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BendtheBar 09-25-2011 10:07 PM

Rethinking The Right Number of Reps

Okay, you're Chaz Bono and you want to win "Dancing With the Stars." (Incidentally, that's how I picture all of you out there – as a bunch of Chaz Bonos glued to your computer screens.)

Next week's dance is, I don’t know, the Brazilian Samba. As such, you wouldn't spend all week practicing the rumba, would you? Sure, it's dancing, but it's not the same thing.

Similarly, if you were a sprinter, you wouldn't spend most of your time running distance, right? No, you'd run a lot of sprints.

Then why is it that a lot of lifters are using rep ranges that are largely at odds with their goals?

Lest you think I'm singling you out, Chaz, I'm guilty of it, too.

I think it's because I've been romanced by the likes of Dave Tate, Jim Wendler, Pavel T., Chad Waterbury, and others.

Don't get me wrong – they haven't been sending me flowers and chocolates and promising to take me away from all this. No, theirs' is a subtle romancing that involved influencing my choice of rep ranges through their articles.

And they didn’t intentionally influence me, They never misrepresented themselves, but I took their information and interpreted through my own filter without asking myself the right questions.

What I noticed while going through my journals of the last few years is that my rep ranges have shrunk considerably since the days when Charles Poliquin was my weightlifting muse.

Whereas I once routinely did sets of 6 to 8 or 8 to 12, most of my sets are now in the Pavelesque 5 x 5 range, the Waterbury-ish multiple sets of 3 range, or the occasional traditional rep range of 6 to 8.

Now that would be fine, IF my main purpose was to build strength and lift very heavy weights, but it's not. And those coaches clearly stated what the intent of their programs was, but the purpose slipped between the folds of my brain and fell into a brain oilpan where all the stuff I didn't absorb festers, like calculus, the date of my anniversary, and that killer recipe for seafood bisque that I can't remember.

Granted, lifting heavier and heavier weights is a desire, but it's not my primary desire, at least right now.

No, my primary desire right now is hypertrophy and the rep ranges I'm doing might well be wrong for that specific goal.

And I don’t think I'm the only one that's been romanced this way.

I rarely see guys doing sets of anything past 8 reps, EXCEPT for the people in my gym who are being trained by personal trainers. Invariably, their trainers have them do sets of 10 to 15, which, ironically, somewhat conflicts with their main training goal, which is to get stronger (and of course, "fitter").

Here's the thing, if you're into relative strength increases, mostly through neural remodeling, you do low reps, from 1 to 5.

For a good compromise between maximal strength and hypertrophy, you do sets of roughly 6 to 8.

If you want hypertrophy, you live in the 9 to 12 rep zone.

For endurance with a modicum of strength and hypertrophy, you do sets of 12 to 15.

But nobody seems to be targeting the correct rep zone for their purposes!

Just the other day, I found this old chart compiled by Charles Poliquin in 1990 titled, "Relationship between maximum number of repetitions, intensity, and the training effect."

In it, Poliquin roughly determines which rep ranges are best suited for weight training goals. For instance, as I mentioned, doing 1 to 5 reps per set builds relative strength through enhanced neural drive. The following percentages show, roughly, what percentage of your maximum weight you're lifting when doing sets of 1 to 5:

1 rep = 100% of maximum, 2 reps = 94.3% of maximum, 3 reps = 90.6% of maximum, 4 reps = 88.1% of maximum, 5 reps = 85.6% of maximum.

Doing 6 to 8 reps is thought to be the optimal compromise of maximal strength and hypertrophy, and the following percentages show how much of your maximum you're lifting when doing sets of 6, 7, or 8:

6 reps =83.1% of maximum, 7 reps = 80.7% of maximum, 8 reps = 78.6% of maximum.

Now the best gains in size (hypertrophy) are from doing sets of 9 through 12, and again, the following percentages show how much of your maximum weight you're lifting when doing sets of 9, 10, 11, or 12:

9 reps = 76.5% of maximum, 10 reps = 74.4% of maximum, 11 reps = 72.3% of maximum, 12 reps = 70.3% of maximum.

Any rep ranges of 13 and beyond, up to about 20, are for strength-endurance and also target the lower end of they hypertrophy gains spectrum.

Granted, the percentages are probably rough as hell, but the point is probably solid.

Regardless, do you see what's happened?

The guys who aren't that interested in hypertrophy are doing rep ranges that are best-suited for hypertrophy, while the guys who are interested in hypertrophy are doing sets that are best suited for strength!

Let me quickly say that even sets of very low rep ranges can have a pretty solid effect on hypertrophy, provided the volume is sufficient. (In fact, this was the premise of Chad Waterbury's "Anti-Bodybuilding" program.)

But most guys don't use sufficient volume when using low-rep sets, so my point remains, most guys appear to be using the wrong rep ranges for their purposes.

There are probably also psychological and practical reasons for this logic disparity.

Trainers probably have their clients do high reps because it takes longer to do the sets so it's easier to fill up an hour-long training session. Additionally, it’s harder for them to get injured when using lighter weights, not to mention harder for the client to whine when using a lighter, more comfortable weight.

Guys who want to build muscle are using heavy weights and lower reps because they're resorting to what passes as logic – heavy weights, lifted with a lot of grunting, grows big muscles, while lifting a "light" weight a lot of times doesn't seem like it would build big muscles. Besides, lifting a light weight for a lot of reps is boring and unsatisfying.

Case in point, one of the few coaches who routinely works in these higher-rep, "sweet spot" hypertrophy ranges is Mountain Dog John Meadows, who, by his own admission, doesn't really care about strength. He just wants to be hyoooge. So he picked the right tools for the job – higher reps…with lots of volume.

Poliquin himself believes that volume, along with considerable variety, are the most important things when it comes to hypertrophy.

Granted, these rep ranges and percentages aren't set in carbon steel, but the point remains, think about your rep ranges and whether they're best suited to get you where you want to go.


Soldier 09-25-2011 10:12 PM

I read this on t-nation. I found it to be very interesting, and actually kept it in mind in the gym today.

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