High Reps or Low Reps? Yes to Both

If there’s one thing that I like more than using the squat to seduce strangers on the merits of strength training, it’s helping those who I know personally get strong inside and outside of the gym.  Earlier this week I received and e-mail from a fine fellow I marched with in the University of Delaware Drumline, and I’m passing his inspiring inquiry on to you.  First, I asked the NSA to check on ‘the Book for a picture of us before I had any idea what a deadlift was:

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 9.59.58 PM

Now that dropping beats has turned into lifting weights, I was more than happy to help.  Here’s Brendan’s question:

Hey man, I’ve been going through a handful of bodybuilding.com trainers’ workout plans for different ideas of workouts. I’ve done Eric Cressey workouts, Jim Stoppani, Corey Gregory, and Steve Cooke. Each one has different exercises and none of them agree on high reps or low reps for certain exercises…or in general. Generally these workouts aren’t fat burning and they’re more strength/bulking which is my goal…what are your thoughts on high reps vs. low reps? 

I like the 8-10 range for certain exercises because I can lift heavier weights which makes me feel better, and I can see progress in weight. Some, like Gregory’s exercise have a lot of 5×12 which my weight is much lower to make the 12th rep on the 4th and 5th set. Just wondering your thoughts man!

Oo boy, am I excited! My Tl;DR answer is Yes. Both.  Let’s look at it in a little bit more detail, shall we?

In general, recommendations for a specific number of repetitions per exercise can vary based on scientific and personal answers.  Muscles that have a higher percentage of Type IIx or IIb fiber type muscles will respond to higher velocity and/or higher load exercises for shorter sets.  Muscles with higher percentages of Type I or IIa fiber type, which have more abundant blood supply but lower power capacity.  It’s a generalization, but usually flexors (Biceps femoris, brachii, rectus abdominus) should respond to lower duration, higher load training more favorably, while exensors (calves, quads, triceps) should respond to higher volume training more favorably.

fty200xxNow, is that set in stone?  Hell no, there are exceptions in strength athletics, and that’s merely an observation. However, it’s something to consider.Outside of that muscle-function style approach, I typically like to prescribe volume (sets x reps) based on someone’s experience and exposure to training stimuli.  Complete n00bs can benefit from lower-rep sets and the simplest forms of progressive overload, when most of their progress is coming from increased neural efficiency.  Their brain gets better at sending a signal to their muscles, similar to upgrading the computer in a car and seeing a boost in horsepower or torque.

Once we have some training experience, time-under-tension plays a bigger role, and we must incorporate higher volumes to create the micro-trauma that is indicative of muscular growth.  In general, most hypertrophy programs are high volume, while some are done at higher intensities and others at lower intensities. Six sets of 5 reps (6×5) and 3 sets of 10 reps (3×10) have the same total volume, but you’ll be able to lift much greater weights for sets of 5 than sets of 10.  That’s where exercise selection comes in.
Most strength coaches will program technically demanding exercises first, such as squats, cleans, deadlifts, or the bench press.  I believe that these exercises are best suited for low(er) rep training, perhaps between 3-6 reps, with occasional sets of 1 or 8.  Those sets of shorter duration can be done with better technique, and therefore greater loads.  Lifting mass builds mass, ya heard?
To “make up” time-under-tension and allow for higher volume training, I take an approach that can be called more “functional” or better with “risk management”.  Either way, I think it’s smart.
Somewhere between relying on technically demanding exercises through out your workout or turning to machines for a pseudo-safe way to accumulate volume, I’d rather turn to self-limiting exercises to safely train high(er) rep ranges.  Let’s look at some examples:
In lieu of high rep squats or leg pressing, I’d rather somebody perform high rep split squats or heavy Prowler pushes to accumulate volume.  It’s a lot more comfortable to have a sled not move, or possibly tip over, than have a bar pin you to the floor or shit out your spine.  (Possible squat-related injuries.)
An awesome alternative to the bent over barbell row is the TRX Row.  Before you chalk it up as being easy, elevate your feet, throw on more than one weighted vest, and slow down.  If we assume that you’re moving 75% of your body weight during a foot-elevated inverted row, and I’m wearing 60lbs in vests here, that would be 210lbs for 8 reps.  There’s no way in hell a bent over row with that much weight will look this clean:
Rather than prescribing high-rep deadlifts, cleans, or that god-awful shrug, I prefer to use trap bar deadlifts or farmers walks.  You’ll be able to handle more load for more reps with less changes of mechanical injury, which sounds like a total win, unless you’re in orthopedics.  Sorry ya’ll, I’ll let someone else send you the injured.

Selecting an appropriate rep range is most successful when you also select appropriate exercises, and I think the latter is where the magic happens.  As a general rule of thumb, I’d keep compound, bilateral exercises between 3-8 reps, unilateral and stationary exercises between 8-12 reps, and then unilateral and dynamic exercises between 12-15+ reps.  As always, there are cases when these rules don’t apply, but if your workout flows from the “big” lifts into accessory work, this ensures that you’re including a number of exercises in all repetition ranges and getting the most out of your workouts.

Since ya’ll like examples, let’s go through my Thursday morning workout, which you could use as a mock lower body workout for somebody who wants to pick up heavy shit and look good naked.  I did some speed squats off the pins in the squat rack, the took some heavier deadlifts, and finished with a complex of loaded carries, suitcase walking lunges, and sled push.  From my Fitocracy account:

Warm-up included foam rolling, a dynamic mobility series, Goblet squats, single leg deadlifts, scap wall slides, box jumps and medicine ball slams.  Then:
  • Barbell Box Squat:
    • 95 lb x 8 reps (+37 pts)
    • 135 lb x 6 reps (+45 pts)
    • 165 lb x 5 reps (+52 pts)
    • 185 lb x 3 reps (+48 pts)
    • 185 lb x 3 reps (+48 pts)
    • 185 lb x 3 reps (+48 pts)
    • 185 lb x 3 reps (+48 pts)
    • 185 lb x 3 reps (+48 pts)
    • 185 lb x 3 reps (+48 pts)
  • Barbell Deadlift:
    • 135 lb x 5 reps (+66 pts)
    • 225 lb x 5 reps (+121 pts)
    • 275 lb x 3 reps (+136 pts)
    • 295 lb x 3 reps (+155 pts)
    • 315 lb x 1 reps (+121 pts)
    • 335 lb x 1 reps (+139 pts)
    • 345 lb x 1 reps (+148 pts)

    From the speed squats and then “strength” deadlifts, I transition to my accessory/conditioning work.  I use the word “strength” lightly because that’s light, but I’ve barely trained my conventional deadlift, instead opting for the sumo deadlift.  Yesterday’s lift was more based on technique than grinding through hard reps.

  • Kettlebell Crosswalk:
    • 50′ 0″ || 50 lb (+13 pts)
    • 50′ 0″ || 50 lb (+13 pts)
    • 50′ 0″ || 50 lb (+13 pts)
  • Kettlebell Lunge:
    • 50 lb x 12 reps (+78 pts)
    • 50 lb x 12 reps (+78 pts)
    • 50 lb x 12 reps (+78 pts)
  • Sled Push:
    • 100′ 0″ || turf || 90 lb (+48 pts)
    • 100′ 0″ || turf || 90 lb (+48 pts)
    • 100′ 0″ || turf || 90 lb (+48 pts)
    • 100′ 0″ || turf || 90 lb (+48 pts)
    • 100′ 0″ || turf || 90 lb (+48 pts)

I rounded out the workout with some additional mobility/stretching drills in my cool down.  Let me note that I mis-logged the walking lunges.  I did 12 reps in each direction, so it was actually 24 reps for each set.  For the kettlebell crosswalk and the sled push, I averaged approximately 40 steps per 50 feet.

In this particular workout, you’ll see a pretty big gap in those set/ rep ranges.  For the lower rep training that involved the barbell, I did mostly sets of 3 or 1.  Once I was done with my “sport practice”, I switched to a higher rep range (and fewer sets) to create the desired hormonal response, AKA being awesome.

When the question of High Reps or Low Reps comes up, the answer is simple:  Both.  Just make sure that you’re selecting exercises that are appropriate for each rep range, and vice versa.  Train smart, then train hard, and you’ll see empowering results.

3 Replies to “High Reps or Low Reps? Yes to Both”

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