Weight training is all about providing the right amount of stimulation for your body to trigger a desire adaptation. And a big part of effective training is tracking the number of repetitions and sets you perform. After all, other than the movements, the number of repetitions is the largest variable in any training programme.
Considering that many of us have different training goals, how should we tailor our repetitions? The old saying of “higher reps for size, lower reps for strength” isn’t entirely untrue, but it is still something of a blanket statement. Things are rarely ever cut and dried when it concerns human physiology. The following pointers, however, should throw some light on the matter.
How does rep range affect physique?
The three main mechanisms governing hypertrophy are metabolic stress, muscle damage and mechanical tension. Training volume (load X repetitions X sets) can directly affect the first two. As such, programmes with higher volumes (ie. total number of repetitions) typically suit people looking to increase their muscle mass.
There are plenty of well-respected training programmes that make use of high-volume work. Charles Poliquin’s German Volume Training and Vince Gironda’s 8×8 routine are some of the most venerated programmes in the bodybuilding world. The decision to do eight or 10 repetitions is not an arbitrary one. Higher repetitions create a greater amount of oxidative stress while creating micro-tears in muscle fibres. Such forms of training have becomes widely regarded as “bodybuilding work”.
What is the perfect rep range?
You might then say that eight to 10 repetitions constitute the “sweet spot” for those looking to stack on slabs of muscle. That is both true and untrue at the same time. While higher repetitions are better for stimulating hypertrophy, discretionary use of lower repetitions can achieve similar ends as well. Why? It’s all due to the SAID principle.
Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID) is a principle that outlines how living organisms adapt in a specific manner to stressors. Given enough time and frequent exposure, the stimulus of any given stressor dissipates, along with the adaptive responses. This can be troublesome for those interested in maximising muscle mass and fat-loss, as it means that any training programme will lose its effectiveness once the body has adjusted to it. As such, lower repetitions (like those between two and six) can be introduced as a novel stressor to “shock” the body back into responding.
Another side benefit of using lower repetition sets in training is the improvement of neuromuscular strength. Lower repetitions typically feature heavier loads, which allow you to recruit a greater percentage of their fast-twitch muscle fibres. This conditions the neural aspect of strength (ie. confidence/familiarity with heavy loads). Upon returning to higher repetition training, you will be able to use heavier loads. This progressive overload will optimise the overall efficacy of the programme.
Another case for low-rep training
Specificity is another oft-bandied term you will hear in the fitness landscape. In terms of repetition ranges, both high and low repetition training offer greater levels of carryover to athletic performance. However, a hammer thrower or a defensive linebacker will benefit more from low repetition training due to the nature of their sport. Short intense bouts of activity (like sprinting) are similar to low repetition training in that the perceived exertion is high, but not sustained for a long period of time. The principle of specificity states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce the desired effect.
For the general population, low repetition training can and should be incorporated into a programme in a periodised manner. Most begin with higher repetition training to condition the joints and muscle tissue before transitioning to lower repetition training with heavier loads. Other popular forms of low repetition training involve plyometric and ballistic exercises. In such cases, lower repetitions maintain the focus on training speed, power and technique while minimising lactic acid buildup.
Cover both bases
If the focus is on health and general fitness, there is absolutely no need to specialise in any one modality of training. Rather, maintaining a good balance between both high and low repetition training will create a strong foundation from which you can explore other more specialised forms of training. The regular alternation between both modalities will also keep your body from plateauing due to the aforementioned SAID principle. If nothing else, it’ll keep your training from becoming dull and monotonous.