So, you've got the diet in check and your post workout protein shake is sitting nicely in the kit bag. There's just one ingredient left before your physique becomes reality. And its the ingredient that every gym goers will ask themselves, or somebody else, at some point – what is the perfect rep range for muscle growth?
When you first start training its not uncommon for everybody to tell you different things; the experienced in this muscle building game believe they know all the answers and that his or her training methods are the best. Some of these gym bunnies may tell you high reps are ‘sissy workouts’ while low rep powerlifting work is a 'fat man’s heaven'. Luckily for us, these misconceptions and stereotypes carry little clout and are largely incorrect. As for my opinion? Well, its just that; an opinion. It's what I've experienced, its the research I've read, it's what I've heard from professionals and witnessed myself. Is it watertight? No, probably not. But that's the thing – when so many variables go into something as broad a subject as muscle hypertrophy, very rarely does a one size fits all method apply. Like many fundamentals in fitness, everybody is different, and as such the stimulus we give the body will have a different response in different people. But there are certain characteristics we all share, and certain basics that should be included in every muscle building training programme to encourage optimal growth.
So then, what is the perfect rep range for muscle growth?
Lets take it back. All the way back! The human body is an incredible biological machine. Its primary purpose is to survive. The body doesn't really care how you work it, so long as it is being challenged and it is given the correct environment and stimulus to progress, it will be forced to respond and grow. BUT and it's a big but, of course, there are ways we can maximise our training and influence the body's response to the stimulus that we provide it with.
If you go onto any muscle or bodybuilding forum, you'll notice countless threads regarding reps and sets (for those who don't know, a set is a group of exercises or repetitions of the same exercise e.g. a person my perform 6 dumbbell curls, for 3 sets, equating in total to 18 repetitions of the exercise, which are performed commonly with a 'recovery time' in between each set). People frequently ask what's best for building muscle? 5 sets of 3 heavy weight reps? Or 15 sets of 20 light weight reps? Or 60 sets of 1 reps etc etc.
Concentrating on reps and sets as a gauge of progress is useful as it is a tangible measurement of how you are performing. But as well as counting reps and sets, it is important to consider the overall workout volume. This number represents the total weight you have lifted in a workout session. If your overall workout volume is increasing, you are subjecting your body to a greater stimulus and are therefore adapting and growing. So in many respects, aiming for a specific workout volume is just as important, if not more, than counting sets and reps. Bear in mind if you are counting the volume, ensure that you are working at a moderate to high intensity within each set – otherwise you could be lifting 1lb weights and eventually hit a tonne! So it's important that you increase your overall workout volume while keeping that higher intensity. If that rule is respected, progress will occur regardless of the rep range you follow. Remember, the body cannot count and does not know how many reps you’ve done; the language you use to speak to your body and tell it to grow is lifted tonnage and intensity.
So now I've dismissed the significance of reps and sets that's us done then?
Not exactly. As mentioned earlier, there are certain fundamentals that stay consistent throughout fitness. If you train with 5lb dumbbells and never increase, you may develop toned muscles suitable for endurance events, but you won't gain any serious mass as you are not prompting your body to respond to any fresh stimulus. So the following points are worth considering to help you achieve your goals.
High reps (15 or more) - High-rep training is an excellent means of increasing muscular endurance. If you're after sports-specific adaptations such as a throwing arm for cricket or softball or legs that will carry you to the finish line of a marathon high reps can help. But if size is paramount, high reps won't get it done, especially if the majority of your training lies in this zone.
Low reps (5 or less) - in weight training, to get big, you have to get strong. Taking that to an extreme, many lifters adopt a powerlifting approach, coupling very heavy weights with low reps. However, low-rep training has one significant shortcoming - muscle-fiber stimulation, which is correlated closely to the amount of time a muscle is under tension. Short, intense sets of 15 seconds or less will develop strength, but they simply aren't as effective in making a muscle grow in sets of 30 to 60 seconds.
Moderate reps (8-12) - My opinion is training in a moderate-rep range is the best way to build muscle mass. It increases hormone response, spares protein, and provides the necessary time under tension to spark muscle damage. So does this mean you should store your low-rep and high-rep workouts away for a rainy day? Certainly not. To make sure your body doesn't adapt to a particular regime and make you plateau, you need variety. Cycle periods of low-rep training and high-rep training into your overall program, while progressively trying to increase your strength and perfect your exercise form every time you lift. And remember, try things for yourself. Don't be afraid to experiment; there is no written rule for your most effective route to making big gains!