You’ve almost certainly seem them, maybe you’ve even committed it to memory. Rep range charts are to lifting weights as cooking temperature charts are to grilling. If you’ve never seen one, allow me to be your first:
Maybe yours has slightly different reps, or is represented by a spectrum with some overlap, but the general idea remains as similar as it is misleading. Low reps for strength, high reps for muscle, conditioning, or no results depending on who you ask.
This chart, as a heuristic, is not without value. If this is the first time you’re seeing it, you’re probably learning something useful today. Low reps with heavy weight tends to increase adaptation to maximal strength, and higher reps with necessarily lighter weight results in more hypertrophy as a result of stimulating the mechanisms for muscular hypertrophy.
Looked at from the logical conclusion, doing 20-rep sets of squats or deadlifts is never going to allow you to realize your potential 1-rep maximum.
Likewise, only lifting heavy singles is never going to allow you to realize your maximum muscular potential.
But memorizing this chart that is intended to be a heuristic can be incredibly misleading!
It can lead someone whose primary goal is strength development to never wander past the 5th rep.
And it can lead someone who wants to get swolerjacked to never approach their maximal weight limits.
So the question is what you should do instead?
Do ALL of the rep ranges, some of the time.
The reason for varying your rep ranges is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts, or one plus one equals three.
- Maximum strength potential can’t be achieved without maximizing the physical size of the levers acting on the muscle. All else being equal a bigger muscle is stronger than a smaller one. This can not be achieved by training only low repetitions for “strength”.
- Maximum hypertrophy potential can’t be achieved without eventually moving bigger weights to increase mechanical tension. Only lifting for “hypertrophy” by keeping reps high and weights low will eventually put a ceiling on your strength.
- Bone is probably best encouraged to remodel and increase in density through heavy loading.
- Softer tissues like tendons and ligaments are probably best remodeled by higher-rep training.
- While even just a few high-load singles or doubles of a large compound movement like squat, deadlift, or bench press may fatigue you enough that further productive training of those movements is impossible, high-rep training of pieces of the whole is almost always still possible.
- High-rep training in exclusivity fails to prepare you in myriad ways (due to SAID principle) to handle loads at or near your maximum potential. In other words, you specifically adapt to what you do, so if you never work near your limit, you can’t work near your limit.
- Finally, in terms of scope and breadth function – which I am always trying to optimize – training at both ends of the spectrum gives you the widest range of function.
Each of these ends of the spectrum, taken alone, may be beneficial. But together they form Voltron.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that the single fastest way to jump start someone’s flatlined progress, if they have always been training in a particular rep range, is to change it up. A perennial 5-3-1 lifter can start making almost astonishing gains when they start including 8, 12, and 20 rep sets.
Which will inevitably bring up the idea in some people’s minds that you can’t do high rep, or 20-rep sets of deadlifts.
This is nonsense.
One of the things that helped me build an indomitable deadlift (and back) was doing outrageous feats of volume in the deadlift. Workouts of 100 reps, or sets of 20 were not at all uncommon (although I’ll note that over all my training my deadlift average reps per set is 5.9). In 2014 at Juggernaut’s BUS3 Brandon Lily told me that one of the things that helped him build his deadlift is the “stupid shit” they would do with it. Sets on the minute, high rep sets, etc. In other words, lots of volume, lots of density, and lots of variability.
All of this to say, sometimes do a lot of reps, sometimes do one rep.