This article was inspired by something Greg Nuckols wrote a while back. I cannot remember the name of the article but, he mentioned how there wasn’t a perfect rep range for muscle gain. He also explained that different exercises lend themselves better to certain rep ranges. I couldn’t agree more.
In my Muscle Specific Training series, I went in-depth about how different muscles respond better or worse to different rep ranges, training volume and frequencies. Well, exercises are the same in that, some respond better to lower rep ranges &/or frequencies while others can be trained for high reps &/or almost daily.
So here is a little insight into how I think certain exercises should be programmed when it comes to reps per set.
Squats & Deadlifts:
Exercises like squats and deadlifts have a high technical demand. Consequently, there is a high risk of form breakdown. Doing high rep sets of squats or deads can be extremely metabolically demanding and cause huge amounts of fatigue.
A high level of technical demand and massive amounts of fatigue are not a good combo (CrossFit take note!)
As such, keeping reps lower (6-10 for squats, 3-8 for deadlifts – for really tall guys I’d drop this to 4-8 and 3-6 respectively), and doing a high number of sets while stopping sets 2-3 reps short of failure is where you should spend most of your time on these exercises. Doing so will provide a great stimulus for hypertrophy through a high overall volume of work done on this brutal lifts.
Stopping shy of failure should allow you to achieve a higher overall training volume rather than taking set 1 to failure and suffering a significant drop in performance in subsequent sets.
Note. Failure for big complex highly technical lifts with higher injury risk is defined as technical failure (e.g., form breakdown). For smaller lower risk movements training to failure can be considered absolute failure. (e.g., where no more reps could be performed.)
Squatting every day has become a ‘thing’ recently. While this can work very well for Olympic lifters, some powerlifters, or even hardcore gym junkies I would suggest it is a bad idea for most. Instead for most physique driven trainees I would suggest you squat 1-2 times a week and deadlift once per week.
For rows I like a range of 6-15 reps. Now be careful if using the lower end of that scale. Often people turn heavy rows into a weird hip hinge, shrug, chest drop, bar hump combo. All of which is great for the ego BUT shitty for developing the lats and rhomboids. If doing 6 reps I would suggest you keep them strict and pause them at peak contraction for a second or two.
I have seen the best results training rows twice per week. On one day a little heavier and one a little lighter. So for example, sets of 6-8 on a Monday and then 12-15 on a Thursday.
Pull-ups &/or Chin-Ups:
I suggest 5-12 reps. This will of course depend upon your strength levels. I tend to prefer getting someone to the upper end of this range before adding external load (e.g., a plate with a dipping belt). Often times going too heavy with added weight turns an awesome back exercise into a crappy biceps one. If you can get to 12 strict reps, then good things will happen to your physique.
You can make progress on pull-ups or chin-ups training them once per week OR every day. Deciding where along that continuum you fall will depend on your exact goals.
Want to get better at pull-ups or chin-ups? Then a higher training frequency where you leave a few reps in the tank on each set is a good idea.
Want to build a massive back and just using these exercises as a tool to get there? Then 1-2 times a week going close or to failure is a great option.
4-8 for the big lifts like bench and military press. If using DBs I would suggest you go more like 8-15 reps.
DBs are inherently unstable and so going too heavy is a case of risk outweighing reward. Especially if you have to waste a lot of energy getting the DBs into position. (PS if your spotter has to lift the DBs on rep 1 for you to get things moving you messed up!).
Any higher than 12-15 reps on a regular basis and I think you will be limited by the fatigue accumulated. The pec and triceps are primarily fast twitch and as such, should be trained accordingly.
Training pressing variations twice a week is excellent for building muscle. Alternatively, hitting the same muscle with do different variations (e.g., bench & incline DB bench) can also work exceptionally for muscle gain.
Conversely, if you really want to bring up your strength in a specific pressing exercise. For example, a powerlifter bringing up their bench press then training it more frequently is your best bet. In this case twice a 2-3 times a week works very well for strength gains.
Uni-lateral Lower Body:
Much like using DBs for the upper body uni-lateral exercises are unstable and balance can be an issue. As such, going lighter and bumping the reps higher makes sense. I would suggest the same rule of thumb as DB pressing variations of 8-15 reps. I would go further and say that 80% of the time you should be doing 10+ reps.
Doing split squats in the fashion I have seen John Meadows can help with balance. In this version you hold one DB on one side and use the other arm to balance yourself against a squat rack. This really helps with stability and allows you to focus on trashing the quads. Even though you are more stable in this version I wouldn’t go lower than 8 reps. There are simply better choices for getting your heavy work in.
Putting these towards the end of your lower body days is my preference. In most cases I have people train legs twice per week so doing these twice a week fits well within that template.
10 to…. Infinity!
Ok well not infinity but, these are the exercises where you can really push the reps high. These type of exercises are great for metabolic training so doing sets of 20+ is perfectly fine if that is the goal. You will also get an awesome pump doing high rep sets on these.
For maximum hypertrophy I would suggest you do the bulk of your work in the 10-15 rep range with these exercises. Then, occasionally, really get after it and chase the benefits of metabolic training by doing sets around the 20 rep mark with only short rest periods (e.g., 30s). It’ll burn and the pump is insane but, for brief periods of time it works brilliantly as a stimulus for muscle size.
What is a good ratio of time spent in these rep ranges?
I’d say do two blocks (approximately 4 weeks per block) in the 10-15 range. Then a block at 20 reps per set before, transitioning into a low volume phase.
|Volume Phase 1 – Weeks 1 – 4||10-12 reps|
|Volume Phase 2 – Weeks 5-8||12-15 reps|
|Volume Phase 3 (Metabolite Training) – Weeks 9-12||20 reps|
|Low Volume Phase 1 – Weeks 13-16||6-10 reps|