The other day I got sent a message asking a “simple” question; “what is the optimal rep range for weight training, fat loss etc” As I proceeded to reply, it dawned on me that the question is deceptively complicated.
We could go extremely detailed into this subject and be overwhelmed with pages of research but this would be well beyond scope of this article. This is article is meant as more a “starters guide” for lifters trying to find the right rep ranges for their goals
Hypertrophy; I’m sure we’ve heard this word throw about before but what is hypertrophy? It is often described as the “Pump” which Arnold famously spoken about in Pumping Iron (1977). It has since then been passed down for years from one bro to another.
This explanation of hypertrophy is theoretically correct, but only covers a single aspect.
Hypertrophy is the increasing in the size of the cells. It comes in two flavours; myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in individual muscle fibre. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the increase in the volume of the fluid, non-contractile components of the muscle (glycogen, collagen, water, minerals, etc.).
Low repetition training will be our starting point. This is often considered as the most efficient method for increasing strength gains. Individuals looking for gains in strength will generally train at low rep ranges (between 2-6 reps) with weight of around 85-90% one rep. It places a greater stress on the CNS (central nervous systems) therefore a longer rest time between sets are implemented to allow for partial or full recovery. The physiological effect this has on the body is an increase in motor unit recruitment which will induce myofibrillar hypertrophy. Over time this will lead to an increase in muscle mass as your body regrows new fibres
At more moderate rep ranges (8-12 reps) Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs by forcing more fluid into the muscle causing the cell walls to expand. This is often regarded as the body building rep scheme and countless bros have chased this pump with the hope of achieving size. To increase the pump shorter rest times are employed, not allowing the muscle to fully recover.
There is one more rep schemes I would like to mention. There is always that group of individuals that are scared of getting “too” big but want “tone”, so they select weights they are capable of lifting for 20 plus rep without breaking a single sweat on each set. This effectively turns weight lifting into an endurance exercise. For novice lifters the focus is on moving the weight from point B to A without any thought on muscle engagement. This often goes hand in hand with poorly executed technique. There are a few exceptions to implementing higher repletion’s but I would generally reserves this form of training for more intermediate and advanced trainees that have mastered the basics.
Now the bad news; Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is not fully backed by scientific research and is somewhat in the realm of pseudoscience. There has been various studies conduct on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy partially supporting it but the scientific consensus is that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy not fully confirmed
But it’s not all bad news because something that is fully confirmed and happens every waking day of your life is the body’s ability to form adaptations, after all our ability to adapt to new environments and stimulus is what has kept homo-sapiens (humans) alive for the past 75 thousands years.
Research conducted which focuses on high intensity (3-5 rep max) with moderate rest periods verses moderate intensity (10 – 12 reps) training showed great improvements in strength and size over an eight week period [The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men: Physiological Reports ISSN 2051-817X: 1st July 2015]
Weight training is all about forming adaption for the body to accomplish a task. If you want to lift more weight your body will adapt by increasing the muscle density and become more efficient at recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibres possible. If you want to be able of run for miles none stop the body will respond by reducing muscle mass and become more efficient at processing oxygen and slight more resistant to fatigue. Now whether or not Myofibrillar and Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is real is not the point. The point is that it’s all about forming the right type of adaptation you require to accomplish a goal or task.
Executing the correct technique, Forming a connection with the muscle and Time under tension all come together to effectively train the muscle for size and strength. It isn’t about just shift weight accompanied with bad form PRs (I’m looking at you bravado bros) but focus on the movement pattern, ensuring engagement of the desire muscle(s). As Jay Cutler once said and countless “bro lifters” forget “Work the muscle, not the ego”. This doesn’t me a free pass to select a light weight that won’t challenge you. But select a weight where each set shouldn’t feel like a walk in the park with a bottle of your favourite fluorescent BCAA’s.
So a piece of advice I always give to new lifter is mastery over the craft. Understand the movement and what you want to accomplish. Understand your nutritional need and requirements.
Mastery of the big compound lifts Squats, Deadlift, Bench, Strict overhead press. They if done incorrectly can lead to injury very quickly.
I would recommend lower rep scheme with high volume (4 -6 reps with 6 sets). For isolation movements, most forms of curls, aim for 10-12 reps with moderate volume of 3 to 4 sets.
Now the above points are not unbreakable laws brought down on stone tablets which every lifter must follow or be smote down. But a more general guide for novice or intermediate lifters. Play with rep and set schemes find what you response best to. We are not all cut from the same cloth.