The Magic of Rep Ranges

When people first start resistance training or lifting weights, many people are told to try 1-3 sets of about 10 reps of an exercise for each major muscle group 2-3 times per week. Why? For the untrained / deconditioned or those just looking to hit the bare minimum amount of work required to achieve the health benefits of resistance training, this is a very simple plan to follow that will give them a ton of health benefits when compared to not training at all. The less complicated the plan, the more likely people are to stick to it, especially when pressed for time or if they don't like to exercise. They simply want to preserve the ability to do their activities of daily living into old age by maintaining bone density, balance, range of motion and modest levels of strength.

For some, that plan is all that they will ever want or need. However, for most of us, we're looking for more than the bare minimum benefits of strength training. We would like to see ongoing progress and continual improvement in our strength, ability or appearance. To see continual improvement, we have to regularly vary the stimulus. Our bodies are very good at adapting to the demands we place on them. The human body is an efficient organism. It will adapt to be able to do just enough to survive the demands regularly placed on it, but not too much because too much adaptation requires more resources and our bodies do not want to waste resources. It's a built in survival mechanism. So if you only do 3x10 for the rest of your life, your body will adapt to that and eventually you will see little to no progress.

How do we vary the stimulus in weight lifting? There are endless ways. Adjust the weight, the angle of action of the exercise, machines vs free weights, dumbbells vs barbells, range of motion or the rep range.

Today, I want to look at the rep range, and the slightly different response of your body to those different ranges.

3 Different Rep Ranges:

1-5 reps - Typically, this range will involve heavier weights of 85%+ of your 1 Rep Max. This results in increased mechanical stress on your muscles. Mechanical stress is one of the primary ways that we cause muscles to grow or get stronger. This range is highly effective at increasing power, strength and size of a muscle. Sometimes greater number of sets are used with lower rep ranges (maybe 5-10).

6-15 reps - Typically, this range will involve moderate loads of 65%-85%. This rep range and weight results in increased metabolic stress (think about "the burn"). Metabolic stress is the other primary way of increasing muscle size, and increased muscle size will also result in increased strength. Usually, a medium number of sets (maybe 3-5).

16+ reps - Typically, this range will involve lighter weights of less than 65%. This rep range and weight is not heavy enough to cause many of the positive benefits of mechanical or metabolic stress to an optimal degree in a way that the above reps and weight ranges do. This range is more effective for increasing local muscle endurance and usually fewer total sets are used (maybe 1-3 sets). There could also be some benefit for active recovery, increasing tendon health over time, etc with these lighter loads and increased reps.

So which of these ranges is correct or most effective? None of them alone is "the best". They each produce a lot of benefits, and training is most effective when it includes a variety of rep ranges over time.

Part of the definition of CrossFit is "constantly varied". This variety that we practice includes a variety of rep ranges. It helps to ensure that our workouts don't get boring, but it also helps to ensure that we are reaping the strength, hypertrophy and muscle endurance benefits of training in these different ranges.

While our daily classes look to optimize the training benefit in practically everything across broad time and modal domains, understanding these rep range differences is one of the many tools that allows our coaches to give people more specialized help in one-on-one personal training sessions based on what their current goals may be. Someone might need some extra work in certain areas if they are trying to pass a military fitness test, train for sports such as CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting or Soccer or if someone is trying to get their first pull up.

So if you've been training on your own for a while, using the same reps, sets, exercises and weights then try some of these different rep ranges. You don't have to change a lot all at once, and that simple change could be just what you need to push you over your plateau.

Or better yet - come in and try a class with us!

It will be fun and will definitely keep your muscles adapting and guessing.