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Rep Range Rundown [Heavy Lifts vs. High Reps]

    optimal rep ranges for strength training

    Strength training is gaining traction as a pivotal strategy for disease management and promoting longevity. This surge in interest is fueled by a growing body of evidence highlighting the profound impact of resistance exercise on preserving vitality, controlling chronic conditions, fostering healthy aging, and maintaining functional independence. 

    If you’re on a quest to begin strength training, you may be interested to know that there are several options. In this article, I’ll explain the pros and cons of using heavy weights a few times vs. lighter weights many times and why alternating both strategies is the most well-rounded approach.

    Will strength training make me bulky?

    One of the most unfortunate objections to lifting weights is the fear of gaining weight or becoming bulky. This misconception is based on observing bodybuilders intentionally increasing mass and size. The key word there is intentional. Gaining significant muscle bulk involves eating an extraordinary amount of calories alongside grueling weight-lifting sessions 4-5 days/week. 

    Strength training 2-3 days/week while mindful of calorie intake is an incredible way to become leaner by losing body fat. More importantly, consistent strength training is a KEY component to building and maintaining a healthy mind and body.

    Getting Shredded vs. Getting Stronger

    Resistance training stimulates an adaptive response to build, strengthen, and define muscles. Some exercises are more conducive to becoming stronger, while others have a slight advantage, favoring the aesthetics of a chiseled physique.

    Training for peak strength involves compound lifts (using multiple muscle groups, e.g., squats) and lifting heavy weights relatively few times. Enhancing muscle growth for aesthetic purposes entails more isolation exercises (isolating a single muscle, e.g., biceps curls) while using a moderate amount of weight in a higher rep range.

    Incorporating both strength and sculpting exercises is the ultimate strategy for the most comprehensive approach. For example, periodization is often used to cycle through endurance training -> muscle building -> strength training. This cycle could repeat every 6-12 weeks. Another approach is to begin a session with strength training consisting of compound movements with heavy weights and ending the workout with isolation exercises and lighter weights. 

    What Are Reps and Sets?

    Strength sessions are outlined in reps and sets. For example, 5 sets of 10 squats mean doing 10 squats and then taking a break. That would be the first set of 10. You would then repeat that 4 more times for a total of 5 sets.

    Repetitions (Reps) are the number of times a weight is lifted consecutively without taking a break. For example, 12 reps means lifting a weight 12 times in a row. 

    Sets are groups of reps with a break in between.

    During strength training, breaks between sets are critical so that you can give your all on the next set. 

    What is The Optimal Rep Range for Strength Training?

    Here is a breakdown of the optimal number of reps depending on goals. However, keep in mind that the weight must be significant enough to feel somewhat challenging. Dialing in the correct amount of weight is crucial to create an adaptive response. Near failure is recommended, which means lifting close to the maximal amount you would have been capable of for that particular weight and rep range.

    A second key point is that these numbers could be slightly debatable. For example, some resources may say the optimal range for hypertrophy is 6-12 instead of 8-15. The following is a general guide to help you better understand the differences between using lighter and heavier weights.

    Rep ranges above 30

    If you can lift a weight more than 30 times, it’s too light to create an adaptation response that will effectively stimulate meaningful muscle growth or strength. If your goal is to maintain some of your current muscle, something is better than nothing, so this range could have some value for maintenance. However, there is a strong argument that you may as well find something heavier to save time and get better results. Also, if you’re wondering why they lift light weights more than 30 times in HIIT classes, it’s because high volume is excellent for cardio or even zone 2 training. However, this article is about strength training, and lifting light weights more than 30 times is not practical for getting stronger.

    Rep ranges 15-30

    Reps of 15-30 are typically considered high volume and involve lifting a very manageable weight a lot of times. A massive benefit of this range is that there are relatively low joint forces, making this a great rep range for managing injuries and rehabilitation. This higher rep range is also preferred for toning, defining, and enhancing the endurance of existing muscles. However, the higher end of this range is not optimal for adding muscle or gaining strength.

    Rep ranges 8-15

    8-15 reps is THE sweet spot for developing increased muscle growth (hypertrophy). In addition to gaining lean muscle, this range is suitable for developing a decent amount of newfound strength. The loads in this range are typically considered safe and low stress on joints. However, if you have an injury, be aware and proceed with caution while using the slightly heavier weights. Consider heavier weights in lower rep ranges if you want to increase your strength significantly.

    Rep ranges 4-8

    Reps of 4-8 are ideal for developing tremendous additional strength by increasing neural and muscular adaptations. You’ll need to increase the weights in this range, perhaps a bit out of your comfort zone. Although this range will get you significantly stronger, it’s also where injuries can begin to occur. As loads become heavier, stresses on joints become greater. Be mindful of form, and do not push through pain. If inexperienced, using a trainer when lifting heavy weights is recommended. 

    Rep ranges 2-3

    Rep ranges of 2-3 require using near-maximal weight. This high-weight and low-rep range helps you develop peak strength by allowing you to feel and become accustomed to an ultra-heavy load. This range is necessary to become as strong as you possibly can. However, it’s not optimal for developing or toning lean muscle. Finally, due to the heavy weights required, this rep range places unnecessary stress on joints and increases the risk of injury. Working out in this rep range should be done cautiously and with adequate training beforehand. 

    Rep range of 1

    This is when you lift your maximum amount of weight just once. The only time it’s recommended to lift as heavy as possible one time is to measure your maximal strength. For example, some people enjoy knowing if they’re making continuous strength gains over time. A one-rep max is the best way to measure your absolute strength. However, the risk of injury is high in untrained lifters. Also, there are little to no health benefits, and this range does not promote longevity. 

    How Hard You Should Push Yourself

    Strength training involves a lot of honesty within yourself. Lifting too light may be a waste of time, offering no real reward. However, lifting too heavy comes with an increased risk of injury. 

    Finding the sweet spot of training safely while making gains involves getting close to failure while being mindful of injuries. During the lift, you should feel tension or a burn in targeted muscles without joint pain. After a set, you should feel a pump, soreness, or weakness within the muscle without lingering aches or pains. Here are some ideas that help guide how hard to push during strength training.

    The rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) 

    RPE is a subjective measure of how challenged you feel by a particular exercise. 

    • 1 would be minimal to no exertion, “I would get bored before I got exhausted.” 
    • 5 Would be moderately challenging, “I could sustain this for a while without too much of a challenge.”
    • 10 being maximal effort, “that took every ounce of energy I had and couldn’t have done one more.”

    How hard you push may change daily, depending on how you’re feeling. Aiming for around a 7 is usually sufficient. If you’re respecting an injury, it may be more of a 5-6. However, if you feel strong and want to maximize your efforts, you may push towards 8, 9, or even 10. 

    Reps in Reserve (RIR)

    RIR is another measure in which you estimate how many more reps you would have been able to get had you pushed yourself to the absolute max. For example, if you lift a particular weight 10 times but afterward feel like you could have lifted it 3 more times, you will have 3 RIR. If you perform a set with 100% effort and there is no way you would have been able to lift it again, you would have 0 RIR.

    A good rule of thumb for RIR is around 1-3. Again, if safety is the main priority, the target should be 3-4 RIR. However, if strength and muscle gains are your priority, aim for 0-1 RIR.

    Both are subjective, and your ability to estimate them accurately will improve with a consistent routine. The ultimate goal is to be in tune with your body and capable of adapting your workouts to how you’re feeling each day. Avoid unintentionally cheating yourself by periodically pushing 90-100%, especially on your good days, so that you discover what you’re truly capable of. 

    A Final Suggestion

    Nothing is as powerful as consistency when it comes to strength training. The adaptations and physiological responses take time. Prioritizing a routine and making it a habit is the path to ultimate success. Think of training similar to investing. Some days, you may only put in nickels and dimes; others may be $10 and $20s. Just keep the momentum!

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