Reg Ranges are BS...Usually
Today its big science time, you can tell from this highly-detailed graph:
We’re discussing the importance of rep ranges and other key factors on gains. We’re going to break down the real simple science of how to weight train effectively while simultaneously cutting through the nonsense you’ll see on the interwebs.
Buckle up, because it’s about to get science-y (but in a fun way, like back to the future).
Common misconceptions: Myth-Busting for Better Evidence-Based Training
Before we get into the actual science of muscular growth and improving the efficiency and benefits of your training, we’re going to REK some of the broscience myths that persist. These are the kinds of things that you’ll hear in gyms all over the world that have no basis:
- More reps does not equal more gains
- Going to failure probably isn’t the best idea unless you’re ready to recover or you’re using a small muscle group
- 8-12 reps is not the holy grail of anything, it just tends to produce a sick pump
- Strength and size are almost always related, and can’t be separated
- You don’t need a pump to make gains
Now those are out of the way, we’ll be a bit more constructive and explain what does matter, why, and how to leverage it to improve your results in training.
1. The trade-off: muscle-growth vs muscle damage
This is absolutely crucial. It’s not just about the muscle growth you can cause, it’s about the cost of that change in muscle damage.
Muscle damage is inevitable when you train – though it’s not the actual cause of muscle growth. It’s a side-effect of training with the intensity and repetitions you need to experience mechanical tension – which drives muscle growth.
The best results come from a simple principle: maximise muscle growth while minimising muscle damage.
The ratio of muscle growth to muscle damage, as an approximation, is how we figure out which exercises are better than others. You can’t make serious gains while you’re damaged and you need to keep your muscles/joints healthy, so it’s key to balance these up.
This is how we differentiate between higher and lower reps when they produce similar muscle growth…
2. Reps: high and low produce similar results with difference costs
As it turns out, the vast majority of studies on the subject suggest that muscle growth between high and low rep training are relatively similar. They’re not drastically different, though they have different demands and effects.
Why does this matter? Does it mean that every type of training is exactly as valuable as the next?
This is where we return to the principle we just mentioned: the cost of each style of training is different – across a variety of metrics:
- Time: higher rep sets take longer and have only been shown to produce the same results – not better. This means you’re spending more time on the same results.
- Muscle damage: across a 20-rep set, you’re not going to produce muscle growth stimulus with every rep. Rather, you’re going to have ‘junk reps’ that may train muscular endurance but are contributing to greater muscle damage.
- Joint and tendon impact: performing reps to failure is a common factor in degradation of tendons and joint-cushioning tissues. Stay within reasonable rep and weight ranges to strengthen passive structures (like tendons) and ensure long-term health.
- Fatigue: adding additional nervous and muscular fatigue to your training is a bad way of feeling worse – including boosted muscle soreness – for no real benefit. You should avoid this wherever possible.
These are key factors in why training works on opportunity cost: everything you do is instead of something else, and it is often costly to your overall progress.
The ability to save time, energy levels, and reduce recovery-burden all add up. The best gains come from training as often as you can recover from – this means good training and making recovery easy (by reducing muscle damage).
3. Intensity threshold
On top of a limit to the value of high-rep training due to its effects on the health and future-use of muscles, there are some indications that it struggles off the blocks as a concept.
There is value to heavy weight. That can’t be avoided – it’s a key aspect of the muscle-building process. This doesn’t mean you need to be training at maximal weights, but there is a certain level under which you won’t make significant, meaningful muscular change.
The problem is that light weights will not produce significant muscular growth until you’re already tired, when fatigue forces metabolic change and repeated tension effects.
The problem is that this comes at a huge cost of junk-reps, which damage the muscle without producing significant beneficial stimulus.
Stay above the intensity threshold: the best training session is one that gets the most stimulus from the least possible reps. This means that you should be working with weights that are challenging from the first rep and stopping just shy of failure.
The point is to accumulate “stimulating reps” – a relatively vague concept but one that you’ll have felt before. Repetitions at any weight need to produce some meaningful challenge and force you to move the weight slowly but with maximum effort – you can’t artificially slow it down, your body knows.
4. Rep-ranges are less important than RPE after a certain level
Once you’ve eliminated the ridiculous rep ranges that use weights that aren’t challenging (that means the 10-20 rep range), the important aspect is keeping RPE high.
RPE is a simple measure of how hard a rep or set feels. If it is an RPE 9, it’s a rating that you had one more rep in the tank, and that it was around a 9/10 effort. The intention is to get every set to RPE 9-9.5 and stop before failure.
The value of a set is not in how high-REP it is, but how high-RPE!
Work at challenging intensities and get the most bang for your buck by using the best possible weight and technique for each exercise and set.
5. Reps aren’t everything
One of the key things to remember about repetitions is that there’s no one answer and even manipulating your rep schemes isn’t always going to be the best move.
Research continues to show that the use of a novel training movement – a new exercise or adjustment to the exercises you’re using – can provide better strength and muscle gains.
Don’t rely solely on changes to reps and sets when there are other key training factors that can be used to produce positive results. Getting stuck with a single change is an easy way to miss out on the adaptive and skill benefits of different exercises and training styles.
This doesn’t mean throwing away specificity entirely – just revising how you load your muscles. If you’re training a muscle group 3-4 times a week, you can afford to swap out 1-2 of the big exercises (such as the squat or bench press) with a variation that changes your focus and angles.
Don’t be scared, homie – you can make significant positive change by shifting gears and making small changes. If you’re locked into training or you don’t have many sessions per week, focus on variety in your assistance/accessory work instead.
Our final thoughts
Rep schemes are not a cage for your performance – you are not bound by them or some “perfect method” for producing strength. We recommend avoiding excessively high rep sets or working to failure all the time, and using weights that challenge you, but the key is implementing these changes effectively.
Stay close to the specific goals you’re trying to train. Muscle mass is mostly the result of getting in good training, recovery, nutrition, and consistently turning up month after month.
There are no secrets or shortcuts but implementing these 5 simple changes to how you deal with reps can bring serious long-term benefits.
About the Auther: Liam Rodgers:
Good coaching and good writing rely on attention to detail, forward planning, and deep knowledge of the technical aspects. As an Olympic weightlifting coach and the director of Apex sport and fitness content, Liam lives these out: he has huge enthusiasm for sports performance, nutrition, narrative and immersive, engaging writing.