There seems to be some confusion on how to perform a proper rep, or for that matter, how many reps to perform. Some people claim that 5 reps is all you need to do per set while others say that 12-15 is ideal. As with most things, blanket statements like these tend to not consider the goals of individual people, so I will go into detail here about what different rep ranges actually do and how to perform each rep properly.
To make this easier, I am going to put different rep ranges into groups: 1-5 reps, 6-12 reps, and 13+ reps. These are just rough ranges and really depend on the tempo of the rep which I’ll get into later in the article.
The 1-5 Rep Range
This rep range is common in power-lifting because this is the rep range that is most responsible for Strength gains. Although other rep ranges might also gain strength and power, this range improves it the most.
This range puts the most demand on our nervous system and uses ATP and creatine phosphate almost exclusively for fuel. This is the reason that you tend to not get very big pumps during these workouts along with the fact that you need more rest time between sets with this rep range, about 4-5 minutes (refer to How Important is Getting a Pump). As our nervous system improves, we are able to lift heavier weights with the same amount of muscle mass. This makes our strength improve.
Why don’t we use this rep range exclusively then? Well, since this rep range is targeted towards strength, it is not ideal for hypertrophy (simply, the increase in muscle mass). It is great for making your nervous system stronger, but it does not tell the actual muscle to grow very much. This type of training also requires more rest days afterward due to the large overload of the nervous system
6-12 Rep Range
This range is most often referred to as the “hypertrophy” or muscle building range. This range taxes the nervous system, though not nearly as much as with the power rep range. This is the range that most bodybuilders are in most of the time. Also, this rep range uses ATP, creatine phosphate, and glucose as fuel. Because of the use of glucose as fuel, you should notice a nice pump from this workout, depending on how long you rest between sets (again, refer to How Important is Getting a Pump). Normally you should rest anywhere between 1.5-3 minutes, depending on your general level of anaerobic and aerobic fitness. With these workouts you should take AT LEAST 24-48 hours rest between them.
Since this range is a nice middle between strength and endurance, it is most responsible for most of the muscle mass you see on natural (read: drug-free) bodybuilders generally.
13+ Rep Range
This rep range is not as common as the 1-5 or 6-12 rep range, and you can probably see why: this range is not known for building strength nor known as the hypertrophy range. What is it good for then? Well, a few things, but the most popular are that it builds up your cardiovascular endurance the best out of any range, and it is very good at depleting muscle glycogen.
If you do these workouts right, which means very short rest periods of about a minute to no longer than 1.5 minutes, you should feel quite the burn. There may or may not be as much of a lactic acid build-up though, and this is due to the fact that since your heart rate should be higher these workouts, your body will be able to get rid of more lactic acid per second than it would have during a 6-12 rep range.
If these workouts do not build as much muscle mass (or, more technically, create more of a stimulus to create muscle), then why would you do them? One good reason is if you are on a low carb diet and want to further deplete muscle glycogen storages. This type of training is in Lyle McDonald’s Ultimate Diet 2.0, for example. Also, this type of training is similar to HIIT in the fact that it mobilizes fatty acids to be used as fuel (let’s say, in a cardio session afterwards). There are a few other reasons why you might want to perform this type of workout, but most bodybuilders stick to the 6-12 rep range and the 1-5 range.
Why Change Rep Ranges?
Why not just pick one of these rep ranges and just stick with it? Simply, because your body learns to adapt. If you only do workouts in the 6-12 rep range, your body might adapt to this stimulus and stop making progress. This is known as plateauing. While there are many, many different techniques to break through a plateau, changing your rep range is certainly a common one.
Go on to part two of this article to learn How to Perform Each Rep Correctly.