I recently got into a heated debate with a personal trainer about the recommended rep range and load for gaining muscle. He stuck hard and fast to the philosophy of “go big or go home,” and lectured me on the belief that lifting heavy weight is the only way to achieve maximum muscle hypertrophy.
At times, his argument was compelling and almost believable, but it wasn’t going to work on me. In fact, while he was talking, I found myself thinking back to my college days (decades ago), listening to my instructors lecture us about rep ranges: low reps (1-5) for strength, medium reps (6-12) for hypertrophy, and high reps (15-20) for endurance athletes. And while learning about the significance of each type of training was important, it was the message the instructors continually hammered home that I remember the most: the best training plans incorporate all three rep ranges.
Why should you vary the rep range?
Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D, C.S.C.S., a internationally renowned fitness expert and widely regarded as one of the leading authorities on body composition training, provides a solid argument for including the higher-rep range in your training (in addition to low and medium rep ranges). “In addition to light loads being more “joint-friendly,” emerging research shows that light loads produce very similar increases in muscle mass compared to heavier loads. There is some evidence that light loads target type I muscle fibers and that heavier loads target type II fibers,” says Schoenfeld. “This would indicate a benefit to combining rep ranges in some sort of periodized fashion to maximize muscle growth,” he adds.
Schoenfeld goes on to explain that while light loads certainly elicit good increases in strength, heavier loads will produce better results in this regard. So again, “combining rep ranges is a good strategy (assuming a person can tolerate the heavier loads) to maximize results,” he stresses. And if you happen to be a research junkie, Schoenfeld goes into greater detail about his findings with a link to the study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.
How do you design a program with all rep ranges?
An average/intermediate female or male lifter (wanting to build muscle mass) can follow a basic total body routine that will work all the major muscles focusing on compound movements, while varying the rep range over the course of a week. Schoenfeld’s sample workout includes strength training three days a week, with either a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule or a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule. He suggests the following for each day:
Day 1: Heavy with exercises performed in the 3-5 rep range
Day 2: Moderate with exercises performed in the 8-12 rep range
Day 3: Light with exercises performed in the 15-20 rep range
Yes, I’ve tried it … and my body thanked me!
In a few months, I’ll be 43-years-old. While still considered young to some, there are many days I feel my age (especially when I’ve pushed too much). Ironically, I now understand what my elders said years ago about treating my body like a temple. A few months ago, I decided to get serious about my training—after taking a bit of a hiatus from working out—and knew easing back into a serious lifting program was crucial. I chose to design a plan similar to what Schoenfeld recommends: cycling through three days a week of heavy, moderate and light training.
I’m about 12 weeks into this plan and can honestly say, I’m the most fit I’ve been in a long time. But here’s the thing, it’s not necessarily the aesthetic changes to my physique that are the most impressive. Rather, it’s the way this method encourages growth without overtraining and risking injury. By designating a day for heavy, light and moderate loads within my weekly workout cycle, I’m able to periodize my training, maximize time and energy, train intensely, and still allow time for my body to recover. Wonder what the “go big or go home” trainer thinks of me now?
Photo: ThoroughlyReviewed, CC-BY
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness.