The question about which rep scheme will work best for your mass building or strength goals is perhaps as old as bodybuilding itself. While there have always are many different views about this, with the help of our ever-evolving scientific methods, today we are able to reach some objective truths on top of the subjective opinions on this topic.
In other words, there’s no longer need for you to be stuck in “middle ground training” anymore, a place where you’re unable to make the progress you want because of insufficient stimuli. More often than not, bodybuilders stop making gains because they allow their bodies to become too comfortable with the training demands. The longer you train, the better your muscles become at adapting to challenges of resistance training because they learn how to complete the task with minimal engagement and energy expenditure.
That’s why any bodybuilder who wants to continue making solid progress has to build a specific strategy that will enable him to train his muscles according to his end goal, and furthermore, he has to be ready to upgrade or completely change certain components of his training program once he finds out that his muscles have become, well, a bit bored of it.
Hitting your muscles with the same set or rep scheme, especially if it’s the 8-12 rep range, and the same loads workout after workout will only leave you frustrated and unsure whether your body has any potential for growth at all. You’ll wonder how those huge guys you see at your local gym or at competitions have built their physiques of steel and perhaps you’ll rather bitterly conclude that they must have been abusing steroids for ages.
If that sounds like you, we have some great news for you: there is a way to sculpt the body you want with the help of the right training approach, regardless of whether your vision of the ideal physique is one that’s strong and athletic or rather falls under the category of inhumanely massive. Moreover, in this article we’ll uncover some very precise tips that will help you understand how great gains are made and also help infuse you with some brand new motivation to train smarter and harder, maximize your development and finally become the athlete you wish to be!
The Neural-Metabolic Continuum: a neglected key element of training
Different rep ranges are bound to produce different adaptive response depending on whether you’re actually working your muscles or your central nervous system (CNS). This is called the neural-metabolic continuum, which is the basis of any training program. In reality, there is not a distinct line where neural adaptations end and metabolic adaptations begin, which is why it’s thought of as a continuum.
The factors that contribute to activating a neural adaptation are:
Fewer reps per set
More sets in total
Longer rest periods
And these are the factors that cause a metabolic adaptation:
More reps per set
Fewer sets in total
Shorter rest periods
So, training in the lower rep ranges (3-5) will mostly produce neurological adaptations, which increase the CNS’s ability to produce more muscle fibers. This way the body tends to get stronger rather than bigger since the muscle cells do not experience hypertrophy. On the other hand, training in the higher rep ranges (8-12) will stimulate more metabolic adaptations, which are important for increasing muscle size. When bodybuilders consistently train in high rep ranges, they tend to get bigger and increase capillarity but their strength gains are minimal. And if you choose to train within the 13-20 rep range, the adaptations will be extremely metabolic, cellular and vascular, ultimately contributing to increased muscular endurance.
In other words, if your primary focus is on mass gains, you might want to structure your squatting program like this: 4 sets of 10 reps with 60-90 seconds of rest and a 3-0-1 tempo. But if you want to focus on building strength, you would be better off with a structure of, let’s say, 5 sets of 3 reps with 3-5 minutes of rest and a fast tempo.
The 6-8 rep range is usually considered best for those who want to simultaneously work on improving their strength and adding a considerable amount of muscle mass to their frame – this range allow for a more or less equal amount of neural and metabolic adaptations. It primarily induces myofibrillar hypertrophy which is responsible for visible increases in muscle mass.
However, for optimal results, you might want to consider alternating between different rep ranges in order to force different types of muscle cells and fibers to grow.
High vs. Low Reps: Get the Best of Both Worlds
Without any doubt, training in the high rep range will also produce a certain amount of strength gains besides improved hypertrophy, but the increases in muscle mass will noticeably outpace the increases in strength. Performing more reps allows you to work the muscles more directly, build connective tissue strength and increase the time spent under tension – is a crucial factor in achieving muscle hypertrophy – which is the reason why most mass-oriented bodybuilders opt for the 12-15 or 15-20 rep range.
However, if a bodybuilder always trains like this, his body will soon adapt to the training stimulus and their progress will start dwindling. And the best way to prevent plateaus and keep making solid progress is by switching to low reps once in a while.
Why is this so?
It’s because low rep training will help you maximize the efficiency of your nervous system and upgrade your neuromuscular coordination. The definition of a low rep range is anything between 1 rep with near-maximal effort and 5 reps in a set.
This means working with much heavier weights which place the muscles under a lot of stress and recruit more muscle fibers. Intense focus and strict form are required in order to ensure optimal performance. If your body is used to training within a higher rep range, introducing sets of only 3 reps will provide it with an unfamiliar, shocking stressor that will definitely move it outside the comfort zone and place it right on the path to superb gains.
Therefore, the periodical use of lower rep ranges will not only facilitate significant strength increases but it will also help you build more muscle in the long run by preventing them from completely adapting to your typical way of training.
The end result will be a bigger and more powerful you with a decent level of definition and vascularity. On top of that, it’s a great advantage to have muscles that are exactly as strong as they look. After a period of low rep work, you can go back to high rep ranges on your major lifts but this time you’ll be able to use heavier weights and thereby stimulate better muscle gains than ever before. Shortly put, if you succeed at combining both rep schemes in a way that lets you have the best of both worlds, you’ve discovered the secret of the gym Gods!
The Perfect Plan
The trick isn’t in alternating between different rep ranges on every workout, though. You need to spend adequate periods of time in both the lower rep and higher rep ranges in order to reap the benefits we’ve discussed above. Some guys who recognize the importance of training in different rep ranges think it’s a great idea to cram all possible variations in their weekly routine. They end up with routines that include 3 sets of 10 reps on Mondays, 5 sets of 5 reps on Wednesdays and perhaps 10 sets of 3 reps on Fridays. With a program like this, you’d think that you will be able to get the most bang for your buck and pretty much outsmart everyone else in the gym.
However, the fact is that your muscles will be receiving a lot of mixed messages and your body will end up being a bit more confused than we want it to be, which will decrease the effectiveness of the regime.
Instead of doing this, you need to structure your workout in a way that emphasizes different types of training stimuli for prolonged periods of time so that you can really use the potential of each rep range to the maximum. In other words, you need to spend sufficient time on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum and explore them one at a time.
For example, have at least 6 weeks of 8-12 reps per set followed by 6 weeks of 4-8 reps per set, and so on. On rare occasions, depending on your choice of exercises and goals, you can also work in the 15-20 and 1-5 rep ranges. The point is that if you manage to constantly coerce your body to struggle and adapt, you will constantly grow and improve.
The next step would be to alternate the level of intensity over the course of the training cycle. If you think it’s a great idea to go for maximum intensity every time you visit the gym, think twice. Training like this will only lead to a devastating burn-out and perhaps a few nasty injuries.
Instead, strive to create a well-balanced mix of high-intensity and low-intensity training days. It’s true that alternating between higher and lower rep ranges will already create fluctuations in intensity, but that’s not quite enough for achieving the goal of maximum gains in the shortest period of time possible, which is what we’re talking about here.
That being said, here’s an example of a smart way to structure your workout:
Week 1: 4 sets of 5 reps at 70% of your 1RM
Week 2: 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of your 1RM
Week 3: 4 sets of 3 reps at 75% of your 1RM
Week 4: 3 sets of 5 reps at 85% of your 1RM
Here’s another, simpler one that will work just as great:
Week 1: 3 sets of 10 reps at 70% of your 1RM
Week 2: 3 sets of 8-10 reps at 75% of your 1RM
Week 3: 3 sets of 8 reps at 80% of your 1RM
Week 4: 2 sets of 8 reps at 70-75% of your 1RM
This way you can create a cycle of periods of training with higher intensity, where you will push your body beyond its limits, and periods of training with lower intensity and lower volume which allow your body to recover and super-compensate (the point when growth and strength gains actually happen). In the long run, this works infinitely better than going as hard and heavy as possible every single week.
Here’s a simple truth: the process of muscle building depends on many factors which are interconnected to different degrees. Here’s another simple truth: muscles need to be forced to grow because they naturally tend to adapt to the training stimulus they’re being presented with, so sticking to only one way of doing things tends to slow down progress.
Based on this, by making sure you vary as many training elements as possible at adequate time intervals (the golden rule is every 4-6 weeks), you can incorporate both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum and train as many different muscle fibers as possible, which will lead to better results than you can imagine. Not only that, but you’ll also decrease your chances of injury, as well as your chances of getting bored with the same old training pattern and losing the motivation to meet your long-term goals.
There you have it, now it’s finally time to pound some iron. Good luck and keep it tight!