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High vs. Low Reps: What's Best for Muscle Growth?

Traditionally, the 8–12 repetition range has been suggested to be the ‘sweet spot’ for making muscle gains. This notion has been challenged in more recent times.


Introduction

In my sports science degree, we were taught that performing resistance training exercises in the ~8–12 repetition (rep) range was optimal for making muscle gains (Figure 1). To be adequately challenged in this range, the load (weight) on the bar or machine should correspond to ~60-80% of your one-rep max (1RM); that is, the maximum weight you can lift for just one rep. But is this really true?


Rep ranges.

Figure 1. Traditional rep range recommendations for different performance goals (1).


Progressive Overload

Before we go further, let's quickly touch upon a fundamental principle of adaptation to exercise: progressive overload. In essence, this principle states that if you want to improve your physical performance, you need to increase the intensity of your sessions over time. This is because we adapt to the training that we engage in, so once we adapt to a given intensity, we must increase the intensity to improve further.


No matter the rep range we lift within, we can make performance gains as long as we achieve progressive overload. There are lots of ways to achieve this, including:

  • Increasing the volume (e.g., going from 3 sets of 8 reps to 4 sets of 8 reps; or going from 3 sets of 8 reps to 3 sets of 12 reps)

  • Increasing the load (e.g., increasing the weight on the bar from 75 kilograms (kg) to 80 kg)

  • Reducing the rest interval (e.g., taking a 1-minute rest between sets instead of 2 minutes)

  • Increasing training frequency (e.g., training an extra day per week)


While there's no doubt that we can make muscle gains with progressive overload no matter what rep range we train within, the question we're interested in is whether the ~8–12 rep range is inherently superior to other rep ranges for muscle growth. Let’s find out.


People working out in a gym.

Rep Ranges and Muscle Growth

In a meta-analysis of 21 studies from 2017—where the results of each study were combined into one overall result—the researchers found no superiority for a specific load type (i.e., heavier vs. lighter) for muscle growth (2). In plain English, this means that no matter whether people lifted lighter weights (<60% of 1RM) but for more reps, or heavier weights (>60% of 1RM) but for less reps, they made similar muscle gains. A more recent meta-analysis published in September of this year (2023) reported similar findings (3).


These findings suggest that there's more than one way to get jacked. This is particularly the case when the total volume load is equivalent (2). Practically speaking, this entails that you could achieve the same muscle gains if you performed 3 sets of 20 reps of an exercise (at 20-rep max intensity) compared to 6 sets of 10 reps of the same exercise (at 10-rep max intensity). Indeed, this exact protocol was tested by researchers in 2017, where both groups of individuals made similar gains after 6 weeks (4). It is important to note, though, that if your primary goal is gaining strength, lifting at heavier loads (>80% of 1RM) and thus less reps (~1–5 reps) is best (2,3).


How muscles grow.

Source: Kaya Workout


Summary

The emerging evidence that different rep ranges can lead to similar muscle gains is good news—it allows for you to train in a manner that you prefer and still get the gains you want. If you want to further maximise your gains, see our article on eating for optimal muscle growth.


If you would like supplemental football training to improve your skills, reach out to our team of expert coaches at [email protected] to get started. And if you enjoyed this article, sign up to our mailing list to stay up to date.


Thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121


References

(1) Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports (Basel). 2021;9(2):32. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7927075/


(2) Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(12):3508–23. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2017/12000/strength_and_hypertrophy_adaptations_between_low_.31.aspx


(3) Currier BS, Mcleod JC, Banfield L, et al. Resistance training prescription for muscle strength and hypertrophy in healthy adults: a systematic review and Bayesian network meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2023;57(18):1211–20. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10579494/


(4) Lopes CR, Aoki MS, Crisp AH, et al. The Effect of Different Resistance Training Load Schemes on Strength and Body Composition in Trained Men. J Hum Kinet. 2017;58:177–86. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548165/


Technical Terms

One-Rep Max (1RM): This is the maximum amount of weight an individual can lift (in a specific lift, e.g., squat) for just one rep. Ideally, this should be performed in a standardised manner under supervision. It is not recommended to perform at this intensity regularly, if at all, for most athletes.


Progressive Overload: This is the fundamental training principle underlying how we as humans adapt to exercise and improve our physiological performance (e.g., increasing strength or endurance, etc.). This principle states that in order to improve, we must continually increase the intensity of our exercise sessions. This is because the body adapts to a given stimulus, so it must be continually stressed to elicit a training response (and thus, training adaptation(s)).


Meta-Analysis: This is a type of study that statistically combines the results of a number of individual studies on a particular topic into one overall result. Meta-analyses increase statistical power by increasing the sample size, in essence simulating a single large study. This allows for improved precision in the estimates of effect sizes and, when performed correctly, increases our understanding about how an exposure (e.g., resistance training) influences an outcome (e.g., muscle growth).

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