The Advantages of Lower Reps

Anyone that has trained hard for years on end will understand the deep pain of no progress. When you first begin, you get results for quite some time. Most training programs work fine within some sensible limits. You eventually slow down, redesign your program, and this may coax a little more change. After this repeats a few times, despite your dedication, you remain at a standstill. Moving toward lower reps may be an answer.

The weight and reps remain the same in each exercise. You see no changes in your body. This can continue for years should you do nothing. Trainees often lie to themselves to make up for their failure. They change their programs so radically and often as to make results impossible to measure. They may disguise this avoidance as an effort to include variety. They then use new standards to measure their so-called changes. They really have no solid basis to evaluate real differences though. They may seem to feel a jolt of progress as the body learns the new routine, but this change is neural not physical. Anyone can fall into this trap. I have felt its clutches in the past, and it happens to the best of us. Eating to gain muscle provides a possible solution. Most advanced trainees will try decreasing their reps eventually though.

A wide range of repetitions can work effectively. Within any reasonable rep range, effort ranks most important. Some feel that lower reps emphasize strength over size, but any differences in hypertrophy seem speculative at best over the long-run. Nonetheless, I have noticed a tendency for long-time lifters to use lower reps. Here are some possible reasons.

Reasons

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion no matter how satisfying or reassuring.

– Carl Sagan

  • You focus on the right fatigue.

The tension your muscles generate spurs muscle growth. The burn and pump you feel comes more as a side-effect than anything that can influence growth much. Lower rep ranges allow tension with less lactic acid building up. Lactic acid can interfere with the sites for contraction that create tension, which in turn would hamper growth. Since higher rep ranges build up more lactic acid, lower reps would seem ideal for strength and size.

  • The stabilizers wear out less.

The smaller muscles throughout your body work hard to stabilize the body. The prime movers can fully express their strength when they remain engaged. Good form requires you to maintain tightness in these muscles. They usually contract at a certain level and remain there for the set. Shorter sets require them to contract for less time.

  • You perform less volume.

Higher reps inroad your body further. Inroad represents the drop in strength from your starting levels. For example, if you can bench press 100 lb. once but can only bench press 80 lb. once after a tough workout, then you inroaded 20%. This fatigue may come from several sources though unrelated to strength and size. A 20 rep set of squats can leave you sore for days, yet a heavy set of 5 tends to leave you less sore. The 20 rep set also places demands on your cardiovascular system and ability to handle lactic acid. If you can generate enough tension on a lower rep set to still signal growth, then your body has to recover from less total fatigue versus higher reps. This could improve your recovery.

  • You concentrate better.

Most people find it easier to focus and work hard over a short duration versus a longer duration.

  • You have an easier standard.

When your weight stays the same, you can decrease your standard for reps. You will hit this new standard more easily and therefore go up in weight. This creates the illusion of progress in most cases, but sometimes does ignite progress possibly due to the other reasons mentioned here.

You usually just express the same strength level through lower reps. You have some individual equation that can predict your weight at certain reps. For example, you may find that when you can bench press 200 for 12 reps, that you can perform 225 for 8 and vice versa. Many one rep max calculators exist that guess this ratio somewhat well.

Different ranges induce slightly different forms of fatigue and therefore require different adaptations. This makes a small difference, but it seems not enough. The 225 bench press test for NFL athletes ranks as an excellent predictor of one rep max strength, so the difference between high and low reps would appear overemphasized.

Lower Reps Can Work

Ultimately, I suggest you go with personal preference. Physical advantages, although important at first glance, seem not to overcome personal reasons.  I find my clients do best within the range they choose, as long as it does not extend too highly, such as beyond 30. Most beginners will do well with moderate ranges, such as 6-15, and can adjust in time. Going far beyond 30 reps probably focuses on muscular and cardiovascular endurance too much. You would train these qualities better through intervals. Going too heavy has problems as well, but a single heavy rep would work better than beyond 30 for strength and size.

Varying this range, unlike exercise selection, makes sense if it helps you. In theory it may help you deal with fatigue better, but probably just gives you a mental boost. Some choose to cycle the weights and reps, but this likely is unnecessary. Instead, periodization makes you teeter back and forth with overtraining on one end and undertraining on the other.

In the end, you have to progress in some way or another. Whether that comes from low or high reps probably makes little difference in the long-run. You need to add weight over time and work hard enough to stimulate growth. Within a reasonable range, you will probably find that changing the rep range is not the answer. Trainees have thrived on many rep ranges. Instead, make sure you have an efficient training program and that you eat, sleep, and rest enough. Use whatever rep range works for you.

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