how many reps

How Many Reps Should I Train?

You are not alone if you’ve ever found yourself asking, how many reps should I train?

Choosing the number of repetitions is the core of any strength training program. The selection of reps affects all other components of a workout: sets, tempo, rest intervals, and even exercise selection.

There are several reasons getting reps right is the holy grail for designing workouts:

First, the number of reps you do dictates the training effect. Research shows the following association between reps and training outcomes:

Heavy weights and reps in the 1 to 6 range are used to build strength.

Moderate weights and reps of 7 to 12 are for building muscle.

Lighter weights and high reps of 13 or more are for muscular endurance.

The second reason is that the number of reps is the loading parameter that you adapt to the quickest. If you are doing the same reps for months on end, your results will be stagnant. Understanding how to vary your rep prescriptions ensures continued progress.

Third, there is an intricate relationship between repetitions and load. The number of repetitions performed influences how much weight you can lift. How much weight you lift determines how much tension is imposed on a muscle. How much tension imposed on a muscle determines the training response.

Let the Reps Dictate the Load

The simplest way to program your training is to let the reps dictate the load. Letting your reps dictate how much you will lift ensures you push yourself to your limit and avoid the widespread pitfall of undertraining.

This method is based off a chart in which the maximum amount you can lift is called your “1RM,” which stands for “repetition maximum.”

For best results with letting the reps dictate the load, use rep ranges when programing. If you’re working in the 4 to 6 rep range but can perform 7 or more, the weight needs to be increased. Likewise, if you’re in the 4 to 6 range but can’t hit 3, your load is too heavy.

Another example is if you’re training for hypertrophy, you’ll generally want to be working in the 8 to 12 rep range. If you are in the 10 to 12 rep range and you put 200 pounds on the bar for a bench press, but find that you can do 13 or more reps, the weight needs to be increased. Likewise, if you can only perform 8 or 9 reps, your load is too heavy.

Say, you finish up your training cycle and decide it’s time to build strength in the upper body. You’ll want to work in the 4 to 6 rep range with a much heavier weight than your 200 pounds, say 235 pounds. This method ensures you continue to challenge your body to adapt.

Include Maximal Load Training To Maximize Results

The common ground of all successful training programs is the inclusion of maximal voluntary contractions.

Many coaches and trainees shy away from maximal load training because they incorrectly think that it requires you to train fully loaded singles. In fact, research shows that maximal voluntary contractions are achieved any time you train to failure.

Maximal voluntary contractions are defined as the “attempt to recruit as many motor units as possible to develop force.” For example, this could be done with a workout that uses a 6RM load in which you reach failure after 6 reps and are unable to physically perform a 7th. When the last rep of the set is accomplished by a muscle that is fully fatigued, maximal force is produced. Regardless of whether the maximal voluntary contraction is achieved with a maximal single or a 6RM training scheme, the maximal voluntary contraction allows you to achieve maximal motor unit activation, which leads to enhanced strength.

Besides allowing you to maximize strength by reaching the hardest to reach motor units, including maximal voluntary contractions yields these benefits:

  • Teaches you to mobilize willpower to produce extreme efforts
  • Trains you to switch from relaxation to tension quickly
  • Decreases inhibition of the protective mechanism of the muscle
  • Increases synchronization of motor units for better coordination and strength

Factors That Influence Rep Prescriptions

There are several other factors that affect rep prescriptions, a few of which we will cover here.

Programming Reps Should Be Muscle-Group Specific

The optimal rep range is specific to the muscle group you are working. A muscle with a high percentage of slow-twitch fibers requires a higher number of repetitions, whereas those that are predominantly fast-twitch will thrive on lower reps and heavier loads.

For example, the soleus muscle in the calf contains 88 percent slow-twitch fibers. Repetitions in the 15 to 25 range may be needed to optimally stimulate this muscle for growth.

Sets Are Inversely Related To Reps

Know this to be true: Multiple sets lead to faster strength gains than single set training. Strength increases conform to a “dose-response” that is correlated to the number of sets prescribed.

Multi-set training prepares the body for a “new normal” of higher loads and increased strength. Just as a student wouldn’t get the best results on an exam after a single night of cramming versus multiple exposures to the study material over a few weeks, an athlete can’t expect motor-learning acquisition from single-set sessions. To improve maximal strength the body must learn what the new “normal” weight is. To become comfortable with this new weight, it must be exposed to it several times. This forces the nervous system to accept the new load as being “normal”.

Determining the number of sets you should train is inversely related to the number of reps. In other words, when using low reps, do a higher number of sets. When using high reps do a lower number of sets.

This principle is based on the fact that there is a minimal optimal volume for strength development. When training for strength with heavy weights and low reps, a higher number of sets will ensure sufficient time of loading. This chart shows the general relationship between reps and sets:

Reps Sets % of Maximum
2-3 6-12 90-95%
4-7 5-10 80-88%
8-10 4-8 75-79%
11+ 3-6 <72.5%
Relationship between reps, sets, and 1RM

Individualize The Number of Sets

It’s also important to individualize the number of sets. There is a critical drop-off point at which fewer and fewer reps can be performed before reaching muscular failure. Powerful individuals with a high fast-twitch fiber makeup tend to reach the critical drop-off point faster. For practical purposes, once you reach a 5-7 percent drop in performance, it is time to move to another exercise or body part.

Training age also influences the 1RM continuum. Training age refers to the number of years an athlete has been participating in serious strength training. Beginners can often make excellent progress using loads in the 60 percent of maximal range. More advanced trainees generally require a minimum of intensity of 75 percent of the 1RM to achieve changes in strength.

Adjust Sets To Avoid Overtraining

The number of sets is the key loading norm in controlling overtraining. If you have not fully recovered from a workout, first cut back on the number of sets, not the intensity. This ties into the theory of the critical drop-off point. The premise of the critical drop-off point is that you shouldn’t increase quantity of stimulus at the expense of quality. It is pointless to do sets in which the resistance is lowered so much that

a) sufficient tension is not put on the muscle to elicit strength gains, and

b) motor units of a lower threshold are trained.

These additional garbage sets would impede recovery by putting excessive strain on the nervous system and energy stores.

Final Words

Although living in the information age has its benefits, one drawback is that we are often overwhelmed with conflicting ideas that make it difficult for us to separate facts from fallacies. Going back to basics is the best way to ensure you reach your genetic potential. Understanding how to program reps, sets, and loads lays the groundwork for you to achieve your goals. Learn more from our book Modern Trends in Strength Training.


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