A lot of people, including myself, used to think that higher rep training developed what is known as non functional hypertrophy. This is also referred to as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In simple terms the sarcoplasm has been described as a filler type gooey fluid inside the muscles that really doesn’t contract or produce force. Therefore it’s deemed non-functional because it kinda just sits there and looks pretty. In other words it’s good for bodybuilders, bad for athletes.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is thought to be real muscle growth. The myofibrils have the ability to contract and produce force therefore your want to increase them in size while avoiding sarcomplasmic hypertrophy at all costs.
When you do this you end up with a big, strong, functional athlete.
Or so the thought process goes.
The reality is that you can’t cause growth of the sarcoplasm without also inducing growth of the myofibrals. If this were the case then you’d simply have to train in the range of 10-20 reps on everything, eat a lot of food and you’d grow significantly bigger without being an ounce stronger.
Theoretically you’d be able to gain twenty pounds yet produce not a single iota more force than you did weighing twenty pounds less. You just be big and puffy and pretty. And I’d assume pretty squishy to the touch.
But the body doesn’t work that way. Any type of strength training, where the loading is heavy enough to induce hypertrophy, will increase the size of the myofibrals and the sarcoplasm simultaneously. You can’t increase one without the other. And no matter how you train the growth of the myofibrils will take place at a faster rate than that of the sarcoplasm.
What’s often mistaken for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is actually nothing more than an increase in the body’s ability to store glycogen. If you do high volume, bodybuilding style training you will get more efficient at storing glycogen in the muscle. That’s why if you decide to blast a weak bodypart for a few weeks with higher volume training it can often increase in size rather quickly. Size increases of an inch on the upper arms or calves in thirty days aren’t uncommon with this type of protocol.
But what’s stretching the tape measure after only two weeks of high volume training isn’t the increased size of the sarcoplasm. It’s not even the increased size of the myofibrils. Muscle simply can’t grow that quickly. It’s simply increased glycogen storage inside the muscle.
This truly is non functional hypertrophy simply because intracellular fluid can not contract and produce force. So while non functional hypertrophy doesn’t exist in the way most people think, it still kinda does.
The implication for athletes is to avoid higher volume bodybuilding protocols simply because you will end up weighing more but that weight will in the form of fluid that doesn’t produce force and will only slow you down in the same manner of excess bodyfat.
The Low End Theory
So does that mean that athletes should never train with high reps? Not necessarily. A football player could easily train with sets of ten and gain some size that wouldn’t be non-functional. The key difference, I believe, is to simply avoid getting those skin ripping bodybuilder pumps and using methods like body part splits, ultra high volume, super sets, drop sets, etc.
Just doing 3-5 sets of 8-10 on an inverted row and dip after your low rep push presses isn’t going to turn you into a big puff ball who couldn’t elude his own grandmother in the open field.
When you do that type of bodybuilding workout you are training for increased glycogen storage and that will lead to more weight on the scale in many cases. If you just want to look good on the beach that’s fine. But if you have to run, jump and cut you don’t need those extra few pounds weighing you down.
The reality is that if you had one twin do nothing but ten rep sets for a month and the other do nothing but fives, assuming the same total volume and tonnage, they would probably end up looking pretty similar and have made similar strength gains.
There are three real benefits of low rep training that have nothing to do with myofibrillar or functional hypertrophy.
1) Low reps don’t make you as sore.
2) Low reps don’t cause as much overall systemic fatigue as high reps.
3) The third has to do with rest periods and power output as I’ll explain shortly.
The first two on that list are HUGE for athletes. If you aren’t as sore or fatigued you can train more often in a fresher state!
That means that your speed, agility, conditioning and sport specific work doesn’t have to suffer as much.
Everyone knows the feeling the day after a 10-20 rep squat workout. But if you do three rep squats you don’t have that same feeling. If you do three rep squats with a 5 or 6RM you feel even better.
Test this out on yourself if you’re having a hard time grasping it…
Pick a lower body exercise and an upper body push and pull and train three times per week doing three sets of ten on each of them. Then see how you feel.
The next week use the exact same weight and total reps but do fives. So instead of three sets of ten with 200 pounds you will now do six sets of five with 200 pounds. It’s still thirty total reps with the same exact weight.
The third benefit of doing lower reps in place of higher reps is that lower reps allow you to use lower, more sport specific rest periods (which build in a conditioning component to the workout) and to maintain a higher power output throughout the training session.
For example, if you do sets of ten reps your metabolic and cardiovascular system will be more fatigued than if you did a set of five. And believe it or not, contrary to popular belief, so will your nervous system.
As you get more fatigued in all of these ways your performance will start to drop off significantly from set to set. This will force you to use longer rest periods. And even that sometimes won’t be enough to maintain a high power output throughout the workout.
Power endurance is very important for athletes; often more so than maximal strength. One time, limit strength is very rarely the deciding factor in an athletic contest. It’s usually the ability to repeat that display of strength or power that is much more critical to victory.
I’d rather see you replicate game conditions more closely and do a set of 3-5, where power output is high and you’re staying away from failure, rest 30-45 seconds (never more than 60) and move onto your next set of another exercise (if you were doing straight sets of an exercise instead of alternating sets you would have to rest longer).
That would be a more, I guess you could say, “sport specific” or “functional” way of training.
Besides, training’s supposed to be hard. You’re not supposed to sit around on the leg extension for five minutes between sets. You’re supposed to be working.
For these reasons listed I believe that athletes should keep their average reps lower than those just looking to get big and look pretty. You can still build plenty of size with an average of five or six reps per set. And as long as most of your work is done in the range of 1-6 you can still throw in a few sets in the 7-10 range here and there as well. Just make sure your higher rep work doesn’t account for more than thirty percent of your total volume you’ll be fine.
So that’s how you become a bigger, badder athlete.
Let me know your thoughts below.
PS. For more info check out Renegade Football Strength