How Many Reps Should You Do?
We know that both males and females should be spending the majority of their time in the gym lifting weights. The main goal for 99% of us is to promote muscle alongside reducing body fat.
But what rep range should you be working in? Let’s take a tour around the different textbook rep ranges and which ones you should be working in depending on your goal.
As a personal trainer, and an avid gym goer from a young age, I have been brought up around a rep range pyramid that’s based on an individual’s goal. It went as follows:
- Strength training: 1-6 reps.
- Training for muscle size (hypertrophy): 8-12 reps.
- Muscular endurance: 15-20 reps.
I had stuck by this pyramid since I started lifting weights at the age of 16. This pyramid was even drilled into me by my teachers and textbooks during my personal training course. However, I have come to realise that it should not be taken so literally. Especially as my learning continues and through working on my own and many clients’ physiques.
How muscle grows
It’s important to understand how and why our body’s promote new muscle mass before answering this question.
Resistance training (weight lifting) is what promotes new muscle tissue. We stress the working muscles when lifting weights on a micro scale. The resistance of the weight tears muscle fibres, the body then repairs these muscle fibres and increases their size in order to be better prepared for that stress next time.
This is why we must gradually increase the stress on our muscles in order for them to continually grow. We are manipulating our body’s defence system when we’re progressively lifting weights. Although we know we’re not in danger from lifting the weights, our body doesn’t. Therefore, it looks to protect us from the stress continually being put on it by promoting more muscle mass.
These set guidelines can be very misleading to people who aren’t properly educated. For example, if someone referred to the rep range pyramid when looking at increasing muscle mass they would stick to 8-12 reps.
Many take the guidelines so literally that they believe they won’t promote muscle anymore if they do under or over the 8-12 reps. This leads to people focusing too much on an exact rep range and not on more important factors such as form and overall effort.
Following the rep range pyramid by the book does a discredit to the complexity of your body. What you must realise is that muscle will increase in size if you take it to failure regardless of rep range. I see people stopping at 12 reps on a weight they could do more on time after time because they bind themselves by the hypertrophy rep range.
I am fully on board however with the 1-6 rep range set for strength training. That being said, too many people work within this rep range because they presume the heavier they lift the more muscle they will promote.
This often leads to a total disregard for form as each rep within an exercise should have a slower, quicker and pause phase. This is designed to put optimal time under tension on the working muscle. This then leads to tearing the individual muscle fibres so they will grow back bigger (assuming they have been overloaded).
Many people who lift in the strength rep range rely too heavily on momentum and gravity to get them through their reps. They show little to no appreciation of time under tension or the mind to muscle connection.
The latest science says that as long as you are progressively overloading a muscle it will promote new muscle tissue, regardless of rep range. This makes sense when you look at how we take advantage of the body’s defence system. Our bodies don’t count our rep range and think ‘Oh the owner of my body has done 8-12 reps I guess I’ll promote some new muscle mass’. It simply responds to the stress put on it.
As I stated previously, lifting heavy weights mean you’ll be able to lift heavy weights. Sounds obvious I know, but let me quickly explain why I said that.
Powerlifters are the only people who should spend most of their time in the 1-6 strength rep range. For example, those who are competing to lift the heaviest weight they can for one rep. In this instance, form and muscle promotion isn’t the primary goal.
Why is it then that so many gym goers, whose goal is to increase muscle mass, choose to spend so much time within this rep range?
How I teach
99.9% of my clients come to me for the same reason; to improve their body shape. This involves increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat. Lifting weights is not only the best way to optimally increase muscle mass, but it also burns more calories than cardiovascular exercise. Therefore, all my clients spend the vast majority of their time lifting weights in the gym.
Initially I start them in higher rep ranges of 12-15. This means working with lighter weights, therefore allowing them to understand the form of each exercise whilst reducing their chance of injury. They are taught to manipulate various rep changes as the form of each exercise becomes natural. My clients are taught that everything boils down to overloading a muscle group and taking it out of its comfort zone.
From day one they are taught to base the difficulty of each set on a scale of 1-10 over the last few reps of a set. One being ‘no discomfort what so ever’ and 10 being ‘ I literally couldn’t do one more rep’. I advise them that they should be hovering around an effort level of eight in the early part of their session and around nine or ten as they get to the back of their session.
The weight they lift increases over time but they are taught to prioritise form first. That being said, if their form is still perfect over the last two to three reps of a set then they aren’t overloading the working muscles enough. This may sound contradictory, but it makes sense when you remember overloading the working muscles is our priority. Perfect form throughout the whole set indicates you’re still working in a comfortable effort zone.
Take home point
Don’t take the rep range pyramid so literally. Realise that your body doesn’t promote new muscle by sticking in a set rep range. It does so by responding to an overloading stress put on it. This can be achieved in various rep ranges from 1-20+. Make use of them all, but initially stick to slightly higher reps when learning the form of a new exercise.
Personally, I never get my clients doing less than eight reps as the heavier the weight the greater the chance of injury. It is your choice whether you choose to delve into this strength rep range. If you do, don’t spend that much time within it unless you are competing for a powerlifting competition.