If you’re a genetically average, steroid-free dude who’s struggling to gain muscle you should forget about doing anything above eight reps for a while.
All the magic, for guys like you, occurs in the 5-8 range.
Lower reps are far superior to the typical 12-15 prescriptions you get from pro bodybuilders. Especially if you have less than two years of proper training experience.
Heavy training targets the muscle fibers with the greatest potential for growth and builds size and strength more effectively than light training will for the typical so called “hardgainer” or skinny guy.
Shocking info, I know.
When you’re a skinny, weak maggot you need some serious overload to kick your body into an anabolic state.
Low reps provide that much needed overload. Simply pumping out sets of 12-15 on a pulldown or dumbbell press won’t cut it. You need to load up the bar for a heavy set of 5-8.
If you must use dumbbells for daily training, use heavy ones with fewer repetitions rather than light bells with numerous repetitions. ” – Arthur Saxon, 1906
In the Golden Era of Physical Culture real men trained with low reps and heavy weight (like my Muscle Gaining Secrets program) to build incredible size and strength. They felt that high reps tired them out and were all but worthless.
Mass monster, Captain Kirk Karwoski seemed to live on a diet of 5’s in his workouts.
Olympic lifters like David Rigert (pictured below) have developed awe inspiring levels of muscle mass with nothing but six reps and under.
The Negatives of High Rep Training
Low reps, performed explosively have a very beneficial effect on the CNS. They energize you and keep you fresh while high rep training, done to excess, can drain you.
When you have less than a few years of serious training under your belt your work capacity will be fairly low. In that case, higher reps cause more overall systemic fatigue and lead to greater levels of soreness. They also cause more localized inflammation.
That’s why when you embark on a high rep program you may look a bit bigger but most of the initial size you put on is intracellular fluid, increased glycogen storage, edema and just overall swelling from the trauma inflicted.
This systemic fatigue and soreness limits your ability to train more frequently in a fresher state, which limits your ability to build muscle faster.
People get confused and claim that they shrink when they abandon high reps. They are actually right; you will shrink. But it’s not real muscle that you’re losing. It’s just swelling.
“Movements or exercises that do not give the muscles the required resistance, but are the kind that involve a great number of repetitions, never break down any tissue, to speak of. These movements involve a forcing process that cause the blood to swell up the muscles, and simply pump them up.”
-George F. Jowett, The Key to Might and Muscle, 1926
Why Lower Rep Training is Actually Safer
Lower reps come with a lower injury risk when training the big lifts. I don’t believe in doing any of the traditional powerlifting or Olympic lifting exercises for more than six reps unless you are a master of technique with years of experience.
Even in that case I’d only do it on a squat or press; never a deadlift or Olympic lifting variation. Both of those would be better suited for sets of 1-3 reps most of the time.
When you go higher than that on the big lifts the injury risk increases exponentially with each rep as form starts to deteriorate. You’d be far safer doing triples with a weight you could handle five or six times.
Remember that one of the keys to developing strength is the ability to maximize tension. You can only maximize tension for 5-6 reps, tops.
That is why numerous strength coaches have always advocated limiting reps to six and under for anyone interested in boosting performance.
Can You Ever Go Above 8 Reps?
Sure. On exercises like kettlebell swings and snatches I wouldn’t advise going under eight reps. If you’re doing direct neck work you’d want to stay above eight as well, just purely for safety. Things like sledgehammer swings will be done for higher reps and any type of drag or carry can be done for a longer duration than it would take you to complete eight reps.
When you’re injured and rehabbing something you can also do higher reps. In fact, you’d be wise to do so.
And after you’ve gotten strong and have been training for several years you may actually never go LOWER than eight reps. If you’re over 35 and pretty well experienced you may find that sticking with the 8-10 range works best for you.
But, in general, if you’re after high-performance muscle and want to avoid excessive fatigue and soreness I’d keep it eight and under on most of your other exercises.
If you’re struggling to gain size and strength, have average genetics and are drug-free I’d be willing to bet the farm that you’ll get far superior results with low rep training.