Rep Ranges Revealed by Mike Westerdal of CriticalBench.com
The debate about rep ranges has probably been going on since about the time the ancient Greeks first starting training with dumbbells a couple of thousand years ago. And even after all this time, the questions remain the same: What is the best rep range to build mass? To tone muscles? To gain strength? How many reps should I be doing if my goal is just general conditioning? And yes, even though the right answers have never changed, in gyms around the globe, the debate rages on.
First, you should remember that muscle building, toning and conditioning are all based on science-there's not much to debate. There is some "fine-tuning" you can do to refine or improve your results but the underlying principles-and the results they produce-are always going to be the same. Our muscles-and everything that goes along with their function and growth-respond in predictable ways to different types of stress (lifting weights).
Although there will be some variations from one person to another due to genetics, physical condition, age, nutrition, supplementation, etc., the basic muscular response to the stress is not going to vary much from person to person. In its most basic form, muscle growth and gains in strength or condition are the result of the body's efforts to "overcompensate" for the stress of lifting weights. It's the how of the body's response that we're concerned with because we can modify that response based on the rep range/weight that we're lifting.
To keep things simple I'll break the rep ranges down into four categories: low-reps/high weight, medium-reps/somewhat high weight, normal reps/normal weight and high reps/low weight. Each of these causes a different, but consistent response to the stress of lifting the weights.
When training with high weight-from 80-100% of your one rep max-and low reps-from one to five-the muscular response is almost entirely neural. What that essentially means is that by doing high weight/ low-reps, you increase your capacity to recruit more muscle fibers-which makes you stronger-but your muscles are not necessarily going to get a lot bigger. So if your goal is to simply get stronger, then this is what you want to do.
If you reduce the weight a bit-to 75-85% of your one-rep max-and increase the number of reps to 6-8, the body responds to this stress differently. Here, the response is both neurological and metabolic. This means that you'll not only realize gains in strength, but also in size as well (hypertrophy). At this level, the response is still more neural than metabolic so your strength gains can be sizeable.
Now if you reduce the weight even a bit more-down to 70-75% of your one rep max-and then bump the number of reps up to 9-12, the body's response will be mostly metabolic and somewhat neural. This is the ideal scenario for maximum size gains. You'll gain in strength too-but the increases won't be as pronounced as in other two categories I just described.
Finally, we come to low weight/high reps. Here, you're lifting from 60-70% of your one-rep max but doing anywhere from 13-20 reps. The response to this type of lifting is almost entirely metabolic. And because it's almost entirely metabolic you'll realize gains in endurance, you'll get a little bigger (but not much) and you'll realize some gains in strength-but again, not much.
So there you have the four basic rules about rep ranges. And the thing to remember about this is that these are rules, not ideas or theories. Like I mentioned before, there will be some variation from person-to-person but the underlying response will also be the same. What you do is going to depend on your goals and what you hope to achieve.
Now regardless of which of these you choose, eventually we all hit a point of diminishing returns-what we call a plateau. All is going along well but then the gains stop. The most effective way to get past that is not by trying to "push" through it but by surprising the body and mix in something new that will cause a different reaction. So for example, if you're lifting all heavy weights/low reps, every once in a while mix in some lower weight/high rep exercises to extract a different response from your body. By doing so, you'll keep your body from getting accustomed to the same old routine and keep seeing the gains you want to see.