What’s the deal with rep ranges?

If you find yourself reading about optimal rep ranges, you will probably come to one conclusion: it’s messy! That’s right, it’s one of those areas where you can read so much on and in the end, still not find one conclusive answer on the matter. With rep ranges, someone will always tell you, it’s best to work in this range, others will tell you, no, you need to work in this particular range. If you want my opinion, I think no one really knows.

As it stands, there is no magical rep range that will give you all the gains you want. This is why rep range stuff is such a mind-banging topic; you just don’t know what rep range is optimal for long-term gains in size and strength. Well, maybe this topic doesn’t have to be as messy as you think. Perhaps, you have overlooked the answer digging too deep and it’s simpler than you thought it would be. If you want to know what I think, it’s simply that there is NO defined rep range. If you want to make gains in size and strength, then you need to utilize all the rep ranges that exist (hint: think, the biological law of accommodation).

What we currently know

It’s been said to death that if you want to achieve a particular weightlifting goal, you need to train within a specific rep range. If you want to focus primarily on increasing your maximum strength capacity, then you need to train within the 1-5 rep range. Likewise, if you want to focus on primarily increasing muscle size (hypertrophy), then it’s best to work in the 6-12 rep range. In most cases, you will probably hear these being named as the strength- (1-5) and hypertrophy-based (6-12) rep ranges.

“I can’t disagree with the possibility of there being strength and hypertrophy-based rep ranges”.

For the most part, I can’t disagree with the possibility of there being strength and hypertrophy-based rep ranges. Many of the studies you might come across on rep ranges certainly points towards this idea. It has been shown time and time again, that low rep range training (around 1-5) has proven optimal for increasing maximum strength output (an elevated 1RM – one rep max). Likewise, short-term resistance training in primarily the higher rep ranges (around 6-12) has been shown to produce greater positive changes in muscle size (larger muscle cross-sectional area). When further investigated, it was found that at low rep ranges, the strength improvements came predominantly through improved communication within and between the muscles themselves (more optimal force production). In terms of muscle size, the higher rep ranges tended to lead to greater elevated changes in hormones, receptors and other molecular goodies (those known to be implicated in muscle tissue synthesis). It’s not surprising then that the idea of training within defined rep ranges to achieve specific weightlifting goals really took off!

Should You Be Changing Tactics On Rep Ranges?

 When it comes to rep ranges, the general consensus is: get strong with low reps and get big with high reps. The question is, is planning your weight training in this manner optimal for long-term size and strength gains? When thinking about the long-term, it’s important to keep in mind that both the development of size and strength is needed to progress. For instance, say you focus all your time on maximum strength development. A point would be reached, where your current potential would be maxed. In other words, you have utilized your muscle to its full potential. What then? Consider then the other side of the coin. Say you focus strictly on hypertrophy training with little emphasis on optimal strength development. Since you have not developed a stronger muscle, you won’t be able to utilize a heavier weight for say, the same number of sets/reps. The only way to increase the workload to further stimulate hypertrophy, would be to further bump up the number of sets/reps performed. Eventually, this would just become too unmanageable, and you would run into all sorts of recovery and injury issues. This kind of leaves you stuck, right?

“The general consensus is: get strong with low reps and get big with high reps”.

Whichever path you follow, you will at some point during your journey, be limited by the other. Well, making a habit of regularly changing your rep ranges might just seem like a good idea! If you begin to reach a point in your training where things are slowing down, then it’s probably a good idea to start varying your rep range work. It doesn’t have to be difficult, small tweaks here and there! For instance, if you find your strength progression gradually stalling, then it’s time to start programming in some higher repetition, hypertrophy work (6+ reps). Likewise, if your size gains start to slow down, then it’s a good idea to start doing some more strength-based rep work (1-5 reps). The benefits of switching regularly between rep ranges, is that you are continuously training for both optimal size and strength gains. In the long-term, this means that you are less likely to be hindered because of lack of strength or size development.

Although it looks easy simply changing between lower rep and higher rep training, there is another important point you need to be aware of. Some of you might be looking at this and thinking right, sometimes 1-5 reps for strength and at other times, 6-12 reps for size. Sorted! Well, if only it was this easy. Even though over the years 1-5 reps has been classified as optimal strength training, and 6-12 reps as optimal size training, it doesn’t mean you actually have to rigidly stick to these two ranges. In fact, I strongly recommend you don’t fall into this trap. Say at some point during your training you are working on intensity (low rep, strength stuff). Rather than always working with 1-5 reps you can always change say, between 1-5, 1-3, 2-3, 1-2 reps etc. There is a lot of flexibility! It’s not set in stone that you have to train between 1-5 for optimal strength. Likewise, if you are in a volume block (higher rep, hypertrophy work), then it’s good to change between different ranges such as 6-12, 7-10, 9-12 etc. Exactly like with optimal strength, there is no rulebook that says you must train 6-12 reps for optimal size development.

“Making a habit of regularly changing your rep ranges might just seem like a good idea!”.

The reason I am a big fan of changing my reps so frequently like this (for both my strength and size blocks of my training) is because it helps overcome the effects of the biological law accommodation (yes, he is back, again!). If you were to always train within the same rep range, then your body would quickly catch onto this. Using the same rep range, over and over again, would eventually just stop being a potent adaptive stimulus for your body. Take first a strength-training block. Your goal is to further improve your strength capacity. Normally then you would work with just 1-5 reps, that is one range, always! The problem is, if you always use this same one range your body gets used to it. Over time, 1-5 reps become less effective for producing optimal strength. The best way would be to actually vary the number of different rep ranges you use, but still stay within the 1-5 rep region. This way, you still stay within the optimal rep range for strength training but, you are varying the rep ranges enough to overcome the effects of accommodation. You can arrange your training in the same manner for optimal size. Rather than just always training the one 6-12 rep range, you can vary the number of rep ranges you actually use within this. Even though you are no longer using just the one 6-12 rep range, you are still nonetheless remaining in the range for optimal size gains. The added advantage for you is that you also vary your training enough to overcome the whole accommodation stuff.

Rep Variation Is Key

When it comes to repetitions, there is no magical one range produces it all sort of thing. Like most things in your weightlifting, repetition ranges will need to be varied if you are looking for those optimal long-term gains in size and strength. While it’s clear that 1-5 reps seems to be an optimal strength training range and 6-12 reps an optimal size training range, they should only be used as ROUGH guides to help program your training. When it comes to making long-term gains, your focus should be on improving both your size and strength. This means, you can’t always stay in the same rep range for extended periods of time. You will have to prioritize both strength and size development to make ongoing weightlifting progress. The best way to accomplish this is to make sure you are consistently training in different rep ranges to optimally train for strength and hypertrophy.

“When it comes to repetitions, there is no magical one range produces it all sort of thing”.

It isn’t just about changing rep ranges to optimally target size and hypertrophy, but also, changing them enough when you do train for either strength of hypertrophy. This is a big overlooked consideration amongst new weightlifters. When I do my strength or hypertrophy days, no two training days will utilize the same rep ranges. One week, my strength-training day might utilize 1-5 reps. My next strength training day the following week, might utilize only 1-3 reps. Similarly with my hypertrophy days, one week I might do 6-12 reps, then the next hypertrophy session, I might do 15-20 (If I feel daring!). The important thing here is that I am varying my rep ranges enough session-to-session and week-to-week to reduce the effects of accommodation and to ensure that I am always training for strength and hypertrophy optimally. From my experience, many new weightlifters have a habit of sticking rigidly with a few defined rep ranges and never changing them. The good thing is, there is no single optimal rep range for everything, which means you can go crazy! In fact, the crazier, the better your gains will be. So if you were to ask me, what rep range should I be using? I would say to you every time; you should change as often as possible and experiment with all sorts of rep ranges. In the long-term, you will probably find yourself stalling far less and making more size and strength gains. I know I did!

If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. What repetition ranges do you usually use? Fancy a change, but don’t know what the best tactic is? Let me know!