Question: I’ve read that the best way to get bigger and stronger is to train exclusively in the 8-12 range like bodybuilders. Then I turn around and someone is telling me that I should go heavy and only train in the 1-5 rep range for the best gains in size and strength. So which one is it?
Answer: Before I answer your question I have to preface it with the fact that beginners should always stick with basic programs and reps in the 5-8 range. Nothing higher than 8, and nothing lower than 5. Do that for at least a year or two and then you can move on to the more advanced concepts discussed below…
Sets of 8-12 have worked wonders for many a bodybuilder to not only pack on size but develop some serious strength as well. And there are plenty of jacked Olympic lifters who do nothing but sets in the 1-5 rep range. Both work.
Personally, my favorite way to train is to always include a variety of rep ranges in each and every workout. That also ends up being what I do with a large number of people I write size and strength programs for as well as they also seem to enjoy that the most.
This usually means starting with heavier weights and lower reps and then pumping up the muscle with some higher rep back off sets/ assistance work. It’s really not dramatically different from what they do at Westside or in other powerlifting gyms.
Some people call it powerbuilding. For me it just feels right. It’s the way I’ve trained for as long as I can remember. If I don’t work up to something heavy I feel cheated. And if I don’t get some sort of pump I don’t feel fully satisfied with the workout. We all remember what Arnold said…
Back in the day my heavy sets used to be in the 1-3 range. Nowadays I keep them in the 5-6 range. That’s enough for me. One or two, and at the most- three exercises per week, get hit hard and heavy, everything else is at or above eight reps.
If you’re over 35 and have been in the game for a while I would recommend that you also keep your heaviest sets at five reps or higher. In fact, for safety and longevity, I’d probably recommend that those north of 35 keep the majority of their sets at eight reps and above. There’s no good reason to go heavier than that on a regular basis. And if you have trained properly over the years and built up some decent strength levels you can get more out of higher reps than weak beginners and don’t need to train with exclusively low reps to get strong anymore.
Some of you may have heard that “there is an inverse relationship between training age (the number of years you have trained) and average number of reps used.” That’s true. But it’s the opposite of what most people were led to believe. The longer you have been training the higher your average number of reps should be; not lower. That’s why Jim Wendler’s periodization system is working out so well for advanced lifters; the money set ends up being a somewhat higher rep set a lot of the time.
I wrote this several years ago and a lot of people didn’t get it. Maybe it takes experience to get it. Or for older guys like Dan John or stronger guys like Dave Tate to say the same thing for people to understand it. But get strong or train long enough and you’ll get it too.
Too much heavy, low rep training tends to beat you up and burn you out.
Years back, over a few beers, Jim Wendler and I were discussing training and he said, “Dude, it’s so f*cking easy. You do singles for strength and 10’s for size.”
I agreed at the time, but with experience the two of us have changed our minds and have come to realize that you don’t necessarily need to do singles to get strong.
If you look at the training of guys like Kaz and “Captain” Kirk Karwoski you’ll see that they never did anoverabundance of work in the 1-3 rep range.
According to Kaz, “Primarily you need to divorce yourself from a preoccupation with maximal weights, be it singles or low repetitions, where weight and not work is the motivator. Continually testing yourself with maximal poundages is a self indulgent step into staleness, slow gains and discouragement.”
Kaz followed a 14 week periodization scheme where only during the last 4 weeks before a meet didhe drop his sets down into the three rep range, never doing singles once. Assistance work was always kept in the 8-12 range. For skinny hardgainers I prefer a 6-10 rep range, with ten being the extreme high end of the spectrum.
Powerlifter, Jason Pegg, told me that “regularly scheduled, low rep, max effort work is f*cking stupid.”
Now, neither Jason nor I intend any disrespect to the Westside method. Long time readers will know that I am a huge fan. For those guys, that is their sport. They need to practice doing singles. The rest of us do not. Doing so will most likely lead to a shortened, injury riddled lifting career.
Longevity, my friends… Always think longevity. I still want to be training hard when I’m 70 or 80. So keep the long term, big picture in mind.
Back to the concept of mixing rep ranges in the same program. As I stated, this is my favorite way to train and the most satisfying for me.
In Vince Gironda’s book, The Wild Physique, he recalls the training of legends, Bill Pearl and Reg Park…
“Bill Pearl and Reg Park ‘mixed up’ their training to afford maximum results. They would perform each exercise using both heavy and light weights. For example, they would perform 3-4 sets with a heavy weight and low reps, and then finish off with 2-3 sets of higher reps with a lighter weight.”
This is very similar to many of the programs I write for clients looking to pack on size and strength rapidly.
Gironda continues, “I remember studying Reg Park’s physique when he was doing power training. He was doing 5 sets of 5 reps. His physique looked thick. Obviously, he had maximized his muscle fiber size. Park then went to South Africa and followed a system of 10-rep exercises. The appearance of his muscle changed because the capillary count looked higher, but the thickness appeared to suffer fractionally. A few years later, Park mixed up his training and his physique reached its ultimate potential. He had both cross sectional thickness and muscle height. He looked superb!”
I also use a heavy/light system where one upper and one lower body day per week are heavy and the other two days are light. That works quite well and gives the body a break from heavy lifting. The lighter days are sort of active recovery days. Another way to think of it is one size day and one strength day.
This is also how many of the old time greats trained. There are pros and cons to both but you can’t go wrong with either system; hit some 5’s for strength and some sets of 8-10 for size.
Now, if you were interested in doing an accumulation and intensification type of periodization scheme you could do higher reps for a month followed by lower reps for a month. That always works quite well. Especially with intermediate level lifters who still need to follow very rigid guidelines.
Personally I would hate to have to do nothing but low reps or only do high reps for a month straight. I need and love the combination of both. But that’s not to say you couldn’t do two separate phases. You could do one phase of 6-8 for strength work and 9-12 for hypertrophy followed by a month of 4-6 and 8-10. In the first phase you could do more sets and use less rest between sets. You could also train four days per week on Phase 1 and three days per week on Phase 2 to further enhance the supercompensation effect; but you don’t have to. Either way that’s getting off on to a whole different topic that we’ll save for another time.
The most successful bodybuilders and physical culturists almost always use a variety of rep ranges. When you do that you stimulate all of the available muscle fibers. Heavy training is great and will produce most of your long lasting size gains and give you that solid, dense look. But you will never fully maximize your growth potential on low reps alone. You will be strong but probably won’t get as big as you possibly could be. If you want to really finish your physique and top it off with some extra mass you need the pump stuff (8-12, and occasionally 15-20 for lower body and/or advanced lifters) too.
That’s the deadly combination for creating some seriously jacked, strong ass, mofo’s.
Please leave your questions and comments below.