Manipulating Reps for Gains in Size and Strength

One of the most crucial factors in designing an effective exercise program is choosing the right number of repetitions. While sets, tempo, and specific exercises are important, the number of reps you do can make or break your progress in strength, size, and endurance.

The amount of weight you lift determines the tension on your muscles, and how long that tension is maintained influences your muscle’s response. Subtle manipulations in rep ranges can mean the difference between getting stronger, bigger, or more enduring muscles. Using the wrong rep range, however, can make your workout ineffective.

Here’s a guide to help high school and college athletes make the most out of their training by understanding how to manipulate reps for optimal gains.

Key Principles for Rep Ranges

  1. Reps Dictate Training Effect The number of reps you perform influences the training effect. Lifting heavier weights with fewer reps builds strength, while doing more reps with moderate weights builds muscle size. Generally, sets under 20 seconds of tension build strength, while those between 40 to 60 seconds build muscle.
  2. Maximal Voluntary Contractions (MVCs) To build size and strength, it’s essential to use MVCs, which means recruiting as many motor units as possible. This doesn’t always mean lifting your one-rep max (1RM); it can also be the last rep of a 5 or 6RM set where you can’t do another rep. MVCs are crucial for neural adaptations and increasing strength.
  3. Training Intensity for Strength To develop maximal strength, use weights between 70-100% of your 1RM. Generally, this means doing 1-12 reps. Anything below 70% is typically for endurance, but beginners and women can often make progress with lighter weights.
  4. Training Age and Rep Ranges As you gain more experience in weight training, the number of reps you can do at a certain percentage of your 1RM decreases. For example, a beginner might do 20 reps at 75% of their max, but an experienced lifter might only do 4 reps at the same percentage. Adjust your training accordingly.
  5. Different Muscle Groups, Different Reps Different muscles respond to different rep ranges. For example, the bench press might be effective at 70% of max for 12 reps, but a leg curl might only be effective at 57% for the same reps. Pay attention to how different exercises feel and adjust reps accordingly.
  6. Adaptation to Reps Your body quickly adapts to a specific number of reps, often within six workouts. Change your rep range regularly to keep progressing. For example, start with 4 sets of 6-8 reps for two workouts, then move to 5 sets of 5-7 reps, and so on.
  7. Specificity for Advanced Athletes Advanced athletes need to pay attention to the specificity of contraction force. Low reps (1-5) with heavy loads build strength with minimal size gains, while mid-reps (6-12) build both strength and size. High reps (12+) are for endurance.
  8. Don’t Overuse Low Reps While low reps (1-2) are great for strength, using them too frequently can lead to stagnation. Mix in different rep ranges to avoid plateaus.
  9. Muscle-Specific Rep Ranges Each muscle group responds best to a specific rep range. For example, the elbow flexors (biceps) might respond best to 2-5 reps per set, while triceps might need fewer reps for optimal gains.
  10. Function Dictates Reps The function of a muscle can dictate the best rep range. For instance, hamstrings, which are used for explosive tasks, may not respond well to high reps, while quads, used for maintaining posture, might benefit from higher reps.
  11. Vary Upper Body Reps More Upper body exercises benefit more from varying reps compared to lower body exercises. For example, change up the reps for bench press more frequently than for squats.
  12. High-Reps for Capillary Density High-rep sets (20+) can increase capillary density, which can lead to muscle growth when you return to traditional rep ranges. This is particularly effective for quads, deltoids, and lats.
  13. Exercise-Specific Rep Effects Different exercises for the same muscle group can have different effects. For instance, squats are more effective for overall leg strength, while leg presses might be better for quad hypertrophy.

Implementing Rep Manipulations

Using these principles, you can design effective training programs to maximize your gains. Here’s a simple example to illustrate:

Example Progression:

  • Workouts 1-2: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Workouts 3-4: 5 sets of 5-7 reps
  • Workouts 5-6: 5 sets of 4-6 reps

By understanding and manipulating reps, you can tailor your training to meet your specific goals, whether it’s increasing strength, size, or endurance. Keep experimenting and adjusting your rep ranges to continue making progress and achieving your athletic goals.