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Low-Rep Lowdown

Currently there’s a trend in strength and fitness training to shy away from doing lower reps—threes, twos and singles. It’s largely due to the influence of those who are responsible for programs in high schools, colleges and the pro ranks. And, of course, personal trainers. The reason: safety. What those in charge are really worried about, however, is having a player get injured in the weight room. That would lose a personal trainer a client and might cost a coach his or her job.

The contention is that low reps are a great deal riskier than higher reps on any exercise. That isn’t true. In many instances, in fact, higher reps pose a greater degree of risk than lower ones. When athletes attempt to do, say, 10 reps on an exercise and are handling as much weight as possible, they typically tire as they reach the eighth, ninth and 10th reps. When they become fatigued, they begin to use faulty form and can get hurt rather easily if they persist in doing the movement incorrectly. That’s especially true in the early stages of training, before they have built up a solid strength base.

Another reason so many advocate higher reps is that athletes can do them less precisely than the triples, doubles or singles. So coaches and personal trainers can get by with a minimum of instruction—which suits them, as they have no idea how to do some of the more complicated exercises that are so beneficial to anyone seeking a higher level of overall fitness.

While I’m a proponent of lower reps, I do keep the numbers fairly high on exercises that involve the lower back: back hyperextensions, reverse hypers, good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts. I have athletes stay with eight or 10 reps on the last two movements and run the reps way up on the two versions of hyperextensions, keeping the resistance minimal—bodyweight or a small amount of weight. When athletes become advanced, however, it’s okay for them to do heavy threes on the good morning. Powerlifters in particular can benefit a great deal from using lower reps on that specific exercise for the lumbars.

You must include lower reps in a strength program at some point if you’re going to continue to make noteworthy gains. Lower reps involve the attachments—tendons and ligaments—much more than higher reps, and the attachments are the source of strength in the body. The attachments help secure the joints and must be given direct attention. That’s especially true for athletes who engage in sports with a great deal of contact: football, hockey, rugby, soccer—even baseball and basketball. A head-on collision with an opponent can cause serious damage when the structure is not strong.

Many of my athletes who have finished their eligibility have told me that they’re no longer interested in pure strength work. They just want to maintain a certain level of overall fitness and keep a decent build. Bodybuilders tell me the same thing. Keeping the joints protected from injury, however, is critical to everyone, not only to those playing sports. We need strong ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and backs throughout our lives. Bodybuilders need to understand that the process of getting larger muscles is directly linked to strength. High reps are excellent for shaping muscles that are already there, but to obtain them in the first place, they need to make lower reps part of the program.

I should note that I’m directing this to younger men. Should you be getting a senior discount or drawing Social Security, you don’t want to do lower reps—just the opposite, in fact. I’ve gone into detail about that in past articles dealing with older athletes and will comment on it again. For now, I’m aiming at athletes ranging from their teen years to their early 50s. Of course, there are some exceptions—there always are—yet the basic rule of thumb is low reps for the young, high reps for the not-so-young.

On the subject of bodybuilders, let’s say an aspiring bodybuilder wants to pack more muscle on his shoulders and arms, which is always high on anyone’s wish list. So he does a variety of exercises for his biceps, triceps and deltoids using no fewer than 10 reps and sometimes as many as 20. If he works hard, he will indeed achieve a higher degree of definition in those groups, although nothing much in size. The muscles will be better shaped but still small—not what he wants. That’s because the attachments haven’t been brought into the mix.

Our bodybuilder needs to select a few primary movements for his arms and shoulders and attack them with lower reps. That will make those bodyparts considerably stronger. Exercises such as overhead presses, flat benches, incline benches and weighted dips would work well. At the same time he should be gulping down protein shakes and getting lots of rest to help those abused muscles and corresponding attachments grow. Once the desired size is obtained, he can go back to the higher reps to sculpt the new growth. From there specific exercises—different angles of curls, triceps pushdowns, straight-armed pullovers, lateral and frontal raises—will produce the effect he’s seeking: large, well-defined shoulders and arms. That’s the way it’s always been done and the way it has to be done—that is, unless a person is willing to go on the juice, which is not only foolish but proof positive that he’s too lazy to follow the difficult route to success.

Lower reps should not be utilized right away, however. You must first spend time establishing a firm foundation, and that is best accomplished not with high or low reps but something in between. Research has shown that the very best set-and-rep formula for a beginning routine is four to six sets of four to six reps. As most readers know, I advocate the mean—five sets of five—not because they’re superior to fours or sixes but because the math is so much easier when I’m coaching a large number of athletes.

The middle range of sets and reps is ideal if you’re just learning how to do the various exercises in a strength program. Five reps hit the attachments more than higher reps and also provide sufficient volume to enhance the overall workload, both of which are most important in the beginning stage. In addition, fives aren’t that demanding, which means you can perfect your technique as your strength improves.

Once athletes show good form and have steadily expanded their workload, I insert lower reps into their routine: triples first, then later doubles and singles. That has many benefits. It helps break through number barriers, it involves the powerful attachments even more, and it improves technique.

Make no mistake about it: Getting stronger is all about beating the numbers. The even ones cause the most trouble—200, 300, 400 and eventually 500. So when athletes are approaching 400 for five reps, I have them do their last two sets for that day for just three reps. That enables them to skip right over the troublesome number to 410 or 415. Now they’re mentally prepared to handle the 400 for five. If they’d edged up to it without doing any triples, making it for the required reps would have been much more difficult. Plus, they’ve got the added bonus of making their attachments stronger with the heavy triple.

One of the main reasons I put lower reps into routines is that they force athletes to concentrate harder on using correct technique; form has to be more precise than with higher reps. They also require a higher degree of determination. For many athletes it’s the very first time that they’re placed in a position where success or failure depends entirely on them. It’s an individual effort, not a team event. So they’re forced to reach deep into their fortitude department and find out how much grit they really possess. Learning to apply themselves 100 percent to moving a heavy weight through a range of motion without any assistance is a rewarding experience, and while that’s especially true on a max single, it also applies to doing heavy triples and doubles because there is no margin of error. Miss or make: It’s all up to you.

Winning the battle with a new number for a triple, double or single is extremely motivating, and that’s why so many strength athletes become addicted to the discipline. There are few situations in life when people are in complete control of the outcome of what they’re trying to accomplish. Weight training is one of them.

That’s yet another reason I don’t like high-rep routines. You don’t get the same satisfaction in moving an exercise for 10 reps that you get when you break a personal record for a single, double or triple. Saying, “I benched 225 for 10,” doesn’t have the same ring to it as, “I benched 300 for a single.”

I also dislike the common practice of testing athletes with repetitions rather than having them do a single. I understand why coaches like the idea. Testing can be completed a lot faster than having each and every player work up to his limit. Proponents, of course, contend that doing as many reps as possible is a great deal safer than attempting a heavy single. I don’t agree. Earlier I mentioned that beginners doing high reps generally become fatigued on the final reps of the final sets and use sloppy form. Same thing happens on rep-out tests. Since the only thing that matters is rep numbers, form is thrown out the window. I’ve watched players rebound the bar off their chest during a bench press test, then twist and bridge until they looked like a circus act in order to add another rep to their total. All the rebounding and squirming did was leave them open to being injured. With a max single the lift is made or missed. Spotters are present, so where is the risk? Besides, as I mentioned, bragging about how many reps you did just isn’t as impressive as mentioning what you can handle for a single.

As for the interpolation charts, those who use them have announced that they know nothing about training athletes. A coach who uses the goofy chart doesn’t have to teach the correct form that athletes need to be successful with a heavy single yet can still boast of having 15 300-pound benchers on his team. It makes him look good and helps players get recruited. Well, the bird always comes home to roost, and it doesn’t take long for a college coach to recognize that the numbers that were sent in were phony. Which, in turn, makes the college coach wonder what else the recruit has hedged on.

When I begin inserting triples into routines, I continue to use fives and add back-off sets with higher reps. I need the fives and 10s to make sure the athletes are constantly expanding work volume while increasing intensity in the form of lower reps. The triples very much depend on how much total work is being done for that bodypart.

I’ll use the back squat to illustrate how I mix the various elements in a weekly program. Monday is heavy day, so the athletes do five sets of five, working to absolute max, then add a back-off set of 10 with approximately 50 pounds less than the last set of five. Wednesday is the light day, which simply means that less top-end and total work will be done. Some like to use percentages, but in the early stages of training on a program, I have the athletes work up to what they used as their third set on Monday. Our sample lifter did 400×5 on his heavy day, using these increments: 135, 225, 315 and 400, all for fives. So 315 is as high as he goes on his light day. After doing that for a month, I have him do three sets with the selected poundage on his light day to nudge the workload a bit higher.

Friday, medium day, finds the athlete doing this sequence: three sets of five followed by two sets of three, with the final set being five or 10 pounds more than what was used on Monday. That means our lifter will be attempting 405 or 410 for three on Friday, depending on how easy or hard the previous sets were. Another back-off set of 10 is included at the end of the week.

At the next heavy session he will top out with the same amount of weight he used for his final set of three on Friday, but he will do it for five reps. That’s how the numbers climb steadily yet not too fast, which is an important consideration. Progress needs to come slowly to make sure that all the muscle groups, including the smaller ones, are keeping pace. As the top-end numbers climb, so does the volume. When athletes do this consistently and with dedication, they can add 10 pounds a week to the squat for three months straight. I know that because I’ve watched it happen countless times.

Some exercises do need to be done in lower reps from the very outset of a program: jerks, front squats, full snatches and full cleans. Basically, any high-skill movement benefits from lower reps, typically triples, although doubles serve that purpose as well.

It’s okay to do fives as warmups for those movements, but when the weights get taxing, it’s more productive to use lower reps. The reason is that the movements require a high level of technique, and you don’t want to use ugly form on any rep. While front squats really aren’t that complicated, I still recommend doing threes or doubles. On each rep the bar will slip slightly out of the ideal rack on the shoulders, and when the slippage become pronounced, it places a huge amount of stress on the wrists, elbows and shoulders. Same goes for jerks. After each rep the bar is jarred out of the strong rack you use for the first rep, and your wrists take the brunt of this change of positioning. It’s much smarter to stay with threes or even twos and add extra sets to increase the workload.

Because the two Olympic lifts require a tremendous amount of skill, they call for lower reps as well. The Bulgarians and other foreign lifters do no more than two reps per set. You may wonder how they increase their volume when they only do doubles: by doing lots and lots of sets and multiple sessions per day. Those methods are, of course, only for very advanced athletes, but the lessons apply to those of lesser ability as well.

The doubles and triples enable an athlete to focus more intently on form and maintain the proper mechanics from start to finish. When muscles tire, they can’t do the movements required precisely, and that soon leads to less than perfect technique—and you need perfect technique if you want to handle big numbers.

I use lower reps on all the exercises in my routines, except for those for the lower back, as I stated earlier. They work nicely for overhead presses, flat and incline benches, weighted dips and every pulling and squatting exercise. They fit well with lunges too.

I find it’s useful to alternate triples or doubles with fives on the primary movements every other week. It’s only a small change, yet it makes the workouts somewhat different, and variety is always a plus in the weight room. So one week athletes might do fives on their flat benches and the next do threes or twos. I usually have someone hit triples or doubles on only one exercise per week for a specific bodypart. So trainees who do heavy triples on the flat bench that week stay with fives on their inclines, overhead presses and weighted dips. Then I switch the exercises around the next week so that the athletes do each exercise for lower reps once a month. As athletes become more advanced, however, they can do a couple of exercises for lower reps in the same week.

The question often comes up: What about lower reps for the smaller groups like the calves, biceps and triceps? Normally I program them as auxiliary movements and keep the reps very high for only a couple of sets: 2×20 for everything except calf raises. Since the weight-bearing calves have to be abused to make them bigger and stronger, I advocate three to four sets of 30.

Every so often, however, I believe it’s beneficial to jar the calves with heavier resistance and lower reps. That shouldn’t be done too often—maybe every three or four months—and the muscles need to be fresh and not fatigued from previous work. All muscles respond to being overloaded, so why not place the smaller groups under some new stress? No reason at all, as I see it.

Before powerlifting became a regulated sport, many contests tested the participants on a wide and sometimes wild variety of movements. They always included exercises that the promoter was good at. They were known as odd-lift meets, and the standing barbell curl was often one of the lifts. In addition, some contests were conducted after the completion of an Olympic meet, and the curl was one of the favorites. Since I was in the fledgling stage at that point, gaining yet another award was important to me, even if the medal was no larger than a half dollar. I entered them all, even curl contests for singles. What I discovered was that after every curling event where I went to my absolute max, doing six or seven attempts total, my biceps got very sore.

Although my biceps got plenty of work from all the pulls I did, the angle and intensity was different at the contests from what I was used to, so the two heads received a new kind of stress. Steve Stanko told me he did singles on pullovers out of necessity. The gym where he trained alone didn’t have a bench with racks, which forced him to pull the barbell from the floor over his head and then press it. He said that handling the mid-300s in that manner helped improve his upper-body strength. I guess so.

Now to the big dog of low reps: singles. First up: safety. If the form is good on any exercise, there’s no risk in attempting a heavy single—the key word being good. If form is the least bit suspect, then singles may not be a smart idea until you hone your technique more. Some lifters are afraid of trying a max single because they might fall. One thing to understand about getting stronger is that you’re going to miss some attempts. It’s like learning to ride a bike or ice skating. You’re going to fall, and there’s no harm or shame in it. On the other hand, if you’re so cautious that you never load up the bar and test yourself with a single, you’re not going to achieve the same results as if you did some singles.

Doing singles is the very best way to identify a weak area on any lift. Once you know what part of a movement is lacking, you can do something to strengthen the weaker segment. Knowing exactly where the troublesome spots are is critical to making steady progress.

Soon after I introduce doubles and triples into a program, I insert singles—if the athletes are displaying good form. Perfect is better than good, and that’s what I have them strive for. Then the singles pose no problem. They make for a nice change. I use the following alternating formula for many of the primary movements: five sets of five; two or three sets of five followed by two to three sets of three; back to five times five; then three sets of five and three singles. Plus I throw in a back-off set at every session.

For the very advanced, I use a modified version of the Hepburn routine: After warming up thoroughly, they do three sets of singles with the same weight, then back down 50 pounds and do three sets of five with the same poundage. When they’re able to recover from that load, I add another set of singles and fives. Later, I add yet another until they’re doing five singles and five sets of five with a lesser weight.

Naturally, all competitive weightlifters need to include lots of singles in their routines to prepare them for their attempts on the platform; however, Olympic lifters need to do them more than powerlifters. The technique involved in the power lifts isn’t as complicated as it is in the Olympic lifts. Threes therefore serve just fine for squats and deadlifts.

Singles do force the nervous system to be more a part of the effort. That’s why they shouldn’t be done too often, except by the very advanced, because the nervous system needs more time than the muscular system to recover. So don’t go ga-ga over singles, which happens to some lifters. They so enjoy hitting new P.R.s that they overdo a good thing.

By all means, though, include singles in your program in some way. Singles require an absolute maximum effort, total concentration and exacting focus, all of which help you elevate more weight and become considerably stronger. Attempting heavy triples, doubles and singles also reveals a lot about an athlete’s character, including competitive spirit and fortitude. Success with the lower reps will reinforce those attributes and will prove to be most valuable not only in the athletic arena but in life as well.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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