HIGH vs. LOW: Does Rep Range Really Matter?

Lifting biceps curls reps build muscle

What does it take to build muscle?

One word – WORK.

You intuitively know this already, but it’s worth repeating.  Work.  Work.  Work.

It takes consistency and lots and lots of effort, but it certainly isn’t rocket science.  I just see so many of you with massive potential in the the gym getting bogged down by confusion.  Listen.  Hark unto me.  Simplicity is the mother of genius.

Get your butt to the gym.  Lift weights.  Eat good and you are doing most of what it takes.  I realize you are probably doing this already.  What trips many up though is one word – “consistency”.  You got to be consistent guys.

So if you have all that down, you can definitely play with your reps and sets and see some enhaced results.  That’s what we are going to talk about here.

How many reps does it take to build muscle?

How many sets should you be doing for the best results?

Right up front… there is no “one size fits all” answer to these questions.  I know a lot of “experts” have their strong biases, but please realize fitness is filled with “opinions”.  I don’t care if a guy is absolutely shredded – doesn’t mean his exact formula is going to produce that look for you.

So please realize that before we go any further.  Weight lifting is personal.  Sure, there are basics and you would do good to follow them.  But the true masters develop their own style.

My base lifting routine is constantly evolving.  As of today I am on a four-day per week routine that looks as follows:

I also like to alternate into a one body part per day routine that has me lifting 5 days a week.  I have talked about this in the past.

Many of you just flat-out want to get bigger.  You want to pack on muscle mass and strength so you can look way more impressive than you do right now.  Here’s the thing that you must realize, you can accomplish that goal regardless of the number of sets and reps you perform.

Guys get really big doing 3×12’s.

Guys get really big doing 5×6’s.

Guys get really big switching it up.  This is what I personally like to do.  I basically follow a pseudo-strict routine that has me changing up reps and sets every two weeks.  I have to admin that I have become less strict with this over the years.  Sometimes I feel like doing 12 reps and sometimes I only want to do 6.  But for the most part, it progresses as follows.

  • 2 weeks:  3×12
  • 2 weeks: 3×10
  • 2 weeks:4×8
  • 2 weeks: 5×6
  • 2 weeks:  12,10,8,6 with a 1-2 rep max out in there somewhere

This is basically the exact same reps/sets formula we used back when I played Division 1 Football and gained 40 lbs.  So does it work?  Yes!

Again, it’s not the only way though.  A lot of this has to do with preference.  You will hear a lot of bodybuilders say they work out in the 12 rep range.  My general rule of thumb is that no matter what range you work out in the weight must challenge you.

Some guys will tell you that you should never go over 8 reps though if you want to build muscle.  In his article “Are You Sabotaging Your Gains With Wrong Rep Range” Jason Ferruggia writes:

“All the magic, for newbies like you, occurs in the 6-8 range. That’s far superior to the typical 12-15 prescription you get from pro bodybuilders. Especially when you have less than two years of proper training experience.”

I agree with this on some level.

The biggest advantage of operating in a lower rep range is that you are able to use heavier weight.  As a result more of your larger fast twitch muscle fibers are recruited to push the heavy weight.  Here’s the thing that most guys don’t realize though, the same thing can be accomplished with a higher rep range provided you are working the muscle to near failure.

Henneman's Size Principle

Henneman’s Size Principle states that:

“Under load, motor units are recruited from smallest to largest.”

This simply means, that when you lift your small, slower twitch muscle fibers are recruited before your larger, fast twitch fibers.  When you put a heavier weight on the bar the recruitment of your bigger fast twitch muscle fibers occurs faster out of necessity to move the heavy weight.  As a result, this is typically why operating in the lower rep range gives guys greater muscle gains – for the simple fact that they are using heavier weight.

It actually says less about the reps and more about the ability of heavy weights to produce muscle gains.

Where most guys go wrong though is that they associate 12 reps or more with light weight.

So take bench, for example.  If you are doing 3 sets by 12 reps what most of you will do is throw a weight on that is too light and at no point during your final reps are you failing (or even challenged).  As a results, your bigger fast twitch fibers are not recruited and the size gains do not show up over time.

Again, this does not say that 12 reps is not effective for producing muscle size gains — it simply says that the pathetic light weight you are using is not challenging you enough to produce the gains you want!

Arnold Swarzenegger Fame Quote

Make sense?

There is also science that supports this to an extent.

In an landmark older study Published in 1985 in the Journal of Applied Physiology researchers concluded that…

“Perhaps the most interesting finding from our work is that hypertrophy in the 80%-3 and 30%-3 conditions was equivalent, which is in contrast to the range of lifting intensities usually prescribed to promote muscle hypertrophy.”

Allow me to explain.

Hypertrophy for those who don’t know is simply the increase of your muscle size do to the enlargement of cells.  Basically, this is what you are going for if your goal is to “get big”.

In this study researchers compared two different volumes or workout load.

  • One at 80% or 1 rep max for 3 sets.
  • The other at 30% or 1 rep max for 3 sets.

They essentially found that both a higher volume of reps at a lighter weight and heavier weight at lower reps had a significant impact on muscle growth.

Did you get that?

Both caused significant muscle gains.

One thing that is interesting to note though, is that the study actually tested another group at 80% of 1 rep max for only 1 set.  They found that both of the 3 set groups had greater increases in size over the duration of the study… however, the 80% of 1 rep max groups (both 1 set and 3 sets) had greater increases in strength.

The findings point to two interesting things:

  1. Heavier weight does in fact lead to greater increases in strength.
  2. 3 sets of the higher rep range caused greater muscle growth than just doing 1 rep at 80% max.

Makes sense.

In another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23 trained cyclists were placed into one of the following groups for a 10 week training program:

  • GROUP A:  High resistance/low rep (H-Res)
  • GROUP B:  Low resistance/high rep (H-Rep)
  • GROUP C:  Cycling only

All three of these groups performed the same cycle workout, but GROUPS A and B added strength training according to what is laid out in the bullet points above.

The strength training consisted of 4 exercises.

Researchers found that both strength training groups had significant strength gains in the leg press, but the gains for H-Res were significantly higher than H-Rep.  Again, this supports the fact that heavy weight, lower rep leads to greater gains in strength.

No surprise there.

But this doesn’t mean that high reps won’t build muscle.

As certified strength and conditioning specialist Marc Perry points out in his article “High Reps Vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?”

“For optimal strength increases, the research conclusively supports low reps with high weight vs. high reps with low weight, but high reps can still elicit gains in strength as well.”

A lot of guys will misinterpret this info and only train super low reps, but my take is that many will be sacrificing gains.

I believe that your most desired results are going to come with a mix of high/low rep – making sure to always keep the focus on controlled reps and progressively using weight that causes you to have to struggle intensely on the last few reps (I talk more about this here).  The reason I personally incorporate both styles into my lifts is because I want a mix of both strength and endurance to go with my muscle building.

I also believe I can diminish the chances of plateau by mixing up my rep range.

As I’ve shown above, both low and high reps have been proven in study and real life application to build muscle.  Greater strength comes with heavier weight, but greater endurance is achieved with more reps.  Mixing the two can create a “well rounded” muscle fiber which I believe achieves a better looking body.

And I’m not alone in this thinking.

As Greg Merritt writes in his article for Flex Magazine titled “Weider Principle #30: High-Low” … (This was a workout developed to honor the legacy of bodybuilding legend Joe Weider)

Weider Principle #30 article

Screenshot taken from www.FlexOnline.com and linked to above.

Now what is unique about this Weider workout as Greg points out is that it’s incorporating both high and low reps in the same workout.

It not only allows your body to get the benefits of both styles, but it also incorporates muscle confusion.

There are conflicting opinions about the effectiveness of muscle confusion.  Some guys swear by it.  Others think it’s bogus.  I tend to think it’s quite effective… but aside from that, it just keeps my routine far more fun.  I mean, who the hell wants to come to the gym and do the exact same set/rep range each time!??

As you’ll notice in my 10 week split I share at the beginning of this article, the final two weeks of the split incorporate both high and low reps.

You could certainly just do that for each workout and get some dynamite gains.

Conclusion

Ok.  So lets talk action plan here.

If you are trying to build muscle and haven’t had the success you’ve wanted you need to evaluate where you are at.

How many reps and sets have you been doing in a typical workout?

And an even bigger question – have you been using a weight that absolutely requires near failure on the last couple of reps?

There are two ways to go about this.  I address each below assuming that you are already eating a solid diet that is conducive to muscle gain.  If not, then nothing you do in the gym is going to matter guys.

But if your diet is on.

If you have been up in the twelve rep range and using a decent weight that really causes you to struggle and still not seeing development, then I would be dropping that down around the 6 rep range really boosting that weight up.  Most of you would really benefit from this from a shear strength standpoint.  It’s a great fix for plateaus too.  I wouldn’t even hesitate to drop that down to four rep range on a couple sets either.  Make sure you have a spotter though so you can really push yourself without worrying about getting buried by the weight.

Safety first.  Obviously.

This doesn’t mean you have to stay in that low rep range forever.  But give it a shot for a few weeks.  I’m guessing you’re going to begin to notice some excellent strength gains as evidenced by the amount of weight you are able to use a couple weeks into it.

There is another scenario of course.

A few of you are already doing lower reps and heavier weight and still not putting on the muscle you want.  In this case, if it is me, I’d look to switch it up to something over 8 reps.

As I indicated above, I’m a huge fan of varying my reps and sets on a bi-weekly basis.

3×12’s for 2 weeks.  3×10’s for 2 weeks.  And so on.  You could even play around with a more dramatic change.  3×12’s for 2 weeks.  5×6’s for 2 weeks.  I have an extreme amount of confidence in routines that have varying reps and sets like this when it comes to building strength and muscle.

Hope this is helpful.

If you have questions don’t hesitate to ask below.  Or drop a comment if you feel like it.

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