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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
November 18, 2021 1 Comment
One of the very first things you learn when you start going to the gym is that you lift lightweight for muscle hypertrophy and heavyweight to get stronger. Everyone knows that! And this isn’t just bro-science. The training rep spectrum is also one of the first things you learn when you begin to study exercise science. In fact, you can find a version of it in just about every single textbook or training manual.
However, this advice was built off of what science had told about the body’s physiological systems. The thing about science is that when you do more of it, we sometimes find that we have been mistaken about our initial concepts. It just so happens that this phenomenon occurred with the training rep spectrum.
So what changed? Well, that’s what we will discuss in this post. To be clear, if you followed the traditional rep continuum, it doesn’t mean you were wrong as everyone said the same thing; it just means that you haven’t seen the latest research. Well, now you will!
In the past, when you were going to train, you would decide what you wanted to train for and choose the appropriate rep scheme for that. This fell into 3 categories;
Above is the basic model that you would see in the majority of textbooks or something similar. There may be some variance, and to be fair, most textbooks made the point that there is a little bit of overlap. However, it is implied that this is how you will train, and most lifters take this to heart.
So what changed? Well, earlier in 2021, top sports researcher Brad Schoenfeld and his team conducted a huge review of all the available literature on training loads and their effect on the body. They discover that the concept that each variable can only be trained within a specific rep range is not entirely accurate.
Initially, it was thought that you needed to use a moderate load (70-80% 1RM) with a moderate rep range of 8-12. The theory was that this would create maximal muscle damage, increase metabolic stress, and increase volume. Now, this isn’t entirely wrong; however, you often hear from coaches or bodybuilders that they don’t lift heavy because they want to get big. Therefore, you have guys who never lift heavier weights because they don’t care about getting strong and just want to build muscle. We now know that this train of thought is misguided.
The one thing that is true with training for muscle hypertrophy is that you want to accumulate volume as this is the main driver. However, while volume still seems to be the main driver, it doesn’t really matter what load you use to fulfill this.. In other words, as long as the total volume of two training programs is equal, muscle hypertrophy should be the same.
This concept was beautifully illustrated in a study by Brad Scheoenfeld et al (2014), which compared the effect of a powerlifting program and bodybuilding program on muscle hypertrophy. Each program used the same 9 exercises training 3 days a week (3 exercises per day). While they used their own specific rep range, the volume was equated for. The two programs were as follows;
At the end of this training program, they discovered that muscle hypertrophy was similar for both groups. Further, they made another important discovery which will be discussed below.
Another study found no differences in muscle hypertrophy between loads using <60% 1RM or > 60% 1RM. In fact, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld’s major review found that similar results in hypertrophy are seen throughout the entire loading scheme down to >30% 1RM.
Further, the idea that shorter rest periods need to be used for muscle hypertrophy doesn’t seem to matter much as the end result is total volume. When trainees use too short of a rest period, they are not recovered efficiently, thus producing less volume. One interesting concept found in a systematic review of intra-set rest times suggests allowing trainees to use self-regulation during their rest and let them choose when they feel ready to do the next set. The point being is that completing the set is more important than using a specific rep range.
When training for muscle hypertrophy, using longer rest periods (2:00) is most likely more effective as it will give you time to fully recover and complete the most reps.
Related: What Fitness Studies Say About Optimal Rest Time Between Sets
Similar to training for muscle hypertrophy, training for strength can technically be done with any rep range. However, as you progress with your training, using heavier loads becomes more essential. So in this aspect, if you want to keep getting stronger, you NEED to lift heavy. This obviously comes with some caveats.
Remember the above powerlifting study vs. bodybuilding study? The other discovery they made was that while both groups can get stronger, the increase in strength from the powerlifting group was much, much greater. Actually, this same discovery was found in the other study above that looked at using loads of <60% 1RM and >60% 1RM. While both groups did get stronger, the groups using >60% saw significantly greater strength gains.
This concept is seen across the board in the majority of studies. While you can get stronger using any load, using heavier loads is much more effective at creating the appropriate stimulus for greater gains.
However, we have a major caveat we need to discuss. The magnitude of this concept seems to be relative to how well trained you are. In other words, if you are an experienced trainee, using heavier loads will be much more critical in getting stronger as lighter loads will have a minimal effect. In contrast, if you are a beginner, you can get stronger just as quickly using light loads down to about the 8-12 rep range. In these instances, you just need to train with adequate intensity and use progressive overload.
Put all together, when you first begin training, you will be able to get stronger just as effectively using lighter loads (<80% 1RM). In fact, this may even be the superior option as you can use a lighter weight to work on form and get in more volume which will quicken your learning curve.
However, once you’ve been training with a progressive overload program for 6-12 months, the need for heavier loads will increase. At this point, if you want to keep getting stronger, you’ll need to use heavier loads to optimize your strength.
There are a few major takeaways from this information.
TRAINING FOR MUSCLE HYPERTROPHY
That being said, you should still concentrate on using the previous loading spectrum of 8-12 reps. However, the reasoning behind this is different. This rep range with the load still gives you the best bang for your buck when creating total volume. While lighter loads can still create muscular hypertrophy, there is some debate as to if the targeted type II muscle fibers will begin to see more growth or if the hypertrophy occurs in your type I endurance muscle fibers.
However, it’s time to stop saying you don’t want to lift heavy because you just care about muscle growth. Using a heavy load (>85% 1RM) isn’t going to take away from your muscular hypertrophy as it will just be added to your total volume. Further, using a wide range with your loads could create a different stimulus for muscular growth, so variation and volume are still the primary variables when gaining muscle mass.
Further, stop taking a 30-second break between sets to “break down the muscle”. While this method is appropriate in some cases, they are the exception rather than the rule. Training for muscular hypertrophy does not mean you need to train at “a mile a minute”. Relax between sets and rest adequately so that you can lift the most reps for the most total volume.
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TRAINING FOR STRENGTH AND POWER
This is a bit more straightforward. If you want to get stronger, you’ll need to drop the load. Since you know that using a heavy load will still cause muscular hypertrophy, there’s really no reason not to. While you can get stronger using any load, heavier loads will produce greater results.
However, similar to training for muscle hypertrophy, stop refusing to lift more than 6 reps because you’re a “strength athlete”. Use the higher rep ranges with high intensity, and you’ll still get some strength benefits with added volume.
Related: Men & Women Strength Standards (How Strong Are You?)
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With this new information on the repetition continuum, a style of periodization known as daily undulating periodization, or DUP, stands out. This method of training has you train for strength, power, and hypertrophy simultaneously by using different days to concentrate on different training variables. In this manner, you will be sure to hit everything you need to.
Or, you can simply set up your program to include a mixture of loads using something similar to a powerbuilding program. This method is great because you can augment your plan to fit your needs. For example, if you like training for muscle hypertrophy, you can maybe just include one or two strength movements a session. Vice-Versa if you are a strength athlete.
Stop thinking of the repetition continuum as a spectrum where a training variable has a defined range to use. Instead, realize that every load has the ability to contribute to strength and hypertrophy, assuming the appropriate intensity is used. However, using lower loads is still favorable for strength because they provide the neuromuscular stimulus needed. At the same time, using moderate loads are still favorable to muscle hypertrophy because they produce the most volume.
The best way to view this is to know that all loads are beneficial and should be included in every workout program. This is a great thing as now you can use periodization without thinking you’re missing out on what you really want to do. In fact, using a variety of loads is actually the best thing for you!
Related: Blood Flow Restriction Training (Light Weight, Big Gains)
November 20, 2021
DUP rings true – in the early nineties, at 21yo, I made the most astounding progress after training for 7 years by then. The warm up was 100 pull ups, followed by the age old 12-10-8-6-4-2 rep scheme adding weight each set on the Big 3. Three days a week. When colleagues returned from leave the universal comment was “WTF have you been doing!” Unfortunately, and in retrospect stupidly, I let my conditioning drop during those weeks but the gains in strength and muscle were impressive. The only other time I saw such vast improvement was on a once a week limited squat routine – the weight and work were limited to 90kg (around body weight) and 10 minutes (AMRAP). I got to 60-70 reps before racking the bar, then another 20-30 before ‘time’ – totaling 90 reps. The warm up was singles in the clean&press-push press- adding weight each set. However, the following three days I could barely walk and then the next three barely sleep as I dreaded those squat days. The other day per week was limited p-bar dips followed by farmers walk. My legs grew to ‘strangers stare huge’, and I was a squat machine; limited training didn’t work so well for the upper body mind.
Thanks for the article – so useful, gratefully appreciated.
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