How many reps should I do?

When talking about different rep/sets setups people can get kind of hostile and defensive. Many swear by their method and insist that all others are not gaining “real strength…” whatever that is. In reality all of these methods have their place and which is best entirely depends upon your goals. Let’s start with some possible applications in order from highest amount of reps to lowest:

FYI: (1RM = 1 Rep Max = The most weight you could possibly move once, properly)

Functional Movement Training (15 – 18 reps at 40 – 55% 1RM)

This is where we want to do the 15+ reps kind of sets. We’re not focused on muscle development for strength or muscle size sake. This is the kind of exercise where we are just trying to learn how to perform the movement under a light load correctly. This rep range is great for those needing to rehabilitate a specific muscle or trying to improve their range of motion at a specific joint. Even if you perceive yourself above this rep range in your training regimen remember that even if you’re bench pressing 2x your weight and then some, if you can’t lift your arm above your head then you’ve got limited range of motion and you need to work on that. 

For anyone that has not exercised in a long time (or never at all) I suggest starting in this rep range but without any weight. Many exercises we perform under load in the gym mirror actions we perform in real life and mastery over the exercises in their full range of motion allows for safe practice in and out of the gym. Training without weight may seem ridiculous to some but it’s important to know that you possess the ability to bend down and pick up a PVC pipe safely multiple times before your ego barges in and your doing deadlifts with a loaded barbell and a rounded spine (trust me on experience here).

Every 5-6 weeks I take an easy week, during which I perform all of my normal exercises in this range. The purpose is retraining, it is easy to sacrifice full range of motion on squats, bench press, deadlifts, pullups, etc… for the sake of adding more weight (I’m just as guilty as the next guy but I’m working on it). This easy week reminds me what full range of motion looks like and usually serves well to take my ego out of the equation.  

Muscular Endurance Training (10 – 15 reps at 60 – 65% 1RM)

This is that 10 – 15 reps per set range with 60-65% 1RM, these kind of high rep ranges have been shown to effectively increase relative endurance.  The method of progression is easy enough, if you can do 15 reps increase weight and if you can’t do 10 then decrease it. The purpose of muscular endurance training is to increase your muscles capacity for sustaining work over a long period of time. This type of training is not focused on increasing muscle size or strength (although both will occur to a small degree). 10-15 rep training is recommended for activities that require prolonged contraction of muscles such as rock climbing, gymnastics, running, swimming, etc. (Note: Muscular endurance is not that same as cardiovascular endurance but shares some overlap).  

 While muscular endurance training is great on its own it is usually coupled with another training style to optimize improvement for the athlete: runners have been known to incorporate heavy squatting to increase their overall speed, rock climbers include some weighted pull ups to strengthen their back and heavy deadlifts to strengthen their grip and overall body. The simplest method I’ve seen for including some muscular endurance sets is to begin with heavy sets and then shift to the endurance sets. Here is an example of a back day with a combination of muscular strength and endurance training:

Deadlifts 355lbs x 4 (4 – 6 reps) 

Weighted Pullups x 3 (4 – 6 reps)

Bent over row x 2 (10 – 15 reps)

Note that I only performed 2 endurance sets, and honestly could have gotten away with one. With such a high number of reps it is important not to overwork yourself.  

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy (8 – 12 reps at 70 – 75% 1RM)

“Pump” Training as it is sometimes called, the 8 – 12 rep range is considered a bodybuilding favorite. It is good to point out that since this rep range falls between the range of strength and endurance training that bodybuilders typically have a considerable amount of both (American Council on Exercise). I think calling this type of training “Pump Training” is giving it a bit of a bad rap, making it seem like those who engage in it are just in it for the allure of seeing their muscles momentarily swollen. While there has not been many studies on the differentiation of hypertrophy I did find one worth reading.

The nickname comes from the fact that the 8 – 12 rep range seems to be optimal for making muscles engorge themselves with blood and although this temporary pump does dissipate it does cause an overall increase in muscle size by increasing the amount of fluid the muscle can contain. This is the popular explanation for why some guys may have very large muscles but do not seem to have an overabundance of strength. Despite its somewhat vain reputation sarcoplasmic hypertrophy training is excellent for those seeking to engage in body building or overall body transformations. This kind of training lends itself well to beginners as well as advanced weightlifters.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy (4 – 6 reps at 80-90% 1RM)

The 4 – 6 rep range, known as the myofibrillar hypertrophy range, is a strength training range with some bodybuilding-esque perks (strength and buffness). As opposed to gaining larger muscles by engorging the muscles with blood, this method seeks to increase the overall density and thickness of the myofibrils of skeletal muscle. The sheer size increase may not be the same as that yielded from sacroplasmic hypertrophy training but the overall strength increase tends to be greater. This strength increase is due to very dense muscle fibers and greater motor neuron integration into muscle tissue.  

This is a great intermediate level for progression, if you can perform 6 reps correctly then increase weight, decrease if you can’t hit 4 reps. It’s a very simple and straight forward method, however since it is so focused on heavy weights it is important to take a recovery or deload week ever 3-5 weeks to avoid overtraining.

This is the current training method I employ the most. What I have found is that you simply cannot perform much more than 10 – 12 working sets in a given workout so it is important to prioritize heavy compound lifts. With this method I find myself only performing 2-4 different exercises per workout. It is also worth pointing out that there are 2-4 warm up sets to start each workout to avoid injury.  

Power Training (1-5 reps at 85 – 95% 1RM)

This one’s for the powerhouses, the big guys, the human locomotives… Not going to lie, haven’t played around with some straight up power training much, I have read 5/3/1 and if you’re interested in power lifting I suggest you read it. That being said I’ll try my best to explain the benefits.    

With power training it’s not just about making a muscle group do a particular job, you’re whole body works to accomplish that lift, the squat and deadlift truly become whole body exercises. Power lifters don’t just have very large muscles attached to their bones, those muscles are also more innervated than the typical human beings. Overall power training doesn’t just lead to greater output per lift, but greater output per cubic centimeter of muscle tissue.  

Some modified power training programs are popular because they allow for great results in performance for minimal time spent in a gym (again check out: 5/3/1 or Starting Strength). This kind of training needs to be done safely, that is a lot of weight going onto the bar and you need to be sure you have a spotter(s) to bail you out if need be. With that said, I will be venturing into some power lifting territory soon here and will be sure to write more in-depth on that experience. 

The takeaway

So there is no clear cut winner here… Each rep range has its advantages and disadvantages.  Functional movement training is great for improving mobility, rehabilitation and a safe method to learn new exercises. Muscular endurance training is a must if you’re performing in any sport that will require extended bouts of muscle activity, personally I don’t like to do this training alone and I will couple it with myofibrillar hypertrophy training when preparing for some event.  Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an excellent middle ground between strength, endurance and aesthetic goals. And the low rep methods are great for increasing absolute strength.  In order to effectively reach your goals without treading water it is important to be educated on what rep ranges are appropriate.