Understanding Rep Ranges
When it comes to rep ranges there are a ton of inaccurate claims being made every day in various forms of fitness media. Many self proclaimed gurus and even popular magazines will make false claims about why you should or shouldn’t train in a given rep range. Things like “8-12 reps builds the most muscle” are common claims that aren’t based in any real science. The truth is that for muscle hypertrophy, rep range is unimportant. You can build muscle in any rep range, which allows much more freedom when designing a routine that is not only efficient, but enjoyable.
All Rep Ranges Build Muscle
It is a common misconception that in order to build muscle you have to train with a certain amount of repetitions per set. The truth is, when controlling for total amount of sets, all rep ranges will build relatively the same amount of muscle, provided the sets are taken at least 3 reps from failure. Put more simply, total amount of sets is a better predictor of muscle hypertrophy than any other factor, including rep range. So performing 5 sets of 15 will build the same amount of muscle as 5 sets of 5, provided all sets are taken near 2-3 reps from failure. This allows you to train in a wide range of rep ranges without having to worry about missing out on hypertrophy.
Strength & Endurance ARE Tied to Rep Range
While muscle hypertrophy is not tied to rep range, strength and endurance are. Working with heavier loads closer to your one rep max will produce superior strength gains than working with lighter loads, and working with lighter loads such as 12+ reps will produce superior muscle endurance than working with heavier loads. Working in the mid range will produce both some strength and endurance gains but at a lower rate than training at the extreme end of things.
So Why Not Always Train Heavy
You may now be wondering that since all rep ranges build the same amount of muscle, but training heavier also provides superior strength gains, why not simply always train heavy and do a lot of sets to build muscle AND strength? The simple answer is because this isn’t a practical way to train and is not sustainable. Heavier loads will produce more overall training fatigue. This means that performing 5 sets of 3 with a very heavy load will be much more taxing on your body than performing 5 sets of 12. Because of this added fatigue, you won’t be able to consistently accumulate a lot of total work per week if every set is trained with very heavy loads, as your progress would begin stalling due to being unable to recover between workouts.
Because of this, it is a good idea to train in a variety of rep ranges. If your goal is to build muscle and/or get stronger, you’ll want to utilize multiple rep ranges. You’ll want the heavier loads to elicit faster strength progress, while using the lighter loads because they are more sustainable and will allow you to perform more sets without a lot of fatigue accumulation.
Heavy Rep Range (1-5 Reps)
The 1-5 rep range will be optimal for strength progression. By training in this rep range you will be able to gain strength at a much faster rate than if you were to train lighter. However, the downside to this rep range is that it causes the most amount of training fatigue when total sets are controlled for. In other words, 5 sets of this rep range will produce more total fatigue than 5 sets of a lighter rep range. Because of this, total amount of sets done in this rep range should be lower than the lighter rep ranges in order to facilitate proper recovery.
Moderate Rep Range (6-10)
This rep range is probably the sweet spot for being able to get in a good amount of volume without building up a ton of training fatigue while also building a decent amount of muscle, strength and endurance. However, it's a jack of all trades and will of course build less strength than the heavier rep ranges and less endurance than the higher rep ranges, but of course the same amount of hypertrophy per set. This rep range is a great range to train in for the majority of your training if your goal is to build a strong and muscular physique.
Light Rep Range (10-15+)
This rep range is ideal for building muscular endurance and will also cause relatively little training fatigue, however it will build strength very slowly. If you are already training in the strength rep ranges to make sure your bases are covered for strength progression, you could train in this rep range to get in more quality volume to build more muscle with minimal training fatigue accumulation. Depending on how important strength is to you, you may or may not want to use this rep range more often than the moderate rep range; if strength is a high priority, training in the moderate rep ranges will elicit slightly better strength gains than this rep range.
So if your goal is to do as many sets as possible in order to maximize muscle hypertrophy, but you also want to get stronger, you’ll need to split up your total weekly sets between your strength work in order to elicit strength gains, and then lighter loads so that you can continue to perform more total sets without the large amount of fatigue caused by going heavy.
For example, if I wanted to do 20 sets per week on a given lift, there’s no way I could do 20 high intensity/heavy sets without running into recovery issues. However, if I split that up into 10 heavy sets and 10 lighter sets, recovery would be much more manageable and muscle hypertrophy would be the same.