There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the amount of reps and sets required for resistance training. A large number gym-goers tend to follow the tried and true three sets of ten reps, but is this the most efficient way?
In this article we will look at the many factors that influence results, and how to customize a set/rep scheme for your specific needs.
The first thing that you need to address is what you are training for, are you looking to emphasize strength? Or Hypertrophy? You might even be preparing for athletic performance. No matter the case, all three require different amounts of volume.
Another thing that can influence the amount of volume required is your current training level. More experienced lifters will be able to handle higher volumes. Alternatively, while new lifters may not be able to deal with the same volume, they are often able to achieve the much-coveted size and strength gain combo, something that experienced lifters struggle to do continuously.
However, "the newbie gains" at the beginning of gym-life is always short-lived unless your training advances. Meaning, you need to evaluate your training volume continuously.
Again? Well, when the new guy begins lifting, he's going from not lifting any weights, to lifting weights. That’s a dramatic increase in lifting volume when you think about it, going from lugging your bodyweight around from day-to-day, to then, adding plates in the gym. Simply starting to train was your first experience with increasing your training volume.
Volume is a measurement of the total weight lifted, you get this by using the following equation: Sets x reps x weight. So if you perform three sets of 10 reps of 100 kg bench press, you have performed 30 reps of 100 kg for a total volume of 3,000 kg.
If you compared that to 5 sets of 5 reps at 120 kg (total volume of 3,000 kg), you would see that while performing lower reps, you were, in fact, lifting the same amount of weight when it comes to volume.
So a high volume workout is not necessarily the same as a high rep workout (though there is usually a correlation). This distinction is important for people to understand how all the weight adds up in the end. For example, two sets of 15 reps at a weight that is 40% of your one rep max is quite small.
If you want your muscles to grow and strength, you will have to adapt the reps to match (more on this later), but what you need to pay attention to is the total volume. If you were doing high rep sets for a total capacity of 4,000 kg and then decide to change to low reps and a heavy weight, you need to pay attention to the total volume.
If the volume goes down, you are unlikely to receive any hypertrophic gains as the muscles won't be working as hard, and won't be reaching muscular fatigue. You don't want to get hung up over total volume either by the way; it is a general guideline to prevent you from over or under training when you change programs. Keep it roughly the same, and the more experience you gain as a lifter, the more total volume you will naturally be able to handle.
If you are a novice when it comes to training, do not worry primarily about total weight capacity for two reasons. First, your training capacity will be changing rapidly (and weekly), while your body adapts to exercise. And second, there are more important things to focus on in the early stages of your newfound love for weightlifting (like perfecting form and technique!)
Other factors to consider regarding total volume.
A study by Schoenfeld et al. (2016) found that using a lighter weight led to a greater increase in total volume, as compared to heavy weights . This difference has been particularly evident in lower body exercises, with lighter weight making a more significant improvement to both upper and lower bodywork capacities.
Now there was no difference in hypertrophy between the two loads; the only difference was work function. Meaning that this type of training could help you increase your volume in the future.
So hopefully by now you understand how total volume works, and the importance of keeping it roughly the same when trying to change programs. When it is the right time to lower it, and when it is right to increase it. Now we are going to look at how rep range can affect your muscles.
Remember how we talked about the importance of knowing what it is you want to achieve at the beginning of this article? Well, this is where that knowledge is needed. Are you looking to improve strength? Or are you interested in growing bigger muscles? We will look at each of these in turn.
In a 2015 study heavy weights in a medium rep range (8-12) were compared with light weights in a very high rep range (25-35) . The heavy weight sets led to significantly greater one rep max scores than the light weight sets. When it comes to increasing strength, this study indicates that lower rep ranges yield more favorable results.
If heavier weights and low reps are better for increasing strength then logically they should also be better at increasing hypertrophy, right? Wrong. Recent studies have found that by reaching muscular failure, you can produce similar hypertrophic gains with high reps and little weight.
Meaning that heavy weights and low reps can provide similar hypertrophy and improved strength, while light weights and high reps have an advantage for increased work capacity and muscular endurance .
Some exercises and muscle groups lend themselves to certain rep ranges regardless of the goal for which you are training. As an example, you won't find any strength coach who recommends 25-35 reps of deadlifts as the exercise suits low reps and high weights.
Performing deadlifts for high reps would lead to a breakdown in form, which can cause injury. This training structure is one of the reasons CrossFit got so much hate when it first came out. Likewise, other exercises such as pull ups which don't have a regression do not give everyone the option of rep choices. If you can only perform three reps, then you can't go 'high rep' can you?
In this section, we are going to look at another factor, what rep ranges suit your muscles. Every muscle in your body is made up of Type I and Type II muscle fibers (Type II breaks down to Type IIa, and Type IIb, for further clarity).
Type I muscle fibers, also known as slow twitch have a high resistance to fatigue and have a slow contraction time. They are suited to endurance based activities, and won't get activated until you reach the 7 or 8 rep mark.
Before your Type I muscle fibers are activated, you must first exhaust your Type II muscle fibers. These are also known as your fast twitch muscle fibers, which split into two categories. Fast Twitch Oxidative and Fast Twitch Glycolytic. Without going into too much detail, type I is slow, type IIb is quick, and type IIa is in between the two.
Some people place lots of faith in matching rep ranges to muscle fiber type, and there are good reasons behind this. For example, the Soleus muscle (lower calf) is 80% slow twitch (Type I) and as a result, would benefit from high rep training.
What's interesting, though, is that it is possible to turn one fiber type into another through training.
So for example, if you started off with a significant amount of Type IIb fibers but then trained almost exclusively in the high rep range the fibers could turn into Type I fibers. What this means is that while training your muscles by fiber type may be effective, in reality, you should prepare for the goals you want (strength or hypertrophy), and your fiber types will respond to best match it.
So to create the perfect program you need to:
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 Schoenfeld, B., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., Cappaert, T., Ribeiro, A., Alvar, B., Vigotsky, A. 2016. A comparison of increases in volume load over 8 weeks of low- versus high-load resistance training. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine 7(2): e29247
 Schoenfeld, B., Peterson, M., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. 2015. Effects of low- versus high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning 29(10): 2954-2963
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