During the first few weeks when I started going to the gym, I noticed that all the guys were lifting heavy weights with few repetitions to “pump” their muscles while the girls were using really light weights with really high repetitions to “tone” their muscles.
My basic purpose of starting gym was getting rid of the extra pounds. My office colleague, who had been a regular to the gym, gave me a piece of “knowledge”, one should do 18-20 reps per set to lose weight, 6-10 reps are only going to increase the muscle bulk.
I am sure that even you believe so. Actually, I am VERY sure.
Here is the truth, right in front of you. The belief that low repetitions are good for mass and high repetitions are good for cuts is just plain wrong and if you are someone who has the same “knowledge” you had done it wrong throughout.
I can understand your mind would be flooded with questions now.
- What do I do if I just want to build muscle?
- Do high repetition sets hold any value?
- Aren’t low repetitions for beginners?
- Which repetition range is the best?
Hang On, I will answer all these questions and much more as we go further.
Low reps make you strong, eh?
I will start with low repetitions, typically 4-8, because this is the category all the ‘strong’ guys are after. Some of my fellow gym folks are so proud that they are doing low reps with heavy weights that they would always stay adamant at doing so. In fact, for some of us low repetitions are a symbol of strength.
Of course, you are lifting heavy weights means you are stronger, but is continuing to do so making you any stronger?
I will get down to some science to make a fighting case for low repetitions. Now pay some attention here.
Muscle fibers in our body are put into three categories – fast, intermediate and slow twitch fibers. Based on the weight you are lifting, the body would engage muscle fibers one by one. First the slow twitch muscle fibers would be engaged. If they cannot put together sufficient force, intermediate twitch fibers would be called upon and after that the fast twitch fibers.
This means that when you lift heavy loads, you are actually engaging all muscle fibers. In addition, low repetitions also result in an increase in contractile tissue, resulting in strength gain.
Now let’s cut the science and get straight to the point.
What I tried to say is that low repetitions result in muscle gain and increase in muscle strength. This point has been proven again and again in many studies carried out on this topic.
Wait! Didn’t I just contradict my point here? You haven’t read the cases for medium and high repetition ranges yet. There is much more to how the numbers of repetitions affect our body.
I promise this time I won’t get into a lot of science. Moderate reps mean you are going through 12-15 repetitions per set.
Moderate repetitions are going to offer you the best of both worlds. The increased muscle gains given by low reps and the increased time under force given by high reps. Moderate repetitions offer your body a pump as a result of increased protein synthesis and decreased protein breakdown. This pump is not going to offer you much strength gain, but result in high muscular growth.
Have you ever wondered why can’t a bodybuilding pro become a weightlifting pro too?
I had thought about it a lot of time until I finally found the answer. The reason is muscle growth, that occurs due to moderate reps. Bodybuilding pros also have to continue doing these repetitions because the resultant muscle gain is short-lived.
Well, than this is the perfect range right?
Hang on, there is one more to go.
Building a case for High Reps
High repetitions mean that you are doing 15 or more repetitions per set. You would think that if low reps and moderate reps both offer muscle gains and moderate reps also result in better protein synthesis, what is the need of doing high reps? There is one more thing that really plays an important role, glycogen.
Glycogen is basically a carbohydrate stored in our muscle tissue. When you go through high reps, this glycogen would break down into water and result in muscle cell swelling. In addition, the body would also respond to this depletion of glycogen and would work towards replenishing the glycogen store.
Wait, wouldn’t this drown your muscles in water?
Yes, they would and as a direct result they would also drastically increase protein synthesis. An added benefit of high rep training is occlusion, which means that the blood flows into the area, but does not flow out.
Now how is this beneficial? Read our article on “Occlusion training” to learn more.
The Best Rep Range
The truth actually is that there is no ‘best’ rep range. Each rep range has its own advantage and each rep range is important. Got confused right?
There are two points to keep in mind here:
- The case for the rep ranges shows that each rep range will result in muscle gain, just the way they do so will be different.
- High reps are NOT going to result in fat loss. Strength training will result in calorie burn, no matter which rep range you follow, but none will result in greater fat loss. Always remember that cardio exercises coupled with the right diet is more potent in fat loss.
Are you still confused? Here is a tried and tested plan that will result in both muscle gain and muscle toning.
For each exercise that you do, do the following repetitions:
- First Set: 16-20 reps
- Second Set: 12-15 reps
- Third Set: 8-10 reps
- Fourth Set: 4-8 reps
Each repetition is done to failure, which means that you should lift as much weight in each set that you are JUST able to complete the repetitions.
Try Autoregulation training where you have the freedom to adjust the rep range depending on how you feel on the day. For example, if you feel really good on a day you can go for 20 reps in the first set and if you get tired you can stay at 16.
So, next time someone tries to give you the knowledge about high reps and low reps, give them the knowledge that you just gained here. Feel free to share this knowledge with your other gym fellows.
We would love to hear your response.
References  Campos GE, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, Toma K, Hagerman FC, Murray TF, Ragg KE, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, Staron RS. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60. Epub 2002 Aug 15. PubMed PMID: 12436270. ^Back to Top^  Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, Holwerda AM, Parise G, Rennie MJ, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One. 2010 Aug 9;5(8):e12033. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012033. PubMed PMID: 20711498; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2918506. ^Back to Top^
Last Updated: May 16, 2014
Next Scheduled Update: July 16, 2014