THE PERFECT REP RANGE FOR GROWTH
So, what is the perfect rep range for muscle growth?
Probably a better source of information for this article would be your gym changing rooms, without doubt there’s always an expert in the changing rooms preaching about what rep ranges to use…
“If you want to tone up you need to do high reps to burn more fat bro”
“If you want to change the shape of your muscle you need to lift heavy bro”
I’m sure you have heard them all before.
In this article, I’m going to dive a little deeper into what is the perfect rep range for building muscle.
Now just before a few people stop reading at this point because they don’t want to “build muscle” they just want to “tone up.” Let me remind you that if you say you want to tone up, what you’re basically saying is that you want to BUILD MUSCLE and LOSE BODY FAT, so this article is very relevant to you.
A word you will hear a lot of below is, hypertrophy and for those who don’t already know, that basically means muscular growth. There are two main mechanisms for hypertrophy;
- Mechanical tension – the more load you put on the bar or machine, the more tension is placed through the muscle
- Metabolic stress – associated with higher reps, where there is a build-up of blood in the muscle.
Getting the balance right between these two, mechanical tension and metabolic stress is a tough balance and one many people argue over which is best.
There are 3 main common rep ranges used, here I highlight some of the pro’s and con’s of each:
1. Low Reps (1-5) commonly associated with weightlifters & powerlifters.
Will help to build true strength and improve your 1 rep max which can be great for ego lifters.
Can burn out your CNS (central nervous system) lifting too heavy too often, leaving you feeling tired and drained. This is where good program design and rest is needed. Also, sessions may become boring to some, as rest periods of 3-5 mins may be used between sets. Constant heavy loads can also be taxing on your joints and tendons.
2. Classic Hypertrophy Rep Range (6-15) this is probably the most common rep range, most people would normally shoot for the middle and do about 10 reps-ish.
Can be the perfect balance between placing mechanical tension and metabolic stress on your muscles to produce hypertrophy.
This is the most common rep range and many just stick to this 24.7, never challenging themselves with heavier loads in lower rep ranges or pushing themselves past 15+ reps.
3. High Reps (15-20+) anything above that 15 reps I would generally class as high reps, when you get to 20, you're deep into high reps.
Many enjoy the feeling of ‘the burn’ & ‘the pump’ so using higher reps leaves them feeling like they have had a productive workout. Anything less than a sweaty t-shirt and a pump isn’t good enough for some people.
Many will drop the weight too much to perform the higher reps, so not enough stress is placed on the muscle. The ideal weight for 20 reps would be a weight you could perform 17/18 reps on comfortably and then really dig deep to push the last couple out. But many will opt for a light weight that they could have actually got nearer 30 reps out with.
Things aren’t black & white
Below is a great chart (from www.strongerbyscience.com) showing what people believe to be the case with rep ranges and what actually is the case. You can see in dark blue;
- Reps 1-5 is Pure Strength
- Reps 6-8 is Strength & Size
- Reps 8-10 is Pure Size
- Reps 12-15 is Size & Endurance
- Reps 15+ is Pure Endurance
But actually, it really isn’t as black and white as this. There is a huge cross over affect with the rep ranges, so it actually looks more like this;
The point being that when you perform 5x5, or 4x4 which is traditionally a strength training protocol, many believe that the only benefit you would get out of this is pure strength. In reality, the crossover is bigger and you will benefit from muscular hypertrophy too.
Same can be said when performing higher reps e.g. 3x20, many would believe that’s just for muscular endurance, but you will again still benefit from muscular hypertrophy in that rep range too.
A huge take home point is to not view rep ranges in isolation, they are along a huge continuum with huge cross over effects.
Many get sucked into a certain rep range and get really comfortable with that. E.g. 3x10 or 3x12 probably being the most common. Then they would spend 100% of their time across a week, months and years in the same rep range.
If you stick to just one rep range you will be missing out on a huge amount of potential growth. Always try to challenge yourself across a full spectrum of rep ranges. Perform 4x4 on compound lifts, perform 4x 10/12 on some exercises, but also don’t be scared to push reps up to 20!
Lifting with good form and sound technique should underpin everything we have just said above. As long as you do that, there is huge amount of benefits to be had in all of the different rep ranges.
There are three main approaches you can take to varying your rep ranges, which I will discuss in detail below;
1. Assign different rep ranges to different mesocycle’s
Mesocycle is just a fancy word for a block of training which could last anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months. The way some people would approach training would be to cycle the rep ranges they work in, eg;
Mesocycle 1 - Weeks 1-4 - All lifts in the 5-8 rep range
Mesocycle 2 – Weeks 5-8 – All lifts in the 10-12 rep range
Mesocycle 3 - Weeks 9-12 – All lifts in the 15-20 rep range
This is a good approach and can work well for a lot of people.
2. Weekly variation
Another approach could be varying things up weekly, e.g;
Week 1 – 6-8 rep range
Week 2 - 10-12 rep range
Week 3 - 15-20 rep range
Then in week 4 they might revert back to 6-8 rep range and keep repeating this cycle.
This again is a good approach and can also keeps your program more interesting, as things are changing from week-to-week.
3. Hitting full spectrum of rep ranges within a single session
Out of the three approaches, this would probably be my most preferred approach to program design. Below is how you could approach things:
- Start off with Plyometrics / Power Work: This is always best to perform first off whilst you are fresh, so the quality of your sets will be high. Performing explosives to start which will also prime your CNS for strength work to follow next.
For example, if you experiment with performing clap press ups (not to failure) 3 sets of 5, resting for a couple minutes and then going into bench press. You will feel a lot stronger than you would just going straight into bench first, simply before the CNS is firing and ready to go. Another example would be performing explosive jump squats, either with a light load or just bodyweight before you squat. Give it a go next time you train!
- Then comes the Strength work: e.g. 3x5 or 4x4 on a main compound lift e.g. squats/deadlifts/bench. If you’re looking to build strength then I would suggest long rest periods between sets here to allow full recovery such as 3 mins between sets. This type of work will place a huge amount of mechanical tension through the muscle.
- Then into that Hypertrophy Rep Range: So your “classic bodybuilding” work e.g. 4x10 or 3x12 with 60-90s rest in the middle of your workout. You could even superset some of the work here. This ‘in the middle’, almost ‘sweet spot’ rep range is a nice balance between mechanical tension (load), enough to stress the muscle and metabolic stress – caused by more reps and flooding more blood into the working muscle.
- Finish off with higher reps: At the end of your workout e.g. supersets, tri-sets or giants sets, challenging yourself on 15-20+ reps. This higher rep work with place metabolic stress on your muscles and leave you will a cheeky little pump to finish!
Putting it all together
A lower body workout could look like this: (Note: // means superset)
- Bodyweight Squats Jumps 3x6 (emphasis on explosion and height)
- Back Squat 4x4 - picking a load that is 85% of your max (3 mins rest between sets)
- Leg Extensions 3x12 // Leg Press 3x 12 *with around 65-70% of your max load (2 mins rest between sets)
- Seated Hamstring Curl 3x10 // DB Walking Lunges 3 x 10 *with around 65-70% of your max load (2 mins rest)
- Standing Calves 3x20*drop set off the last *with around 65-70% of your max load. If you fail on around 14/15 reps on calves, I would suggest taking a 10s rest, few deep breaths, and then finishing off the last 5/6. A training principle called ‘rest-pause’ (60s rest)
Hopefully after reading this you will see there really is no such thing as the perfect rep range for muscular hypertrophy. The ‘sweet spot’ in the middle e.g. 6-15 is the most common place people go searching for muscular hypertrophy, but please don’t be narrow minded and see that you can benefit from lower reps (under 5) and higher reps (+15) too.