for lifters of all skill levels, and is particularly well matched for smaller single-joint isolation work. To name just a few, think Bicep Curl(s), Leg Extensions, Tricep Extensions/Pushdowns etc.
It is important to include this Rep Range in your programming if your goal is to develop additional lean mass. Not only should you use this Rep Range for isolation work, but additionally mixing it into the big compound lifts will help both muscle development and delaying muscle fatigue.
Lastly, it’s worth noting there is some utility in flirting with a little 1-3 Rep Range Power work and 13-20 Muscle Endurance work once in a while, if your goals are general in physique improvement. This should make up to no more than ~10% of your annual training volume, but a little effort here and there can help create further adaptations and break through strength plateaus that WILL show up as you continue your training effort past year one. Otherwise referred to as Periodisation (Daily/DUP, Weekly or Mesocyle).
If Your Primary Goal Is to Compete In Bodybuilding
PERSONA: Bodybuilders and advanced lifters focussed on developing specific muscles
Again, it’s important to reiterate that the bodies response to resistance training lies on a spectrum, and with the right circumstance there is value in working within each of the rep ranges. That said, each range has a dominant purpose.
So, if your goal is to compete in physique competitions, or perhaps if you are an athlete who has to the need for muscle endurance (e.g. a CrossFit competitor), then spending time in in the higher end of the Rep Range spectrum is ideal.
Bodybuilders and Physique competitors need to sculpt their bodies, being specific on the growth, size and proportions of each of their muscle bellies throughout the whole body. And to continue to illicit growth, they will need to increase volume on an almost never ending basis.
Furthermore, as their goals are less around performance and more aesthetics, having maximal strength and power for compound lifts such as deadlifts, squats and deadlifts is not a priority. They will be looking to limit risk of injury, increase training frequency, increase volume and ensure they do not disproportionately develop their core (i.e. powerlifters belly).
The best way to meet all these needs is to do LOTS of reps, and train almost every day. Volume is key, and there is naturally going to be a plateauing of strength and therefore weight increase as you wish to make progress faster than your strength allows.
And lets also not forget, physique competitors spend a lot of time in calorie deficits, so higher rep lower weight work is going to be more achievable given energy and muscle glycogen levels.
Bodybuilders will do this by working in the 8-12 and increasing in the 13-20 Rep Range, as they push their muscles to failure. Sets will also go up, to help with extra volume, and so will training sessions per week. Lastly, anabolic steroids can help boost overall volume potential and hypertrophy significantly, and are commonly used.
If Your Primary Goal Is Endurance Sport and Fitness
PERSONA: Endurance Sport Athletes
When your primary focus for hitting the weight room is to support and improve your fitness levels (VO2 Max) and endurance levels, then spending a lot of time on low weight and very high reps is where you should be spending the majority of your time.
It’s both intuitive and clearly demonstrated across any elite endurance athlete – carrying around extra muscle will slow you down and reduce endurance. Consider an elite long distance runner, a tennis player, soccer player, long-distance cyclists etc. Their physiques are slight – holding minimal fat and only the necessary amount of muscle to do the job.
Don’t get me wrong, you can get a soccer player with reasonably defined quads or a burly defender who uses their strength to hold off attackers, but in the context of overall muscle mass, soccer players are slight (especially in the upper torso). Same goes for tennis players. And marathon runners are the most extreme case in point, where they hold very little muscle mass.
Muscle is metabolically expensive, and will reduce endurance levels due to the tax and weight they bring to the body.
So, for endurance focussed individuals, very high rep work in the 21+ Rep Range is a great place to help develop muscle endurance and sport-specific movements. With light weight, you can really focus on movement, control and correct minute weaknesses that can improve overall movement.
Moreover, this high rep range can help with metabolic conditioning, i.e. improving efficiency, muscle endurance and VO2 Max.
And when we talk about high rep work, this can include aerobic class-based bodyweight training, indoor rowing against high resistance and Tabata-style Stationary Bike cycling.
So The Question Is…
What is YOUR GOAL?
Don’t fall into the trap of just wanting to beat yourself up and do the hardest work you can, assuming if you feel exhausted then you are adding value.
Maybe you are, but wouldn’t you rather know that you are deliberately training inline with your desired physical improvements and optimal outcomes?
Follow this PT Corner microblog as it unfolds. Comment if you have questions or ideas.