By Raphael Konforti, MS, CPT
We hear it in every workout. Those famous numbers: eight to 12 reps. Have you ever stopped to think if this rep range is really the secret to building muscle we’re all taught? The short answer is no. Sticking to eight to 12 reps for every exercise is exactly why your progress has stopped. If you want your training to add up to results, your workouts must include low and high rep ranges.
It’s a common misconception that low reps are for powerlifters or strongmen. It’s built on the idea that if your main goal is to build muscle, then you need to stick to the eight to 12 reps that focus on hypertrophy. Training at low reps makes you stronger so that when you do go for eight to 12 reps, you’ll actually be able to lift more, causing increased damage to the muscles so they can regenerate and grow.
Low reps have also been documented to increase the amount of free testosterone. The more you have, the more muscle you’re capable of building and the less fat you’ll store. One important caveat is that for all of this to happen, you need to rest two to three minutes between sets. These benefits come from doing a max amount of weight for three to five reps.
High reps are another must for muscle-building. High reps usually get pushed aside as endurance training. High reps can serve that purpose, but they have huge muscle-building potential. Training with high reps floods the muscles with blood creating transient hypertrophy. The huge increase in blood flow also improves vascularity and, if you’re lean enough, will increase the separation between muscles creating that chiseled look. Even better, performing 12 to 20 reps increases time under tension, one of the most important factors in muscle growth. The high reps also require less time for muscles to recover so rest periods are shorter. Doing sets that last over 45 seconds and then resting less than 60 seconds also happens to be the formula for increasing growth hormone.
So, what’s the answer to the rep range debate? Unfortunately, following a program that uses all of these rep ranges won’t be enough to build muscle. Muscles only grow if they’re put under stress they haven’t felt before. Training to failure is the best method for putting the muscle through this overload and forcing adaptation. As the body adapts, it’s going to grow. This also means that you need to make sure you’re progressively increasing the amount of weight you can use with low, medium, and high reps. If you train to failure, gradually increase the weight, and take advantage of all of the rep ranges, you’ll progress quickly and impressively. It’s as simple as that and that’s the final word.