Almost every fitness author has given their take on the age old debate as to whether high reps or low reps are better, and what their own preferred ‘goldilocks zone’ is.
If I were to touch on that subject I wouldn’t be beating a dead horse, I’d be excavating its carcass from deep underground and beating the fragmented remains to a pulp.
Basically: there’s a time and place for both, and what you need will both change and be relevant to where you are now, and what you want to do.
End of article. Thanks for reading.
In all seriousness the rise in popularity of powerlifting has made lower rep training fashionable, and has almost washed away the age old mantra of higher reps being flat out better, overall.
Powerlifters will hardly ever train a main lift above 5 reps and will quite often go as low as triples, doubles, singles or even all out max singles. This is the strength zone where you’re training the nervous system more than the muscle, so to speak.
Of course it’s never as cut and dry as that as you can build muscle mass from low reps, especially when the sets are high enough (5-10 x 3-5 in some cases). But the limiting factor with sets of 5 and below is always going to be neural instead of muscular.
And in many ways low rep training can be more appealing as it doesn’t burn like a motherfucker! In fact it doesn’t really burn at all – there’s simply not enough muscular contractions to get a burn, especially if the sets are capped at 3 reps!
This will appeal to the those of us who suck naturally at endurance events. The natural sprinters and jumpers among us will hate higher rep training because we just hit the biggest and thickest wall of all time past a certain number. Whereas the endurance bunnies will get into a groove and almost love the challenge of adding more and more reps to the swelling tally.
Muscle fiber type dominance?
It won’t take you too long on your physical adventure to somewhat figure out what you respond best to and like the most. This is an unscientific way of determining what muscle fiber type dominance you have. Basically, the ratio of fast twitch vs slow twitch fibers you have across your body.
Those with natural propensities to sprinting, jumping and lifting heavy loads should have more overall fast twitch fibers and those who have better endurance and can run long distance and enjoy high rep training, should have more overall slow twitch fibers.
(Short digestible physiology excerpt: fast twitch fibers are capable of high force outputs but burn out fast, thanks to them being fueled by glycogen. Slow twitch fibers are fueled by oxygen and therefore can contract repeatedly for very long periods of time.)
There’s been much written on this topic online, with some suggesting adapting your training style to align with your fiber type, could be the ticket to the seat on the gainzzzzz train you’ve been missing………
While I think there’s decent merit to that idea, I still think development of the whole spectrum is far superior. A simple way to do this is to spend most of your time training in line with your fiber type but to also dedicate phases to the other end of the spectrum. Obviously this doesn’t have to be full retard style where you get a 40 yard dash superstar to try and also boast an elite marathon time. It won’t happen.
But doing some higher rep work from time to time will not only allow the system a break from the familiar high intensities, it will make you more rounded.
Conversely, the same is true for the more endurance based people out there. More often than not this is women. I’ve worked with many girls with awe inspiring endurance but the sprinting ability of a tortoise. And whenever I’ve got them working in a lower rep, higher load zone they’ve resisted me at first and been skeptical, to then enjoy it by not just feeling the benefits but seeing them visually/aesthetically in their bodies.
Low reps – a different beast for a few reasons
I’m the fast sprinter and naturally bad long distance runner I described earlier. Before I had any experience with proper training for any substantial length of time, I found the pain from reps above say 8, worse than stubbing your little toe on a door frame at full speed.
Therefore I always liked sets of 3-8 far more. Anyhow, recently I’ve spent the last few months predominantly working on a strength building program. In classic style too – low reps (3-5), moderate to high sets (5-8) and moderate exercises (3-4).
Initially going into this I was loving the feeling of low fatigue especially off the back of finishing a very high volume program! I was strong and really went for it. I pushed my sets HARD. I got some really self satisfying numbers on many lifts. Needless to say this didn’t last though……..
Because I went so hard from the get go, I burnt out pretty quick. The true 5 RM sets caught up with me and I could only overload from workout to workout for maybe 2-3 weeks, tops. I’d take a deload week every 4th week, where I’d cut volume in half and attempt to keep (and sometimes increase) the intensity.
After what we can call the honeymoon phase, gains became slower and erratic. I’d have sessions where I’d feel great yet perform crappy and I’d have sessions where I’d feel crappy and perform surprisingly well. It was as confusing as dating the modern female in 2020.
It’s only upon all my reflection, reading, modifying and learning that I can now see the error of my ways and much of it lied in the programming and overall poor approach/execution. But this has led to my own set of rules regarding low rep training for best results………..
Rule 1 – No grinders/failure*
*With the exception of a one set peak test on the last week before a deload.
All other work must be done with appreciable bar speed. That doesn’t mean you can’t slow down a bit here and there but reps taking more than a few seconds on the lifting phase need to be banned, regardless of what your ego screams at you. You want to stop the set on the rep before the next one being a grinder. And this rule remains for all sets!
There were times where I’d grind out 8 x 3 on the overhead press where every rep was slow and sticky, yet I’d still fight on because my ego didn’t want me to lift below some arbitrary ‘threshold’ I’d cooked up in my mind.
Looking back, I deserved the erratic progress. I deserved the poor sleep and I deserved the achey joints. I’d never ever let any client of mine do that yet I allowed myself to do it. The only positive we can derive from it is I’ve fully explored and experienced the pitfalls of grinding low reps to (almost) failure.
They are but aren’t limited to:
- Erratic progress
- Aching joints across the body
- Reduced sleep quality (waking up in the night so frequently & struggling to return to sleep)
- A powerless CNS (never any ‘snap’ on anything that needed it)
- Flatter/deflated muscles & water retention (obviously lower reps will leave you less pumped but I looked smaller and felt it)
- Reduced motivation to train at all (knowing you have to summon up that much fight each time is mental abuse in itself)
Rule 2 – Low reps only on one (maybe two) exercises
I was doing low reps on all 3 or 4 movements for sets across, pushing all sets to the wall. Yep, is it any wonder I ended up hating it?
Generally you want to limit low rep (1-5) work to just 2 moves per session at the most. Obviously this is relative to the intensity you use, but if you’re using low intensity you’re defeating the purpose of low(er) reps in the first place.
(Also note: speed work can still be considered ‘intense’; as you’re trying to move relatively light weights with as much force/velocity as possible).
If you limit low rep work to 1-2 exercises along with avoiding grinding/failing reps you’ll be sitting prettier than I ever was. And this doesn’t mean you can’t do more work in the session, it just means bump the reps up and lower the intensity. Now it’s time to work more on the muscular side of things and not overtax the neural side so much.
Rule 3 – Deload with intensity AND volume
I’ve always been a fan of cutting volume in half but sustaining the intensity where possible as a deload strategy. The cool thing about this approach is it can allow you to nail some nice strength PR’s – especially where sometimes it’s just one work set you’re doing.
But I would try and PR everything where possible. So I’d get a great 3 or 5 RM personal best on the first move, use up all CNS power yet try and repeat it on the other moves. Looking back, I’d choose my battles better and hone in on one move each session to PR and then maintain the others. I think this would be far more sensible and sustainable long term.
Basically: you can’t cut the volume but crank the intensity up so high it cancels out the volume reduction. This style of training is very intensive anyway so it makes zero sense to force the intensity on what’s meant to be a recovery phase.
Rule 4 – ‘Undulate’ intensity across the week
Again, more idiocy here but training 4/5 days per week at full on intensity is asking for trouble. Irrespective of how well you space the sessions apart. I even stuck to the infamous ’72 hour rule’ or ‘5th day’ rule – in that you don’t train the same moves/bodyparts until at least 72 hours have passed but I still found it hard going to repeat previous efforts, despite a decent lifestyle overall (sleep, nutrition, stress levels etc).
Somewhat instinctively, I found myself doing lower intensity/more volume work later in the week. I now realise this is a form of ‘undulating training’ which is a popular training style with many athletes and coaches alike.
Once I started doing this I found I could drum up mini personal bests – whether it was shortening the rest between sets by 30 secs or putting a kilo or 2 on the bar in the volume session, I found ways to progress both the heavier day and the ‘lighter’ day.
Rule 5 – Have a ‘backup plan’
This rule is almost a cousin of the previous rule but there will be days where you can’t hit your projected figures on the heavy/intensity days. When this happens you need something to do as a backup; something manageable but still valuable.
A good go-to here is reducing the intensity/load by a given percentage and increasing the volume by said percentage. For example, 5 sets of 3 with 60 kg could become 4-5 sets of 4 with 55 kg. The workload is similar but the intensity is a touch lower to allow you to feel better and not overtax an already sluggish system. And from a tonnage perspective you’ve not lost anything really.
5×3 with 60 kg = 15 x 60 kg which equates to 900 kg.
5×4 with 55 kg = 20 x 55 kg which equates to 1100kg!
There’s not exact formulas but you can see how a little tweaking can allow you to work hard but not kill yourself if the stars aren’t always in alignment. If I’d have practiced this approach throughout my grind over the last few months, I’m certain I would have made far better progress without all the joint pain and ups and downs in my desire to train.
Low rep training when executed properly is a phenomenal way to get strong, powerful and athletic. There are some caveats though, as you now know. By sticking to these guidelines you can ensure better progress long term and a much better chance at longevity in the game.
As always, thanks for reading. Comments and feedback are always welcome.
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