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REP RANGE SCIENCE

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By: 
Rob King, Strength & Conditioning Coach

How to Train for Power, Mass or Endurance

Building muscle, burning fat, getting stronger, and looking better takes a lot of work, and many factors play a role in making gains and getting the best results possible. To build serious mass, you have to take in plenty of calories (including quality protein), get enough sleep, load up on vitamins and minerals, and, of course, lift weights. In fact, lifting weights is without a doubt the most important of all these factors. You can eat all you want, sleep lots, and take all the supplements you want, but without lifting consistently with all-out intensity, you’re completely wasting your time in the gym.

 

Training Program Basics

When it comes to designing a science-backed program, there are many variables to consider: What kind of goals did you set? Are you using machines or free weights or both? How many sets are you doing for each muscle group? How long do you rest in between sets? While all these factors are important, the most important factor in helping you reach your training goals is your rep range.

Understanding and using the proper rep range is very important for reaching your goals and getting the best results possible. But what exactly are the proper rep ranges to get the best results in the shortest time possible?

More than likely, you’ve heard you should do high reps for fat loss or “toning” (I always hate hearing that word), “medium reps” for building muscle, and low reps for strength/power.

But do high reps really just burn fat and low reps build power? Are medium reps only good for building muscle? Keep reading because I’m going to share with you the truth about rep ranges.

 

The Truth About Rep Ranges

Knowing why you’re lifting weights is important. Your goal will dictate your training pattern, so in this case, rep range knowledge is power.

 

Rep Range #1: 1–5 Reps (Maximal Strength and Speed/Power)

If you’re lifting in the 1–5 rep range, you’re working on maximal strength, speed, and power. Maximal strength refers to what is known as the 85+ percent rep range. This means you’re at about 85 percent of your 1RM (one-rep max). This type of training relies very heavily on technical efficiency, your nervous system, and more. It’s not really about how much muscle you have, although having more muscle is never a bad thing (unless you’re in a weight-class sport).

This is why you’ll see some really muscular people who just aren’t very strong, and you’ll see some people who aren’t very big but have incredible strength. A perfect example would be female powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, who don’t have a lot of size but have incredible strength to body weight ratios.

Powerlifters and weightlifters often train in this rep range. More often than not, athletes looking to improve their sport or people who are trying to build muscle don’t train in this rep range year round, but every athlete or lifter can benefit by doing some training in the 1–5 rep range for maximal power, which will carry over to help them in any sport. Just think about football players and other pro athletes who have some of the Olympic lifts built into their training camp programming. The Olympic lifts build speed and explosive power—characteristics necessary for football. As top powerlifting coach Louie Simmons stated, “Maximal strength is the foundation of all other strength qualities.” Nothing could be truer.

Training for Strength and Power (85–100% 1RM)

Here are just some of the best rep schemes used for building explosiveness, strength and overall power, all of which fall in the 1–5 rep range:

• 5 sets of 5 reps

• 5 sets of 3 reps

• 10 sets of 3 reps (advanced lifters)

• 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (a favourite of Jim Wendler)

• 3 sets of 3 reps

You can also use the 1–5 rep ranges to improve speed if needed. If doing so, try to explode as quickly as possible during the concentric (positive) contraction of the lift. Do dynamic effort squats and deadlifts and be sure to learn the two competition Olympic lifts (the snatch and clean and jerk). Learn these two movements and you will see a significant improvement in overall speed and upper back development. When it comes to improving speed, you train in the lower rep ranges, but the weight lifted would be much lighter to allow yourself to move through the range of motion as quickly as possible. Instead of working at 90+ percent of your 1-rep max, you would work at much lower weights but at a much higher speed. The goal here is not how much weight you lift, but how fast you can lift the weight with perfect form.

Appropriate Training Percentages for Speed: 40–80% 1RM

Approximate Rest Time for Speed: 3–10 minutes between sets

Maximal Strength Tip: Always train heavy with perfect form and don’t get tired in this rep range. Also be sure to train lighter at higher speeds for overall speed and strength development.

 

Rep Range #2: 5–12 Reps (Strength and Hypertrophy)

If you want to build muscle and get stronger, this is the rep range that you’ll train with often. According to most top strength coaches, 8–12 reps is the general “muscle building” rep range.

However, I like to also add in some reps of 5–8 to make the best of this. This way, you get a mix of strength and hypertrophy; it’s important to have both qualities in your training. 

With 5–12 reps, your intensity is lowered (based on a percentage of your 1RM), but your volume of sets and reps is increased. This essentially places less demand on your central nervous system and more demand on your muscular and metabolic systems. In this rep range, you’ll get more of a “pump,” whereas in the 1–5 rep range you’ll hardly ever experience a pump.

 

The Pump and Contracting Muscles

The pump floods your muscles with anabolic blood, delivering the hormones, growth factors and nutrients needed to induce hypertrophy. Arnold loved the pump and was quoted as saying, “The most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump. Let’s say you train your biceps. The blood is rushing into your muscles. Your muscles get a really tight feeling, like your skin is going to explode any minute. It’s like somebody blowing air into your muscles. There’s no better feeling in the world.” Arnold knew the benefits of this rep range for building muscle, but he also had a powerlifting background, which played a big role in why he was one of the best. 

For basic exercises such as squats and deadlifts, it can be very beneficial to train in this rep range as it will improve building muscle but also improve conditioning and fat loss. You want to train as heavy as possible, but the weight lifted isn’t the main factor—it’s hitting the muscles and focusing on form and contractions.

In this rep range, it’s important to focus on the pump, and the squeeze. Just to reiterate, it’s not so much about how much weight you lift; it’s about how you lift the weight.

For isolation work, it’s not about how much weight you lift, because you’re only using one muscle group at a time. The goal for those particular exercises is to stimulate the muscle, go for the pump, and target the smaller areas that sometimes get neglected when you do the big exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

Here are some of the best rep schemes used for building overall mass:

• 3 sets of 8–12 reps

• 4 sets of 8 reps

• 5 sets of 10 reps

• Pyramid sets of 5–12 reps 

(you lower reps by 1 each set)

Appropriate Training Percentages: 50-80% 1RM

Approximate Rest Time: 2–4 minutes

Strength and Hypertrophy Tip: Focus on lifting heavy weights, but be sure to build the mind-muscle connection so that you’re allowing the targeted muscle group to take the majority of the load and always remember to aim for a great pump.

 

Rep Range #3: 12–20 Reps (Muscular Endurance)

High-rep training is an excellent means of increasing muscular endurance, mitochondria density and number, and improving vascularity while enhancing your ability to buffer lactic acid. Athletes such as runners, martial artists, MMA athletes, boxers, CrossFit athletes, and any athlete who does a lot of “reps” in his or her training can benefit greatly from training in the muscular endurance rep range. Higher reps can also be beneficial for building muscle and also improving fat loss and conditioning the stabilizers and fixators. One of the best overall squat programs is the “20-rep squat program” also known as “breathing squats,” which was pioneered in 1930 by J.C. Hise. Later, Peary Rader, with the help of people like Hise, was credited with coming up with the first 20-rep, breathing-style squat routine. This is a brutal training method that will put slabs of muscle on even the hardest of hard-gainers while improving overall conditioning. This training style is incredibly taxing to your overall recuperation, but 20-rep squats are a topic for a different article!

Appropriate Training Percentages: 20–70% 1RM

Approximate Rest Time: 30–90 seconds

Muscular Endurance Tip: Don’t neglect high-rep work; it has numerous overall benefits for size, strength, fat loss, and conditioning.

Absorb What Is Useful, Discard What Is Useless

From my experience working with hundreds of athletes, I don’t believe that one particular style or method will work best for everyone. But you must have a general idea of what you’re doing when it comes to what you’re training for so that you can match the correct rep scheme to achieve the best results possible. I’ve seen genetic freaks build muscle with high reps; in fact, IFBB legend Vince Taylor won 22 pro shows by training with no less than 30 reps per set! I’ve known other athletes who trained using nothing but low reps while dieting down and burning fat. So take what you’ve learned in this article and experiment with everything. If you’ve only ever stuck to high rep ranges, incorporate some of the Olympic lifts. If you’ve been a pure strength devotee forever and want functional strength, try a CrossFit-style endurance workout. Keep an open mind. As Bruce Lee said, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”