One of the oldest questions in the bodybuilding and weight training game is what rep ranges are “best”? Should you do low reps or high reps? Does it vary depending on your goals? And if you do one, is it necessary to do another? Below you’ll find a discussion on not just what you can accomplish by using different rep ranges, but the other factors that have to be taken into account, too.
According to Dr. Mel Siff in his book Supertraining, there are four basic rep ranges and goals associated with them:
You can work out your 1RM using our one rep max calculator here.
Looking just at this list, you’d think that lifting weights should now be rather academic. If you have a particular goal, simply just start doing sets of the above prescribed reps, and you’ll be good to go. However, while these rep ranges all seem fairly straight forward, they also don’t tell the whole story.
While Dr. Siff’s recommended rep ranges above are effective, you still have to consider the total volume being done. While doing sets of 1-5 reps can be quite effective for building strength, there’s a huge difference between doing 1 set of 1-5 reps and doing 12 sets of 1-5 reps. This is why total volume needs to be monitored too, as it’ll give you an idea of how many sets you need to be doing.
In general, if you’re looking to build max strength or power, you’ll want to do 24-25 total reps of a given exercise. Prilepin’s chart gives a very detailed breakdown comparing sets, reps, and exact 1RM percentage prescriptions. It’ll vary depending on the layout of your entire program, but you’re usually best only applying these specs to one compound exercise per muscle group. An example of Prilepin’s chart is as follows:
For hypertrophy, you can get away with much more total volume. Doing 30-60 total reps of an exercise is commonplace, and you could do this for 1-3 exercises for smaller muscle groups (e.g. – biceps or triceps) and up to 3-5 exercises for bigger ones (e.g. – back or legs).
Super high rep sets of muscular endurance work can be applied and used in various ways. Sometimes, you’ll see programs consisting of only this type of application. In this case, it wouldn’t be out of line to see an exercise done for 150+ total reps. On the other hand, adding just 1-2 high rep sets after strength work to “balance out” the low reps isn’t uncommon, either.
Even if you use the right rep ranges, getting your rest breaks wrong can totally short circuit your gym gains. For example, you’d ideally rest 3-5 minutes between sets of max strength or power work. This is because you want your body fully rested and nervous system adequately recovered so you can give an all-out effort on every set. Cutting your rest breaks too short will cause a buildup of fatigue and limit how much force you can produce. This then hamstrings how much strength or power you build.
On the flip side, resting that long during hypertrophy-based or muscular endurance sets would be totally counterproductive. This is because you’d wait so long that you’d both lose your pump and let your heart rate radically drop. Hypertrophy sets are much better performed with only 60-90 seconds rest, and muscular endurance could see your rest breaks drop down to as short as 30-45 seconds.
One of the least-discussed elements to lifting weights is intention. The objective of doing a set is obviously to move a weight from “point A” to “point B” a predetermined number of times. So if you’re bench pressing for hypertrophy, you unrack the bar, and take it from arms extended to touching your chest, and back to arms extended 8-15 times before re-racking it.
However, how you go about doing this also plays a big factor in the results you get. Simply just “going through the motions” isn’t enough. Sometimes, your intention (i.e. – “how” you lift) is just as important as what you lift, how heavy, and / or how many times.
For example, say you’re lifting for the aforementioned hypertrophy. Doing bench press with a weight that limits you to 8-15 reps can stimulate growth. However, you’ll experience much better muscle activation if you concentrate on a strong mind-muscle connection. You can also increase stimulation by maximizing muscle tension throughout the set instead of just haphazardly doing your reps.
As a different example, say you’re lifting for max power. Power is a measure of how much force you can generate quickly. This means speed is a critical component. According to Dr. Mel Siff ‘s rep ranges above, 70% is the low end of the power spectrum. However, lifting that 70% slowly isn’t going to generate or build nearly as much power as lifting it as explosively as humanly possible.
For muscular endurance work, you need to be sure to stay mentally disciplined. When you’re using weight that light, it can be easy to start throwing it around too fast and letting your form get sloppy. While this might lead to injury, the short-term disadvantage is that you usually end up involving other surrounding muscle groups. Doing this lets you get all the reps in, but not actually build the endurance in the muscle(s) you’re trying to target.
Any discussion on rep ranges would be incomplete without at least mentioning exercise selection. For the most part, this should be common sense, but that doesn’t mean you should gloss over it. If strength, power, or hypertrophy is your goal, stick with basic, compound movements. Isolation movements can be good for hypertrophy and for muscular endurance.
Compound movements are great for muscular endurance too, but take care to keep form on point. Smaller muscle groups could get fatigued and greatly increase the risk of injury. For instance, if you were doing sets of squat or deadlift for 50 reps, your lower back could tire long before your hips, glutes, legs, or upper back. This could open you up to pulling something if you’re not careful.
In the end, just use your head. Use Dr. Siff’s recommendations based on your training goal, but keep all the other “intangible” aspects in mind, as well. Choose the right exercises, take appropriate rest breaks, and be sure to do your sets and reps the “right” way. Put all those together, and achieving your goals should become all but a foregone conclusion.