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Train To Gain: Lower the Boom

Challenging the sacred eight-to-12-rep range for optimal growth

We all know that the most widely accepted rep range for bodybuilders to perform in a set is eight to 12. Anecdotal evidence and clinical studies alike confirm that going lower builds strength rather than size, and going higher increases a muscle’s endurance capabilities but does little to boost either size or strength (though the lower body seems to respond better to 12 to 20 reps for size).

If that’s all true, how do we explain someone like Team Universe and Musclemania champion Skip La Cour, who rarely uses more than six reps for the upper body, or Lee Priest, who typically works in the six-to-eight range? Both display an incredible amount of muscle mass compared to their peers, who for the most part adhere to the recommended eight to 12. You can factor out drugs, as Skip has never taken any, and all the pros have equal access to them.

Two of the world’s leading strength coaches (both work with long lists of Olympic and professional athletes), Ian King, author of Get Buffed, and Charles Poliquin, author of The Poliquin Principles, maintain that you don’t need eight to 12 reps to induce hypertrophy. Poliquin has advocated multiple sets of lower reps, often as low as three or four reps for six to 10 sets, to spur new growth. He has a legion of devotees. King believes that as trainees gain experience and fine-tune their mind/muscle connection, they can break down just as many muscle fibers in four to six reps as they did with eight to 12. I noted that in my own training several years ago. Others insisted that I wasn’t doing enough reps, yet I kept growing. My position was that using heavier weight was better than using lighter weight, as long as my form was good and I could feel the muscle working.

How do you know if lower reps might be a better choice for you? A good indicator is the pump. If you can get a good pump from fewer than eight reps, you can probably assume that you have the required neuromuscular proficiency to grow from using four to eight reps per set. Then again, not everyone gets great pumps. The true test would be to try lower reps for about six weeks.

Before you start, measure all the bodyparts you’re concerned with and have a body-composition test performed. Try lower reps, bearing in mind that you can do a few more sets; the overall volume will be the same. At the end of six weeks do the measurements and body comp again. If the measurements go up and the test shows you’ve gained lean muscle mass, you’ve proved that fewer reps than the standard eight to 12 can indeed build muscle for you. If not, you can go back to eight to 12 or give the lower reps a bit longer to work.

Whatever you choose, always keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to manipulate training variables. By doing so, you’ll keep your body in a constant struggle to adapt to the new stimulus, which translates to growth. You might hit on the technique or strategy that works better for you than anything previously has. Remember, when it comes to your training, nothing should be regarded as sacred. IM

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