Anyone who’s been in the lifting game for quite a while has without a doubt heard or read about the rep range debate, or how many repetitions one should do in one set in order to build as much muscle as possible. The first group would say that high reps should be done for cutting purposes and low reps for bulking. The second group, the “hardcore” lifters, repeat the old mantra “go hard or go home” and always recommend doing relatively heavy reps (85-95% of 1 rep max) for low reps (1-5). And the third group just wants to train with light weights and “chase the pump” as the primary goal while keeping the time under tension as long as possible. It’s no wonder a lot of beginners get confused when first starting out on what rep range they should employ when training.
So, which is the best rep range and which one you should use? The truth is that there’s no simple answer to that question. You can actually build lots of muscle by training in every one of the rep ranges mentioned above, that is, if you put enough mechanical stress on your muscles, use gradual progressive overload in small weight increments, have a solid nutrition plan and rest adequately to create the optimal environment for muscle growth.
However, there are still some broad guidelines people should follow to program their bodybuilding training better and elicit maximal muscle gains. And that’s exactly the point of this article. Instead of choosing some random numbers for the rep ranges you’ll use in your workouts, we need to be a bit more specific and get into more details. The best rep range which works for all movements does not exist. The number of reps you should do will vary depending on the type of exercise you’re doing.
Let’s take squats and crunches as an example. Let’s say you were squatting and then proceeded to do crunches. Do you really think that you’d need to use the same number of sets and reps for both exercises? Common sense says no. The squat is a heavy mass power compound movement involving your entire body, and crunches are an isolation exercise involving just one muscle group. They engage the muscles in a completely different manner, which is why you would not train these two movements the same way and using the same number of sets and reps.
Some exercises like the squat are categorized as heavy load power compound movements and they engage the body more optimally when done with heavy weights and a low number of reps. These are the so-called “meat and potatoes” movements which should be the pillars of your muscle building training program. Then there are the mid-range power movements which are still considered compound movements, but they are better suited to be used with higher reps in comparison to the heavy mass movements. And lastly, there are the isolation movements which are used to stimulate specific muscle areas. These movements elicit a greater muscle response when done with lighter weights, higher reps, and very strict execution form.
Generally speaking, when doing the big compound lifts the main goals is moving the weight. When doing these exercise you need to strive to increase weight regularly while always keeping good form. Then, when you proceed to do mid-range and isolation exercises the main goal is to feel the muscles while training and getting a big pump, instead of always trying to increase the weight you’re lifting.
Examples of big compound movements are squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press. These four are basic compound free-weight movements which allow the relatively heavy weight to be lifted for a low number of repetitions. The classic 5×5 training routine (5 sets of 5 reps) has proven to be very effective for these exercises. Advanced strongmen and powerlifters tend to ramp up to heavier weights by performing heavy triples, doubles and trying to set one rep records for these basic compound exercises.
Examples of mid-range movements are: leg press, bent-over barbell rows, dumbbell bench press, dumbbell overhead press, barbell biceps curls, dips and pull-ups. These are compound exercises which can be performed with relatively heavy weights, but can be more efficient when done in the moderate rep range of 5-10 reps per set. These exercises should comprise the majority of your muscle building training program.
Examples of small isolation exercises are leg extensions, leg curls, dumbbell flyes, side lateral raises, concentration curls, tricep kick-backs, calve raises and crunches. Isolation movements are most effective when done with relatively light to moderate weights and high reps. It is generally recommended that you use these exercises at the end of your workouts as finishing movements.
The main idea is to get a good pump in your muscles after you have already completed the heavy power movements. You should do these exercises in the 10-15 rep range per set and for some of them you can employ even higher reps, more than 20, especially when training calves and abs.
All of these movements and rep ranges can be applied to the majority of weight training routines. It goes without saying that there are always going to be some expectations to these rules depending on the training program. The best example is the classic “20-rep squat routine”, where a heavy power movement is done with high reps. And some other time you’ll want to train isolation movements with heavier loads and lower reps. This especially applies to a body part specialization routine.
So, to recap, here are the three general guidelines for most training routines:
1. Heavy compound movements: 5 reps per set.
2. Mid-range compound movements: 6-12 reps per set.
3. Small isolation movements: 13-15 reps per set.