How many reps should you perform per exercise? Strength coach Ben Siong talks us through some important considerations.
Bodybuilding great Mike Mentzer was an advocate of performing one-to-two well-performed sets to failure for a given exercise, and kept his workout limited to only about five exercises per body part, with a strict focus on two main body parts per workout. This philosophy of brief, infrequent and intense workouts was the basis of Mentzer’s impeccable physique, which won him the heavyweight title at the 1979 Olympia.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, forged his infamous physique by working each body part through a large volume of repetitions and sets, focusing on numerous body parts per workout. His belief was in high-volume workouts and minimal rest, training each muscle group every other day.
Here we have two of the greatest bodybuilders of our time with two contrasting training techniques, both of which were extremely effective in their own right. So here is the real question: Is there really an ideal rep range?
Here are five essential variables you will need to consider before deciding on the rep range that suits you best.
1. Strength quality
a) To develop strength and explosive power like in an Olympic lift, look to work within ranges of one to five reps. This rep range is best left to more experienced lifters, and is best developed after building a good foundation with higher reps.
b) Functional hypertrophy is about building efficient muscle size that translates directly into strength within a sport or an exercise. Often that may mean you will be building more strength than muscle mass itself. If that is the goal, then aim for a rep range of six to eight.
c) Hypertrophy is the most popular zone for most gym goers. This zone of training is more about building muscle size than strength itself. Due to the differences between how individuals react to muscle growth, the rep range tends to be larger, ranging from nine to 15 reps.
d) Muscular endurance is a range that gets the heart racing and the lactic acid building. This zone creates more of a metabolic effect for fat burning and generally can range from 16 to 25 reps for a given exercise.
If you have been keeping to a particular rep range for longer than three weeks, then it’s best to change this range. Often the body can adapt to a given rep range quite quickly, especially if it is associated with the same exercises as part of a program. Either increasing or decreasing your range is an effective way of breaking plateaus and will help your muscular development greatly.
3. Muscle composition
Certain muscle types respond better to different rep ranges. This is because of its muscle fibre composition, specifically the proportion of fast or slow twitch fibres within that muscle. For example, the quadriceps muscles in general tend to build more quickly on a regime of higher reps and overall volume, whereas the hamstring muscles tend to respond better to lower rep ranges. Similarly, the gastrocnemius of the calf muscle is more suited to lower rep ranges and heavier weights, whereas the soleus, which is commonly targeted via a seated calf raise, responds better to higher reps and lower weight.
4. Athletic periodisation
If you are an athlete training to be fast and explosive in a sport like basketball, rugby or judo, it’s best to keep the rep ranges lower and the weights heavier and more explosive during the lead up to game season. This helps with conditioning your nervous system to be more explosive and is less likely to result in muscle damage and delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) over the proceeding days. Higher rep ranges are generally kept to off-season work and muscle building.
As a general rule of thumb, males tend to respond better to lower rep ranges between 8eight-to-10, whereas females do better with higher rep ranges of 12 to 15. This is due to the different overall muscle body composition of males and females, with males tending to have a higher proportion of fast twitch fibres and females with a higher proportion of slow twitch fibres. Nevertheless, regardless of which range your body naturally gravitates to, it is beneficial to move out of your comfort zone and vary your ranges in order to improve your fitness and physique.
Photo credit: John Balik