There are many young lifters—and some who aren’t so young—who are just plain confused about a very important element of weight training, rep numbers. I want to help clear up that confusion.
If you haven’t seen my previous features in IRON MAN, here’s a little about my background so you’ll know where I’m coming from.
I’ve been lifting weights for 48 years. I’ve experienced splendid progress in this wonderful activity. While it’s true that I’ve never been a world-champion lifter or an international physique star, I’ve enjoyed progress that most lifters would certainly like to experience.
I went from 158 pounds at 6’2” to more than 260 pounds in a nine-month period back in the 1960s. That was documented in Iron Man by Peary Rader, the founder and publisher of this magazine (Volume 25, Number 1).
I started competing in Olympic lifting, winning the Arizona Heavyweight Championship. My goal was to enter national-level competition, and I felt that I was well on the way. Then I was in an automobile accident, seriously injuring my back, and that was the end of my Olympic weightlifting career. I could no longer perform the clean, snatch or squat.
On the other hand, I was able to keep doing upper-body exercises and continued to train hard and regularly. My arms eventually grew to 21 3/4 inches at a bodyweight of 245. Also at that bodyweight I was able to perform a standing press with 400 pounds (taken off a pair of squat racks before pressing, since I could not perform cleans anymore), a close-grip bench press with 530 pounds and lying triceps extensions with 320 pounds for six reps. I used a 115-pound dumbbell for six reps on one-arm concentration curls.
I was also much involved in instructing others in weight training as well as self-defense. For a while, I lived with Cowboy Bill Watts, the WWF World Heavyweight champion, who was my cousin. Bill had a great home gym in Oklahoma, where other professional wrestlers trained. I trained with a number of them, and believe me, my size and strength were considerable assets to me during those times.
I’ve worked in six different gyms and have trained many people in my own home gym over the years. I’ve been a strength coach for three high schools and have helped others make wonderful gains. I’ve studied weight training and related subjects for all of those 45 years, including weight-training research that was carried out in the 1800s and 1900s, as well as the current century. I know what works.
That brings me to the topic at hand: How many reps should you perform to make the best gains in the gym?
Very few of the so-called absolute truths in weight training are actually absolute. Weight training is not an absolute science, regardless of what you may hear. While I respect the tremendous contributions that Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer made to weight training, I do not agree that their one set of “truths” applies to everyone who lifts weights.
I’ve read many articles in which the authors made a very strong statement about the effectiveness of a particular type of training. Some declared that if you didn’t train with their system or technique, you certainly could not and would not make good gains. Some of them even claimed that you wouldn’t make any gains whatsoever, often citing research results to prove that what they were saying was gospel.
Yet with each article supposedly proving the effectiveness of some system of training and proclaiming the ineffectiveness of opposing systems, I knew of many men who had used those other systems and had made great gains, thus proving the authors wrong on that point.
Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus training equipment, dogmatically stated in his many articles that trainees could only make the best gains if they used “full-range” exercises. Yet I knew of many barbell men, myself included, who made their best gains in size and strength when using only partial-range movements.
The Question of Reps
When I first started training with weights back in the ’50s, I read every muscle magazine that I could find. I’d read about how a certain bodybuilder built, say, his arms, including the number of reps he used. If the bodybuilder had big arms, I just assumed that what he was doing must be effective. So if he was using eight reps for his arm exercises, I’d figure that eight must be the magic number for building big arms.
The next month I would purchase a new muscle magazine, and lo and behold, another bodybuilder would be describing how he built his big arms. This guy, however, was using only six reps on his arm exercises—yet, he too, had built big arms. I, like many other young boys, became totally confused. My focus was on what he was doing instead of why he was doing it. I have since learned that the why is actually much more important than the what.
How Many Reps?
So, what is the magic number of reps per set—or is there a magic number at all? Over the years I’ve had many trainees ask me that very question, usually related to arm training.
The other day I was looking through some old muscle magazines from the ’30s and ’40s, and I saw an article written by Bob Hoffman of York Barbell—it was in the December ’40 Strength & Health—titled “How Many Reps?” There was as much confusion about the subject back then as there is now. Let’s look at the rep schemes that a number of highly successful barbell men have used.
Back in the ’50s there was a lifter who was known primarily to the readers of Iron Man because the magazine regularly featured him. His name was John McWilliams, and his claim to fame was his arms, which were huge for that time, and, actually would still be considered huge today. John’s arms measured more than 20 inches—and that was before anabolic steroids, at a time when barbell men told the truth about their arm size. Back then a 17-inch arm was considered large. John’s arms were extremely full, with long, peaked biceps and a matching set of triceps.
How many reps did he use in his arm training? Would you believe 15 for each exercise? That’s a little higher than most trainees go today, yet for him it produced very big arms. Is 15, then, the most effective number of reps for producing great gains?