Stop Worrying About the Best Rep-Set Schemes. Rep Ranges Don’t Matter.
Time to preach some sacrilege. Although it is popular to do so, it is NOT NECESSARY to train with high intensity and low volume to get stronger. High-rep ranges can still get your body stronger. Now, before you flame at me for being a “bro”, I invite you to read the rest of this article to completely understand my point. Don’t hate me, bro.
Higher Volume Will Still Get You Strong
Conventional wisdom dictates that there are certain rep ranges for certain goals. It goes something like this: “lift 1-5 reps per set for strength, 8-12 reps for size, and 15+ reps for endurance.” This guideline is cookie-cutter concept formed by what I believe was a result of Vladimir Zatsiorsky’s explanation of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy. The former is the increase of the SIZE of the muscle cell’s sarcoplasm, and the latter is the increase in the NUMBER of contractile proteins within the cell.
“Sets of 5 are all I need to get strong. Just look at my body, bro!”
I’d quote Zatsiorsky if I had his book, but from what I’ve gathered about his explanation is that myofibrillar is “functional” and sarcoplasmic is “non-functional”. I guess he meant one is for speed and strength and function, and the other is merely “for show”. Lower reps and higher intensity trains for “functional” hypertrophy, and higher volume training trains for “non-functional” hypertrophy, supposedly.
The only issue with Zatsiorsky’s claim is that it isn’t backed up by any solid evidence or studies. It seems to come from his observations of top-level athletes, so his explanation of hypertrophy is more-so a hypothesis than a fact.
“I Do 3 Sets of 5 because I Don’t Want to Get Too Big”
As of late, the flavor of the month/year/last-five-years has been to associate high-volume training with meathead bros, and high-intensity training with “strong, functional athletes”.
The phrases “functional training”, “sarcoplamsic hypertrophy only swells your muscles with water”, and “myofibrillar hypertrophy equals real muscle” is utter horse crap and it annoys me to no end. This slough of non-sense spews from the mouths and minds of newbies who are only 3 months into their beginner routines, and is based on subjective, vague, hardly-scientific notions.
To the “function, low-rep” folks, I offer you my rebuttal. Here’s some anecdotal evidence that rep ranges don’t matter:
- eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman deadlifting 800 lbs for a double,
- IFBB pro bodybuilder Ben Pakulski deadlifting 635 lbs for a triple FROM A DEFICIT,
- Kali muscle incline bench pressing 345 for reps,
- IFBB pro bodybuilder Johnnie O Jackson deadlifting 770 lbs, and
- IFBB pro bodybuilder Kai Green incline pressing 495 lbs for reps.
In the words of Will Hunting – how do you like them apples?
These guys are the ones who use high volume and moderate intensity, yet swing around weight like it’s nobody’s business. I could hear the crying and screaming now: “but Mark, all those guys use steroids – that’s why they’re so strong!!!” I could hardly give a crap, because your precious “functional strength” sports – powerlifting and Olympic lifting – are rife with steroid use.
Hell, entire federations in powerlifting don’t test for PED-use. Weightlifting is an Olympic event in which the USA always seems to do horribly in. Yet, USA is one of the few countries to test its own athletes throughout their training cycles. Countries in Eastern Europe and Asia dominate, so the USAWL organization clearly must be fine being the best losers by establishing this “strict policy”.
And I don’t want to hear anything from the Crossfit Games crowd judging both the strength athletes and bodybuilders here – the Games athletes weren’t being testing year-round for PEDs up until recently. Boom.
Examining the Studies- Rep Ranges Don’t Matter for the Most Part
Let’s compare our anecdotal findings to a relevant studies. Good ol’ Bret Contreras (AKA “the Glute Guy”), along with with Christopher Beardsley, has a website that gathers all data relating to to topics pertaining to strength and conditioning. In their overview of “strength”, they find that, for the most part, high-intensity/low-volume training is superior for strength gains when compared to low-intensity/high-volume training (Beardsley).
Okay, you got me there, but if you examine the parameters used in these studies, you’ll see two interesting trends: 1) the “low-intensity” is usually near 30-ish percent while the “high-intensity” is near 80-ish percent, and 2) there are still significant gains in strength in the low-intensity groups, generally. For example, two studies reviewed by Bret compares the effects of using 40% of 1rm vs 80% (Rana) (Pruitt), and another used 70% vs 15% (Holm).
What is glaring to me in these “trends” is that 80-ish percent is what’s considered “high-intensity”. Yes, by all accounts that is high-intensity, by that ain’t no 1-rep-max. You can rep it out using 80% of your 1RM. Some believe you should be working near your 1RM to stimulate adaptations in strength, when something as low as 80% will do the trick in certain situations.
Also, consider the fact that there were still adaptations by those using ridiculously low intensities. What if we were to work within 65-85% of the 1RM in some bastardized fashion of periodization? Moderate intensities, such as 55-75%, weren’t examined as much in all of those studies. Knowing that higher-intensity is better at producing strength adaptation, yet intensities as low as 30% can still sometimes produce gains in strength, can’t we theorize that moderate intensities will do a pretty decent job at increasing strength?
This takes me back to my first point, that bodybuilders can be strong as mountains, and they’re usually the ones using moderate intensities at moderate-to-high volumes.
Figure Out Your Goals Before You Choose Rep-Schemes
It’s accepted that you’ll get huge doing sets of 8 or 12 or whatever, just like the bodybuilders do, because they do indeed work that way. We just determined minutes ago that higher volume, such as using sets of 8 or 12, will still provide us with increased strength. However, lower-volume and higher-intensity has been the mainstay with strength athletes around the world for decades, and packing on size has never been one of their goals or feats. Plus, I’ve mentioned before how decreased intensity and increased volume may be the plan for joint health and longevity.
You have to ask yourself – do I want to be big, or strong, or both of the latter, or healthy, or all three?
It may take a little experimentation and dipping your feet in the water, but you will ultimately determine what kind of rep-set schemes, periodization (or lack of), amount of deloads, and etc. will suit your body and your goals the best. (And if you’re curious, I’m a fan of using Wendler’s 5/3/1 with high-volume assistance work so I end up getting a little bit of everything.)
You have to decide what your goals are. Don’t training methods dictate what your goals are. Because, in the end, rep ranges don’t matter.
1. “Do heavy loads to to bigger strength gains?” Beardsley, Chris. Strength and Conditioning Research. 15 April 2014. Web. 11 September 2014.
2. Rana et. al. “Comparison of early phase adaptations for traditional strength and endurance, and low velocity resistance training programs in college-aged women.” NSCA 22.1 (2008): 119-127. 11 September 2014.
3. Pruitt et. al. “Effects of a one-year high-intensity versus low-intensity resistance training program on bone mineral density in older women.” Journal of Bone and Mineral Research 10.11 (1995): 1788-1795. 11 September 2014.
4. Holm et. al. “Changes in muscle size and MHC composition in response to resistance exercise with heavy and light loading intensity.” Journal of Applied Physiology 105.5 (2008): 1454-1461. 11 September 2014.