In the last article, we discovered that 10-15 sets per body part per week might be the best middle ground for building a great physique without spending ages in the gym. This begs the question, how many reps should I do to go along with these 10-15 sets?
If you’ve been around the fitness block for a while, you’d know there is a fierce debate regarding reps—even more so than sets. Assuming we are taking our sets close to failure, all reps have their place in our quest for a great physique. But which rep range is right for your goals?
How Many Reps Should I Do? The Debate.
I mentioned there is a debate over reps today, and in Normal Joe Fashion, let’s oversimplify the debate for some context.
There has long been the notion that different rep ranges provide slightly different benefits (the strength-endurance continuum).
If we step back in history (the 90’s—what a great era), the generally accepted notions was:
- Building Maximum Strength: 1-5 reps
- Building Maximum Muscle: 6-12 reps
- Building Maximal Endurance: +15 reps
Now, to be fair, a lot of research has been done and we’ve improved our knowledge on this topic. But, and a big but…the above rep ranges—though over-simplified—are tried and true. They work and here’s why:
Going balls to the wall on sets of 1-5 reps will make you crazy-strong. Performing sets of 6-12 reps with consistency will put slabs on muscle of you; no question. And pumping out sets above 15 reps will provide great cardiovascular improvements. All true.
And if you stop reading now and follow these ranges above for your goals, your strategy will work. But seriously, don’t leave. Keep reading.
Is It Possible To Get Both Big And Strong?
The new school research hasn’t really debunked the old school anecdotes (because they work). They’re still valid.
But there is more to the story. More that will make your life easier.
Researchers recently ran a study to see what would happen when 19 young fit guys trained with both strength rep ranges (2-4 reps) and muscle rep ranges (10-12 reps).
Surprisingly, all of the guys got stronger and more muscular. Crazy how lifting metal does that.
There are some statistical differences, of course; but all the dudes in the study made strength and muscle gains. That’s right. Guys who lifted in strength zones (2-4 reps) not only were stronger, they were more muscular. And guys who lifted in muscle zones (10-12 reps) not only were more muscular, they were stronger.
Proof is right cheeer…
As you can see by my fancy doodle, there are certainly differences in strength and muscle, but there are also gains in both areas across the board (strength and muscle).
Their arms didn’t just get bigger, they got stronger. The same goes for their lower bodies. Whether they were subjected to low reps or moderate reps, both strength and muscle gains occurred.
What you’ll notice is that lifting in the 10-12 rep range will have slight muscle building advantage over 2-4 reps (at least in the biceps and quads) while lifting in the 2-4 rep range will have a strength building advantage over 10-12 reps.
Puhayto, Puhahto. They both work.
What we’ve learned so far: Lifting in strength ranges (2-4 reps) builds strength AND muscle. Lifting in muscle ranges (10-12) also builds strength AND muscle.
What About Endurance Reps (+15)?
We’ve learned that whether we lift in low rep ranges (1-5) or moderate muscle building ranges (6-12), both strength and muscle gains occur. So why not just end there. Lift hard, lift heavy, go home. Rinse, and repeat.
Well, wait a minute now. Let’s talk higher reps for a second because they have a case to make.
Believe it or not, high rep training (+15) has gotten a lot of attention in research circles lately. Why it’s taken so long is anybody’s guess. My guess: 25 rep personal records aren’t as sexy as the deified 1 rep max.
No gym class hero was ever crowned with a 50 rep squat max. I digress.
Some really smart guys with really expensive equipment have recently performed a bunch of studies (study 1, study 2, study 3, study 4) all showing that higher rep ranges increase muscle, endurance, AND strength.
That’s kind of awesome.
Now to be fair, exclusively training in the upper rep ranges (+15) won’t earn you a spot on the podium at your local powerlifting meet. You’ll get “sorta” strong. But us Normal Joe Fit’s probably aren’t chasing an 800lb squat either.
If you are reading this with a 800lbs squat…we aren’t worthy (knee bent, bow taken).
Back to the issue at hand: we just want to look good without spending 3 hours each day in the gym.
Lifting in higher rep ranges WILL put muscle on your body. If you haven’t performed over 15 reps since the push up test in junior high (I failed), We Release You! Fear no more.
And above all, there is one thing that isn’t often talked about in this higher rep range: health.
That’s right, lifting in the 15+ rep range will have far less joint wear and tear than grinding out sets of 3 reps. It’s simple physics. Your joints are tissues that help to support the force you place on them. 500lbs of joint force will make knees, hips, and shoulders crankier than 200lbs.
If you don’t care who’s counting the plates on your bar at the gym— lighten the load and give your body a break. You’ll still make progress. It’s science.
How Many Reps You Ask? All Of them.
You might be saying, “So what I’m hearing is I can do any rep range (e.g., 1-30 reps) and build muscle, strength, and endurance?”
“That’s just great. I’ll walk around the gym repping out whatever I want in unknown quantities. I won’t even bother to count. Normal Joe Fit you are stupid and taught me nothing of use.”
And, that might be true (the stupid part), but before you do that, there might be a slightly better way.
The above is to illustrate that we should think about training with an open mind. The body is built to adapt to millions of stimuli. Yet, we tend to exercise with our preferences, which is probably the best thing to do.
In fact, it’s a great thing. Doing what we enjoy leads to better long-term success. Think about all the enjoyable things in life that have stayed with you over the last decade. You’ll soon realize it’s because you like them (alert: it ain’t rocket science).
Guys who like to see the bar increase in weight each week, tend to lift heavier. Guys who chase the mighty pump tend to lift in moderate to higher reps. Guys who exclusively lift in higher rep ranges…well… look, I don’t know any, but whatever they do is for a good reason I’m sure. And guys who are bored to tears counting sets and reps, love to bounce all over the gym like a jack rabbit, sweating on everyone’s equipment. (suggestion: if you are said sweaty perpetrator—wipe the equipment off for all of our sake).
The Scoop: Research supports doing just about any rep range as long as you are working hard.
The Strength-Endurance Continuum Revisited
As you can see, there are multiple benefits to be had in each rep zone. Let’s not get myopic.
Depending on your goal, you may want to think of the continuum like this:
Building Maximum Strength, Great Muscle, and Some Endurance: 1-5 reps
Building Maximum Muscle, Great Strength, and Some Endurance: 6-12 reps
Building Maximal Endurance, Great Muscle, and Some Strength: +15 reps
The key takeaway here is that building muscle is hard to avoid when lifting weight; no matter the rep count. As long as you work hard and work consistently, muscle will find you.
If you aren’t lifting weights to become the world’s strongest guy or the world’s fittest man (whatever that means), you can probably lift in any rep range you want.
A Practical Guide To Reps
Because choosing reps for your workout is a wide-open affair, let’s bring some simple structure around it. When looking for success, picking up the bread crumbs of successful coaches always leaves great clues.
I’d like to discuss 2 popular ways strength coaches organize rep zones when programming workouts.
1) Stick with one (Linear): Sticking with the same rep zone over the course of many weeks or months.
- January-February: 4-6 reps
- March-April-May: 8-12 reps
- June-July: 18-20 reps
2) Mix it up (Non-Linear): Working in various rep zones within the same week or within the same workout.
- Daily: Monday (squats 6 reps, hamstrings 12 reps, Low back 20 reps).
- Weekly: Monday (4 reps), Wednesday (10 reps), Friday (15 reps)
A Normal Joe Fit Starter Guide to Reps
Our suggestion: Start with the “Stick with one” approach. I’m not saying it’s better, but it’s so much easier to track and program. Take the guess work out of it in the beginning.
For the majority of us, simple is best. Many great strength coaches have found using the same rep range for a period of time leads to better performance and muscle gains. There are 3 primary reasons for this:
1) Focusing on one rep range at a time is really easy to program. If you all had to do was go to the gym and worry about lifting 4-6 reps for each exercise, you’d focus more on working hard and less on complicated details.
2) Focusing on one rep range helps to maximize a specific goal. If you want to get as strong as possible, focusing on lower rep ranges is helpful. If you want to improve muscular endurance (swimsuit shape), higher rep ranges may best suit you.
3) One leads to better performance in the others.
Here’s an example:
Doing a phase of low rep training (1-5 reps) will maximize our strength. If our next phase is muscle building (6-12 reps), the strength we gained from the last phase will help us lift more weight during the muscle building phase. In our third phase, maybe we choose a muscular endurance rep range (15+) to improve work capacity and give our joints a much needed break. After a much needed rest and a new ability to do more work, we are ready to hit the ground running for a low-rep strength phase again.
How Long Should I Train In Each Phase?
This is completely up to you. And in truth, I’d think about what excites you most. Find out who you are. Be honest.
A Man of the Sea: 7-10 Week Phases
Like the calmness of the water, you prefer slow and steady. This kind of guy doesn’t like change, loves to track progress, eats the same foods each day, and has no problem delaying gratification. You might be best suited for longer phases where you can really dig in and focus.
A Man of the Wind: 2-3 Week Phases
Like the wind-sock you are, change is your best friend or else boredom ensues. Your rep zone should change frequently to keep you excited about the workout. 2-3 weeks in each rep range should do the trick. It’s just enough time to stimulate the necessary adaptions while avoiding the dreaded bored-zone.
A Man of the Mountain: 4-6 Week Phases
Like summiting Everest, you expect some change and challenge, but too much change, too quickly, can decrease your motivation. 4-8 weeks is perfect for you. It’s just enough time to see great progress in each phase and long enough to feel like you have a “plan”.
Sample Training Zones Program:
I am more of a mountain guy. But hey, that’s just me.
Two Last Tips:
- Small Ranges: Rep ranges can be pretty wide. Earlier we mentioned that 6-12 reps is a great range for building maximum muscle, but that’s a wide-range. Should you do closer to 6 reps or closer to 12 reps? I’d follow the recommendations of many great trainers before us: choose smaller ranges (e.g., 4-6 reps, 6-8 reps, 8-10 reps). It makes knowing when to progress in weight or added reps much easier.
1b. Bottom Up: Start at the bottom of a range and when you hit the reps successfully for all sets, increase to the next rep. For example, in the point above, we suggested 6-8 reps or 8-10 reps. That means, you’ll select a weight in the beginning of your phase where failure is closer to 6 reps. As you get stronger, set failure will hit closer to 8 reps. You are now officially stronger (congratulations). When all your sets are setting at 8 reps, add more weight. See example below:
✓= successfully completed all reps
✘=failed to complete all reps
Bench Press: 6-8 reps (week 1)
- Set 1: 6/6 reps @ 100lbs ✓
- Set 2: 6/6 reps @ 100lbs ✓
- Set 3: 5/6 reps @ 100lbs ✘
*Do not proceed to 7 reps
Bench Press: 6-8 reps (week 2)
Bench Press: 6-8 reps
- Set 1: 6/6 reps @ 100lbs ✓
- Set 2: 6/6 reps @ 100lbs ✓
- Set 3: 6/6 reps @ 100lbs ✓
Add 1 rep to the next workout
Bench Press: 6-8 reps (week 3)
Bench Press: 6-8 reps
- Set 1: 7 reps @ 100lbs
- Set 2: 7 reps @ 100lbs
- Set 3: 7 reps @ 100lbs
Well, that’s all we have for today. Whatever you choose to do, work hard and you’re golden.
Lift some, play more, love life.
Side note: If you are already advanced, understand periodization, and are looking to add some spice, try daily undulating or conjugate programming. Mike Zourdos and Layne Norton are great resources for this.