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Bigger and Stronger

How Many Reps Should You Use to Get the Best Size and Strength Effects?

Let’s look at our second big-armed man. In my article “Guns & Ammo” in the September ’04 IRON MAN, I mentioned that I’d walked into the basement weight room of the downtown Phoenix YMCA during my junior year in high school. I noticed that all eyes were on the lifting platform at the end of the weight room. On it stood the biggest man I had ever seen. He had huge arms and was performing repetitions of the standing press with 325 pounds. The man was Jon Cole, a student at Arizona State University, who later became the world’s greatest powerlifter.

Jon had built his arms to the colossal size of 23 inches. They were massive! He was a tremendous Olympic lifter and powerlifter—the first man to officially squat with more than 900 pounds. He also held the world record in the deadlift at just under 900 pounds and eventually performed a standing press with 550! He didn’t even clean the massive weight—he just took the barbell off a set of squat racks and pressed it overhead. Unbelievable! He performed most of those lifts back in the ’70s.

Jon trained those exercises with extremely heavy weights for low reps; however, he trained his arms in a very interesting manner. He used just two arm exercises at that time in his career, when he was training at the downtown YMCA. He’d perform a superset of barbell curls and standing barbell triceps extensions, using a straight bar on both exercises. He would perform five sets of 10 reps of each exercise, supersetting them back and forth until he’d completed all five sets of both exercises. Using 10 reps certainly worked for Jon. Could 10 be the magic number of reps?

Not very many people had heard of our lifter number three, Mike Guibilo, until Iron Man ran an article about him back in the ’60s. Mike was known for his huge upper body, extremely broad shoulders and monstrous arms, which stretched the tape to 23 inches. Mike was also very strong. He would perform cheating barbell curls with 325 pounds and seated behind-the-neck presses with 350 pounds for reps. His bench press was near 600 pounds.

Mike usually used eight reps for his arm exercises, and that number certainly worked well for him. That’s fewer then either John McWilliams and Jon Cole used, yet Mike obviously built huge arms. Maybe eight is the magic number?

Let’s look at the fourth athlete I’m highlighting. Back in the ’50s and ’60s there were a number of men across the United States who were known in weight-training circles as “mystery men.” They were very big and very strong, and they trained with very heavy weights, but they never entered any lifting contests. In fact, they almost never let anyone see them without a shirt. Even with clothes covering them up, though, you could certainly tell that they were huge. Their long-sleeved shirts could not hide their massive shoulders and arms.

In my opinion, the greatest of the mystery men was Chuck Ahrens, of Santa Monica, California. Chuck was around 6’1” and just over 300 pounds. Though I never saw him in person, the pictures of him that were featured in Iron Man showed unbelievably broad shoulders. In all of my years of reading weight-training magazines and training with others, I’ve never seen anyone rival his shoulder width. Even so, that’s not all that was humongous on Chuck. His arms taped a colossal 24 inches!

Chuck’s arms were not just incredibly big but also incredibly strong. How are these for unbelievable lifts? Chuck performed a one-arm standing press, not a jerk, with a 330-pound dumbbell. That’s correct, with one arm! At that time the world record for the regular two-hand press was around 400 pounds and was held by the mighty Paul Anderson. As much as I respect Anderson, I believe that, had Chuck been persuaded to train on the Olympic lifts, he would have blown the mighty Anderson away.

Chuck could perform repetitions of alternate dumbbell curls with a 200-pounder in each hand! He performed reps of lying triceps extensions with an Olympic bar that was loaded to 375. To this day no one has ever matched him on most of the lifts that he performed.

How many reps did Chuck prefer? From all that I’ve read about him, it seems that he performed most of his sets for three reps. That’s considerably fewer than what the others I mentioned used, but it obviously worked wonderfully, contributing to Chuck’s tremendous size and strength. Another magic number?

The last athlete I want to talk about was featured in IRON MAN’s Ultimate Guide to Arm Training. His name is Rob Colacino, and he built his arms to 22 inches. How many reps did Rob use to build such large arms? Are you ready for this? He performed one rep! That’s correct—he used only a single rep in his arm training and still built huge arms. (He performed that one rep considerably different from the way most people perform their reps, but that is the subject for another article. To learn more about Rob, you can purchase IRON MAN’s Ultimate Guide to Arm Training. It is fascinating reading, as is the whole manual, and it’s free if you subscribe to IRON MAN. See page 145.)

The Perfect Number

Based on the success of the five men discussed above, we can conclude that there is no perfect number of reps for building muscle size and strength. John McWilliams was on the high end of reps used, with 15, while Rob Colacino was on the low end, with one. The other three men were in between and used different numbers—yet they all built huge arms. Over the years I’ve read in many articles that you cannot build size with less than six reps or more than 12 reps. That info, obviously, is just not true.

Here is the truth about rep numbers: Any number of reps will produce size and strength, as long as you put out some serious effort.
The most important consideration is not how many reps you use but the effort you put out on each set. It could be four reps per set or 20, as long as you’re giving it all you’ve got on that set.

As I mentioned, I built 21 3/4-inch arms while using six reps on all my arm exercises throughout most of my weight training career. That worked great for me. I never liked using high reps, and six produced great gains in size and strength for me.

I’m now 60 years old, however, and I’ve had numerous injuries that dictate my training now. I can no longer lift ultraheavy weights. It’s not that I don’t have the ability to use heavy weights. My muscles are still strong. My joints, on the other hand, cannot handle the heavy weights anymore. If I go over 320 pounds on close-grip bench presses, my shoulders give me major problems. I won’t be able to sleep because of the pain, and I won’t be able to raise my arm above shoulder height.

Basically, it just isn’t worth it to me anymore. Sure, I enjoy using heavy weights, but I always pay for it afterward. So I’ve had to change my whole manner of training. I have to use lighter weights—not light but lighter. I also do 12 reps on all of my sets—but with a weight that makes me push very hard to get the 12 reps. I perform my sets closer together, with very little rest between them, and I get a great workout. At this age my arms still tape close to 20 inches!

So where I used to use six reps and get good results, I now use 12 reps and get good results. By now I think you get the idea—it’s not the number of reps you do but the amount of effort you put into each set that’s important. Be it three, six, eight or even 20 reps, the point is to give it all you’ve got.

How should you determine the right number of reps for your own program? That’s easy. Use the number that you enjoy using. Some barbell men enjoy using five reps. Some enjoy using 12 reps. If you like low reps, use low reps. If you like high reps, use high reps. As long as you apply major effort and lift the most weight that you can, you’ll make good gains in size and strength. It’s as simple as that—no magic number needed. IM

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