Training modalities and tactics are constantly debated by those who are serious about lifting weights. Many gurus have their own ideas about how to get big and strong. Naturally, these ideas trickle down to the less experienced gym goers and become gospel so to speak. One of the more hotly debated topics today is the aspect of rep ranges. Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that performing a certain number of reps will lead to certain changes to the muscle. More specifically, it is thought that higher rep ranges lead to more muscle mass while lower rep ranges lead to more strength.
Is repetition number really that important for driving a certain adaptation? This answer is sort of dependent on a few factors. What is the end goal of your training? What style of training do you like? If your goal is to get as big as possible, you’re likely going to have to train a certain way. If your goal is to be as strong as possible, you’re likely going to train a different way. However, you’ll also find that mixing things up may be important for long term success.
Rep Ranges for Strength vs. Hypertrophy
Most of the time, people start lifting weights in hopes that they will get bigger and stronger. Indeed, they will get bigger and stronger when they lift weights. However, people tend to gravitate toward one adaptation or the other. This is where they begin to wonder which how many reps they should be doing.
For many years, it was thought that lower reps led to more strength, while higher reps led to more hypertrophy. However, new research has shown that hypertrophy can be had from a variety of different rep ranges. One study showed that doing as many as 25-35 reps per set can increase muscle mass significantly . Further, a similar study showed that sets of 3 reps produces the same amount of hypertrophy compared to sets of 10 reps . However, it does seem that rep ranges in the low to moderate range seems to be best hypertrophy wise.
On the strength side of things, there does seem to be a more clear distinction in rep ranges. The same studies referenced above showed that lower rep ranges was consistently better for increasing strength compared to higher reps [1, 2]. Additionally, a comprehensive meta-analysis showed clear evidence that lower rep/higher load training leads to better adaptations in strength .
The clearer distinction in strength improvement is likely due to the neuromuscular component that dictates strength. The nervous system is a key player in terms of maximal strength. In order to handle heavier loads more efficiently, we have to expose ourselves to heavier loads more often. In other words, we have to practice lifting heavy in order to be good at lifting heavy. By keeping low rep/high load training in our program, we are maximizing our neuromuscular system. This then leads to more strength adaptation over time.
Mixing Rep Ranges
Now, just because a certain rep range is better for the adaptation you want, doesn’t mean you should spend all you time there. This is especially true when it comes to gaining strength. Spending too much time in the 1-3 rep range can be very stressful on our body. Think of it like flooring it in your car every chance you get. Eventually, something is going to break. Too much stress on the body for sustained periods of time can lead to injury and backwards progress.
Stepping outside your normal rep range will actually improve your ability to get bigger and stronger. Studies that compared mixed rep ranges to singular ranges showed significant differences. Those who performed a variety of different rep ranges in their training had significantly better increases in strength and hypertrophy 
This phenomenon is partly explained by the novelty of the training stimulus. The more you expose your body to the same stimulus, the less effective it becomes. Venturing outside of your “normal” rep range helps to provide a novel stimulus. This break from the norm also re-sensitizes the system to the rep range you are used to training in which leads to better adaptations over time.
Additionally, rep ranges produce adaptations on a continuum. Going from five reps to six doesn’t mean you’ve magically crossed a threshold into a different training response. All rep ranges produce similar effects to one another. It’s simply that the magnitude of the effect changes as you go one way or the other. You may lose out on a bit of hypertrophy or strength in the short term by changing your rep range, but the long term benefit of doing so seems to pay off in the end.
As you can see the answer to the rep range question is not simple one. As a general rule of thumb, rep ranges do matter if your goal is to maximize either strength or hypertrophy. However, there is a continuum as far as repetition number and strength/muscle mass adaptation. Very high rep ranges can still be effective for hypertrophy and even strength as long as the intensity is adequate. Maximizing strengths seems to require low rep/high load training on a consistent basis.
It is important to remember that mixing rep ranges is best for long term improvement for both outcomes. You won’t ruin your progress by venturing outside your comfort zone. In fact, your results will likely be enhanced as a result of mixing low, intermediate, and high reps in your training. The key is finding which rep range works best for your particular goal. Then, simply add in the other rep ranges to bring about the best adaptations!
If you are interested in learning more and taking your training to the next level, sign up to work with me one-on-one here!
- Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2015 Oct 1;29(10):2954-63.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2909-2918.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Krieger JW. Muscular adaptations in low-versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. European journal of sport science. 2016 Jan 2;16(1):1-0.
- Goto, K., Nagasawa, M., Yanagisawa, O., Kizuka, T., Ishii, Noakata, & Takamatsu, K. (2004). Muscular adaptations to combinations of high-and low-intensity resistance exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(4), 730-737.