Whilst I believe most of you training time should be invested in the 6-12 rep range I believe there is certainly a case to be made for periods of high rep training to maximise your muscle gains.
A simple reason for this is that they allow you to achieve high training volumes whilst placing minimal stress on your joints.
There is plenty of research now showing that high-rep training (up to 30 reps per set) can build just as much muscle as low(er) rep training. With this research in mind I suggest you use a broad spectrum of rep ranges within your training plan. One of my favourite ways to program this is a reverse linear approach. In this training structure, your rep ranges increase phase to phase. For example:
Phase 1 – 6-10 reps
Phase 2 – 10-12 reps
Phase 3 – 12-15 reps
Within the higher rep phases, I often program a “top” set of around 6 reps followed by multiple “down” sets. The top set allows you to stay in touch with your strength gains, enjoy the feeling of handling some heavy weights, and even set some personal bests. The down sets allow you to train with a high volume of work and get a great pump.
The novel stimulus of going even higher than 15 reps per set can be a potent muscle builder. When it comes to training there is a lot of truth to the phrase “everything works but, nothing works forever”. Simply pushing your reps higher can force new growth. There are various potential mechanisms for this. The high levels of metabolic stress is one obvious one. The preferential activation and hypertrophy of slow twitch fibres is another. Honestly, we cannot say with certainty exactly which (or if it’s a combination, or if it’s another pathway altogether). What we can say is it works!
Note. With high-rep work it seems particularly important to go to (or very close to failure). High rep sets with lots left in the tank will not stimulate gains (well, duh!).
Anyway, the above all gives you a pretty clear reason to use high rep work (at least occasionally) to maximise muscle gain.
There is another important reason though…
Plateau busting might be over-selling it but, I believe the high-rep approach can allow you to continue to progressively overload (and quantify that progressive overload) more easily than always sticking in the 6-12 rep range.
Let’s look at a practical example to illustrate this point…
Say you’re an intermediate lifter who can perform 4 sets 10 with 80kg on the machine chest press, with the final rep of the final set being a maximal effort. A real grinder! There was no chance of you hitting an 11theven with a gun pointed to your head.
To progressively overload you might aim to hit 82.5kg for the same sets and reps next time. Or you might try to add a rep on an earlier set. It is very possible if you’ve been training a while, however, that grinding out the extra 2.5kg or extra rep at 80kg will not be possible.
This is because hitting those numbers requires a fairly significant increase in workload from one week to another.
In raw numbers, it plays out as this:
4 x 10 x 80 = 3,200kg lifted
To hit 4 x 10 @ 82.5kg = 3,300kg
That’s is about a 3% increase in total volume. This is doable, but beyond beginner’s stages is actually a pretty fast rate of progress. I remember legendary strength coach, Charles Poliquin, stating at a seminar that a rate of 2% per week should be your goal.
So, let’s say the 3% jump is achieved. The following week our example lifter would need to add another 2.5kg to keep progressing at these sets and reps. Again, this is possible but, as any seasoned lifter will tell you slapping 2.5kg on each week doesn’t work for long.
So, the alternative approach of adding a rep could be taken. Going from 10 reps to 11 reps on one of the sets. This is a 10% increase in work across the set. That’s a pretty aggressive rate of gain!
Now were we looking for an additional rep in a 20-rep set that would be a far smaller overall increase in workload. Going from 20 to 21 reps is only a 5% increase.
So, when progress is slowing and your standard hypertrophy work of 10-12 reps is starting to feel less effective you have some sound logic behind including some higher rep work might break a plateau. Not only can it potentially grow your undeveloped slow twitch fibres, increase metabolic stress (a key mechanism of hypertrophy), provide a psychological boost from novelty, and be easy on your joints, it allows for progressive overload to be achieved and measured more easily.
Given that progressive overload is an essential and underlying principle of effective training that’s a big win! So, utilise high rep training and take advantage of its benefits when you need a them to allow you to satisfy progressive overload.