Does Rep Count Even Matter? Controversial Findings of a Recent Study!

December 3, 2010

So I am going to to talk about a study that questions a lot of what you will read online regarding gaining strength and muscle. It was conducted a couple of years ago, but you won’t hear it being mentioned on most mainstream sites. This flies in the face of a lot of fitness programs. My point for bringing it up is to start a discussion on the findings. I will give you my take on this, but my hope is that others will chime in in the comment section.

rep count

[What if things like heavy weight vs low weight and high reps vs low reps didn’t make a difference? What if “effort” was the only variable that mattered in gaining muscle?]

First, I Will Reveal the Study…

So this study was published in the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness (JESP). The cool thing about this journal is that the JESP website lets you download their PDF’s for free. The downside is that you can only access the last two years worth of issues (2009-2010)…and the study I’m referring to happened back in 2008. Luckily I saved it on my Desktop last year, so you can have access to it 🙂

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THE SIZE PRINCIPLE AND A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE UNSUBSTANTIATED HEAVIER-IS-BETTER RECOMMENDATION FOR RESISTANCE TRAINING

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Some Great Info, But Presented in a Dry Manner

These scientific papers have great info, but are as far from entertaining as you can get. The summary doesn’t do the paper justice either

“The size principle states that motor units are recruited in an orderly manner from the smaller (lower threshold) to the larger (higher threshold) motor units, and that the recruitment is dependent on the effort of the activity. Greater recruitment produces higher muscular force. However, the pervasive faulty assumption that maximal or near maximal force (very heavy resistance) is required for recruitment of the higher-threshold motor units and optimal strength gains is not supported by the size principle, motor unit activation studies, or resistance training studies. This flawed premise has resulted in the unsubstantiated heavier-is-better recommendation for resistance training.”

So Let’s Get Down to the Juicy Info About This Study!

So Dr. Ralph Carpinelli reviewed past scientific literature on the size principle and came to an interesting conclusion: It is the amount of effort NOT the amount of force that determines the degree of muscle fiber motor unit activation. So the heavier the resistance, the more force is required to lift a weight…but remember it is “effort” NOT force that is responsible for maximum muscle activation.

– – – – – – -> Effort VS Force <- - - - - - -

Dr Carpinelli explains it best by using in this example:

“If a person is holding a 20 kg dumbbell at an elbow angle of 90 degrees…the first 10 seconds may feel relatively easy. After about 60 seconds the person will no longer be able to hold the 20 kg mass.” <---So the force of 20 kg is constant, but the effort increased as the 60 seconds passed (interesting).

“At the point of maximal effort (~60 seconds), all the motor units in the pool were recruited for that specific isometric muscle action.”<---So the maximum effort is what recruited all of the muscle fibers, the force was just a secondary variable in this example.

Carpinelli Does Not Believe That Rep Count Matters

In this paper, Carpinelli found 20 studies that reported no significant strength gains from doing 2 reps to failure or 20 reps to failure —> “If a maximal—or near maximal—effort is applied at the end of a set of repetitions, the evidence strongly suggests that the different external forces produced with different amounts of resistance elicit similar outcomes.”




I Decided to Create a Quick Video Summary…


 

My Thought On This Study


 

There are a lot of variables that this study does not address: High total volume for gaining muscle vs low volume training. What happens to the muscle when you don’t train to failure. The different types of growth produced by high reps vs low reps. Like the findings of most studies, this is just a small snapshot at a few variables.

Go to failure if you want to build muscle: I believe in fatiguing the muscles over a series of sets with the final sets requiring maximum effort…in order to gain muscle. His study suggests reaching maximum effort for maximum muscle recruitment.

Higher reps can still build muscle: I’ve known this for ages, but if you are doing high reps close to muscular exhaustion…you are going to put on size. So even if you lift light, you can still add muscle. In fact I would say that higher reps are the best way to increase muscle size, due to the cumulative fatigue that “requires more effort” from set to set. Don’t let any recently certified personal trainer tell you otherwise!

Avoid failure…for strength without muscle size increase: This is an area the study doesn’t explore as much as I would have liked. The main point is that avoiding failure is a great way to consistently gain strength with very little muscle growth. Gaining strength is also a way to create muscle density (something this study doesn’t cover). My girlfriend does sets of 5 reps with weights that she could probably do 8 times. Over the past year she has gained a lot of strength and muscle tone, with ZERO increase in muscle size. Since she avoids maximum effort, she doesn’t need to worry about gaining muscle. Note: She wants to stay slim and lean instead of adding mass. My women’s course coming out in Feb 2011 is based upon this way of training.

Maximum force without maximum effort: So this is a similar point to my last point. If you want to increase strength without adding muscle then you would lift heavy (max force), but avoid failure (max effort).

Would like to see a study on the effects of avoiding failure: When I started this blog, I was almost 100% focused on increasing muscle definition WITHOUT gaining muscle. As Dr. Carpinelli shows in his study, training with maximum effort to failure is a great way to build muscle mass and strength…REGARDLESS of the reps being used. So what if you want to gain strength and build muscle density without putting on mass? Well, I have found the best way is to avoid failure altogether.

What is Your Opinion on This Study?

I never take the results of one study as the WORD on fitness. I just hope that I learn at least one tip that will improve my ability to create effective training programs. My biggest takeaway from this study was…reaching maximum effort on the last rep or two will help muscles grow regardless of the amount of reps being performed. If you have a particularly stubborn muscle then make sure you push those final reps hard with maximum effort.

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Thanks for reading all these years!



 

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 85 comments… read them below or add one }

Raymond - ZenMyFitness December 6, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Well I can only say from my own point of view ..
I have been training for 2 years with weights and the first year an half I did higher reps & volume (up to 15 reps) lighter weight and did it with as much effort as I could. I looked fit and lean.

Last 2 months I changed to lower reps (under 10) and much lower volume starting lift heavier with same high effort or intensity I have have grown considerably more. I never go to failure at any time.

I think its right that a combination of heavy load, an increasing maximum effort (progression) and intensity regardless of reps stimulates growth.

Also might add amount of calories will determine your size if you don’t eat it doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do you wont grow.

Raymond

Tom - Your Fitness Quest December 6, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Rusty,

You are the king of controversy and challenging the norm. The more I learn about exercise and nutrition, the more I realize how little I know.

These results are interesting and I like your conclusions. I try to keep things simple and have found that when I go to the gym and work out regularly my muscles get bigger and stronger, and when I stop working out I experience de-conditioning and atrophy. Sorry- no great insights from me.

Dale December 6, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Rusty,

Thanks for your article. You have a great blog (I just sort of entered the blog world!). I agree with you – the study brings up a very interesting point re: rep count.

I’ve always said the # of reps don’t matter. I’ve been training folks in NY and LA for 14 years and I am pretty much only dealing with people who want that “lean Hollywood look” as you say on your homepage. So, I do everything I can to get them to exert maximum effort by the end of a set. I’m always trying to get people comfortable working between 8-12 reps and achieving failure at the end of the set. As you probably well know, it can be difficult to get people to understand what failure REALLY means.

I’ve also always emphasized the “quality of the reps”. Full range of motion, explosive concentric, controlled eccentric. If we hit 12 reps easily, we’ll go up in weight. If we can’t get 8 reps, we’ll lower the weight. I also deal a lot with women who freak out at the idea of lifting heavy weights, so a lot of convincing, coaxing, and educating is involved.

The bottom line is most people want results in the quickest time possible. That’s the realm I deal in. So, I appreciate the finding that it’s the effort that matters rather than the number of reps. People need to understand that most of it is so mental: doing your absolute best on every frickin’ set and rep.

Thanks, again, Rusty. Just started a blog myself as I’m upgrading my website, looking to reach more people. Good work.

http://changing-bodies33.blogspot.com/

Dale

Jordan - The Healthy Teacher December 6, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Very interesting article.
So my question is why don’t people just lift really heavy in the 3-5 set range to failure, then have a short rest and do it again. Seems like it would make more sense then to lift light and fail at 8-12 reps. It would make for a faster workout too, if effort = increased muscle mass, and it would still create cumulative fatigue.

The only reason I can think of is risk of injury and improper form when performing low rep high weight, but if you are ok with that then a low rep – high weight workout, coupled with increased calorie consumption is still be a great way to gain mass.

I have been doing visual impact (only in phase 2), and experiencing great results!

I love this phase because of the low reps and increased weight, and not having to work to failure!

Jordan

Clint - Crude Fitness December 6, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Im in a similar boat to Raymond.
My muscle size goes up considerably when i dabble in the 4-6 rep range.
The other thing to keep in mind when considering all of this, is the difference types of muscle fibres in each body part.
As an example, back/shoulders grow differently at different rep ranges to calves.
You wouldnt see much progress training your calves at 5 x 5 (for most people).
Interesting points for discussion though.

Darrin - Lean, Mean, Virile Machine December 6, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Just goes to show how important it is to question your convictions and test new things out on yourself.

This makes me realize more that bodyweight exercises should be the primary focus in people just starting to build muscle. Push ups, pull ups, and air squats are safer than their weighted equivalents, require no gym, and are quite possibly better at building mass, which is what most beginners want to see.

KatieM~ RunFortheBikini December 6, 2010 at 8:36 pm

How do you think working to failure effects your body with something like push-ups or pull-ups. I don’t mind gaining a some size in the form of muscle to my arms, although with my low-ish calorie diet I don’t think that’s possible. I am really looking for strength gains and hopefully some definition. My arms have always been my weak spot.

Jamey December 6, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I think anyone who focuses on rep count is “aiming their gun at the wrong target.” Exertion is beyond a reasonable doubt the way to train.

Focusing on the numbers is masturbation! Just a way to brag about doing 70 push ups or whatever (not really important if you did those push ups with super poor form).

Don’t get me wrong – I agree rep counting is a good way for some people to tabulate and thus gauge their strength and fitness for future improvements. But the very sticky, core and simple 3 sets of 10 reps default workout style needs to be bottled up and thrown into the Pacific.

I am happy to see this post as I have been trying to come up with a sticky way for dad to train. Given he is a jogger, and a beginner at weights I have prescribed time as the style to follow (instead of meaningless rep count). So I told him to do as many as possible: pull ups for 1 minute, push ups for 1 minute, squats for 1 minute and repeat – K.I.S.S (I believe this way he will be forced to fully exert himself as I know he would not otherwise).

I think this method fits in nicely with what Rusty has talked about and what the study confirmed – exertion is what matters!!!

Kelly-Fitness Overhaul December 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

As a former powerlifter, I have trained to failure as well as done forced reps, half reps, lock outs, and many other variations that push past the point of failure of a complete rep with good form.

I never really considered that it was either not good or not productive for size or strength gains. This has recently changed after reading Pavel’s book, “Power to the People”. He recommends never going to failure for various reasons and claims that you will actually get stronger if you don’t train to failure.

I tried training this way with kettlebells (mainly get-ups) and with pull ups doing my reps in a ladder system such as 5,6,7,8,9 5,6,7,8,9, etc. with around 1 minute of rest. If I stop at these two ladders that gives me a total of 70 pullups and never going to failure. The following workout, I can add another ladder and if I just stop at 5 (5,6,7,8,9 5,6,7,8,9 5) this would give me 75 pullups and still not training to failure.

This increases the volume of work significantly and I can easily practice progressive resistance and never train to failure. I used to do as many reps as I could on pullups and go to failure for three sets. I would usually get around 18-20 reps the first set, around 8 the second, and around 5 the last set. As you can see, I would get exhausted very quickly if I trained to failure and after my first set, my work load would drop substantially. The three sets this way would only equal around 33 reps and I would be exhausted. If I try to do more than three sets, I am only getting a few reps each set regardless of how long I rest.

So training to failure would get me around 33 pull ups and not training to failure would give me upwards of 70 pull ups all with very good form. I have been doing this for around six weeks and I seem to get stronger each time and my volume is much easier to increase.

I am still not going to say that training to failure is bad under every circumstance, but this has definitely opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about training to failure.

Kelly

River Rance December 6, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Great topic and probably one of the most discussed, everyone has their opinions on reps. Consider the pro or elite cyclist…great development from mid waist down. Abs,glutes, and legs. No upper body but legs. A six hour training ride will usually produce approx 36,000 revolutions pushing a hard gear. And another score for high reps and massive legs consider the great Czech hockey player Jaromir Jagr knows for his “tree trunk” thighs, the result of 1,000 squats a day, sometimes with weights sometimes not….. http://www.jockbio.com/Bios/Jagr/Jagr_bio.html
When my own reps were high for extended times I grew plain and simple…that’s my support for high reps…not scientific but works for me..

Aaron V December 7, 2010 at 12:17 am

Rusty,

Thanks for the very interesting post. So if its effor that matters how can I apply this principle without lifting heavy weights to gain additional strength and mass (if needed)? Some background information, I’m 6’1 178 pounds with 7% bodyfat with a solid 8 pack. that’s been built with bodyweight training with which I am a big fan of. (Though I owe the 6 to 8 pack journey and the additional mass and strength to Scott Sonnon and TacFit Commando, great program, kicks my butt). I got Convict Conditioning which is a great book just to mix up my training a bit, its a great book. After I master the moves though I still want to make bodyweight exercises challenging and with strength and mass (if needed) effects. I’m real happy with my size, but being able to put on mass is not a bad thing to have handy. I know how to buff up effort with increased intensity, believe you me! Commando does an evil effective job of this! lol. So I’m curious to if you know how to increase effor to to bodyweight training without high reps or intensity? I have nothing against weight training, in fact I believe no resistance training is superior to any other and all can have great results, bodyweight training is just my preferred resistance.

PS. Side question, will doing high rep to failure make my hard earned muscles diminish in size? So if I just want to maintain my size is this a bad idea?

Jason - Muscle Building and Fitness Workouts December 7, 2010 at 12:59 am

@ Dale you say the number of reps don’t matter but then you go on to say that if a person can’t do 8 reps the weight is too heavy and if they can do more than 12 the weight is too light. Sounds like reps matter and you do care.

@Aaron adding volume adds muscle size and decreases strength. All you have to do is look at the guys who do this all the time. Olympic lifters in weight classes have to stay there but want to get stronger so they keep their volume low. Bodybuilders want to get big so they do lots of volume. You will never see an Olympic lifter do a drop set. Just like you don’t see bodybuilders do one rep then take a 5 minute break. They both do drugs so the difference is the reps.

Volume matters, weight matters, reps matter, effort and force matter. To get the best results you have to know what you are doing.

randy December 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

im a fan of t nation, what i get a lot from there is never go to failure if you want your muscles to grow. You just have to reach a certain level of fatigue or near failure. But i would not say no to any training style, i think every set,rep or volume has its merits. Even going to failure. Its also dependent on nutritional factors. Look at john romaniello who has done a variety of hypertrophy and fatloss programs over his career and hes jacked as hell. Look at martin berkham who basically just sticks to low volume high intensity. The same. So sometimes it doesnt matter what these scientist say. What matters is real world results. In alwyn cosgroves new rules of lifting they say the big secret of hypertrophy is..no one really knows what makes muscles grow.

owen December 7, 2010 at 10:39 am

Rusty,

I think Clarence Bass referenced this study a while back. As I get older I’m no longer interested (or maybe not even capable of) in putting on muscle or body weight. It’s amazing how few articles there are out there about muscle density without added size. You & Pavel T are two of the few. In fact I only train standing presses, pull ups, & dead lifts now days. I especially don’t want to put on any muscle on my chest. It’ll sag via gravity & doesn’t need any help from the bench presses or push ups.

Thanks,

Owen

IntensePhysique December 7, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Bottom Line is finding what words for you!
everyone’s body is different and responds differently, also focus on Nutrition! What you put in your body directly affects the outside too!

Great Article.

Rafi Bar-Lev December 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm

This is really interesting. It seems like according to what he’s saying – you can actually put on muscle by maxing out on 10 pound weights.

ankur sha December 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Rusty,

well i just wanna thank u for all tht gr8 important info u hve provided us , i was being so selfish tht i come to ur site reading all info & cudnt say thank either ,so 1stly i jst wanna thank u & plz keep up the gr8 work ..

i just wanna knw if my workout is gud or not? my height is 5’6 & weight 54 kg.

tuesday/friday – chest & back

inclined bench press — 60kg with 3 reps x 10 sets
weighted diamond pushups feet elevated — 35 kg 3 reps x 5 sets

BACK– weighted closegrip chinups 28 kg 3reps x 5 sets
seated rows – 60kg 5 x 5
knee bent over rows – 25 kg 5×5
i go to a small gym & we dun hve more thn 25 kg dumbells
& tht 60 kg is the max weight on tht machine so i am stuck to tht weight now.

wed/sat– shoulders,biceps,triceps

standing military press — 48kg 3reps x 5 sets

biceps barbell curls — 37kg 3 reps x 10 sets

i dun do cable curls coz it hurt my wrists & we dun hve lots of dumbell either so i stick to only barbell curls.

we only hve 13.5 kg ,20kg & 25 kg dumbells .

triceps– close grip bench press – 63 kg 3 reps x 5sets

skull crushers – 37kg 2 reps x 5 sets

i m gonna stop skulls coz it has started to hurt my elbows now .

weighted dips — 37 kg 3 reps x 5 sets

.well i knw i m strong coz everybdy stares at me whn i do tht weighted chin ups & dips , bt smtimes i think im a figure among cypher coz in my gym there is hardly any guy who really knows anything or wanna try new things , they r jst doing wht everybdy is doing..so tell me wht do u think abt my strength & my workout , im doin now strength routine & its abt 40 days , i will keep doing this till jan 11 .

John December 7, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Clarence Bass covered this article several years ago here: http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm His conclusion:

………………………
“Recommendations to train with very heavy resistance (loads heavier than 6 RM), because they purportedly result in superior strength gains, are based on a faulty [understanding of the size principle] and have very little supporting evidence,” Carpinelli concluded.

Resistance is largely a matter of “personal preference,” says Dr. Carpinelli. “If a maximal—or near maximal—effort is applied at the end of a set of repetitions, the evidence strongly suggests that the different external forces produced with different amounts of resistance elicit similar outcomes.” That’s it. So simple, yet so meaningful—and potentially influential.”
………………….

I’ve been working with kettlebell timed sets – for example, doing as many reps as possible in 3, 4 or 5 minutes of the Clean & Press or the two KB Press. The volume builds up quickly . . . 150-200 reps with a weight that is somewhere around a 10-15 RM.

Not only do I burn fat and gain some size (at least it looks like I have LOL) but my strength has gone through the roof on the Bench Press, Incline Bench and even Pulldowns.

I’m not a bodybuilder so a lot is probably newbie gains (even though I’m 56) but the bottom line is I think there’s a lot to VOLUME and a lot to what this article addresses.

Great post, Rusty!

Richard December 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Really interesting post. It kind of makes me wonder about the personal trainers I visit at my gym.

They tend to make us do higher reps with less weight and then switch to another exercise. I would say that I don’t end up anywhere near muscle exhaustion for any one muscle group. I also haven’t noticed really any additional mass in the 2 months I’ve been going. So maybe that’s why…

Susan@Home Workout December 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Thanks for the info Rusty, I had never come across this article before. Perhaps there is still room for isometric training where it is easy to manipulate the effort while keeping the force constant and manageable.

Chris Cannon @ Free Muscle Building Tips December 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Interesting study, but not sure how conclusive they really are; other than the fact that your workouts should be intense and continually challenge your muscles to grow.

Chris Cannon

Ahmed December 7, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I think reps can matter to a certain point, when you’re at a certain bodyfat, and when you’re attempting to achieve a specific goal like in a depletion workout prior to an event.

But in the grand scheme, you’re completely right, it’s about effort.

Trent December 7, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Very interesting! Thanks Rusty

Darren@moreprimetime.com December 7, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Interesting…suggests that a number of heavy sets of 2 reps would be a good option for cumulative fatigue. Likely get better HGH pulses as well.

Darren@MorePrimeTime.com

Dale December 7, 2010 at 3:50 pm

@Jason — as I said, I work with a population most interested in achieving a particular look as quickly and efficiently as possible. I focus on muscle hypertrophy and fat loss. Makes no sense to be applying principles outlined in this article with people who a) are not particularly interested in improved performance, and b) only get to the gym 3 times a week. That said, I work between 8-12 reps MOST of the time because that’s the way I’ve found to get the most bang for my buck with my clients.

Cai - Quakefitness.com December 7, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Interesting article/ study!

A link to this post has been published to http://www.quakefitness.com!

Quake Fitness – Connecting Fitness and Health Blogs!

P.S. Keep up the good work, great blog!

Alykhan - Fitness Breakout December 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Rusty,

Interesting post. I’m glad you made the distinction between effort and reps. Higher reps doesn’t necessarily mean more effort and based on your goals (increasing mass, increasing strength, etc.) you should adjust your level of effort. I think the reps do help serve as a guideline, though.

Alykhan

Jeremy & Kim December 8, 2010 at 3:15 am

What a great dialog you have started, Rusty.

We think a key point of the study is that all muscle fibers are not recruited until the lifter is at or near failure. This reminded us of myo-reps. Myo-reps attempt to get your muscles to the point of fatigue so that all fibers are activated. Then you drop your number of reps and significantly reduce your rest time between sets in order to complete as many reps as possible at full fiber activation.

This is usually done by doing 10-12 reps where the 12th rep puts you near failure, then you rest for only 10-20 seconds to prevent too much recovery, and pump out another 5 reps, achieving full fiber activation again on the 4th and 5th rep, wait 10-20 seconds and pump out 3-5 reps, do this a couple more times and your blasted because you’ve done between 7 to 10 reps at full fiber activation, whereas doing three sets to 10 will only give you 3-4 reps at full fiber activation.

Try it out. You will be sore for a few days afterward.

Keep working hard everyone.
J&K

Clement December 8, 2010 at 4:41 am

Rusty, I think that while you’re right that the study does not take into account the different types of hypertrophy, I think that this study is based on comparisons on the SIZE of the muscle, following exercise or effort, and not muscle growth in terms of myofibrillar or sarcoplasmic growth, per se. It is, in other words, a study on the tangible, visual results of growth. Obviously, training for high reps to failure would produce size increases, just as training for low reps to failure. However, the mode each of us might choose to follow is dependent on the visual result each of us wish to create. He does not make mention of this, but perhaps the focus of the study is to Gaige whether there would be SIZE increases when one does 3 sets of 10 reps to failure vs

Clement December 8, 2010 at 4:45 am

Rusty, I think that while you’re right that the study does not take into account the different types of hypertrophy, this study is based on comparisons on the SIZE of the muscle, following exercise or effort, and not muscle growth in terms of myofibrillar or sarcoplasmic growth, per se. It is, in other words, a study on the tangible, visual results of growth. 

Obviously, training for high reps to failure would produce size increases, just as training for low reps to failure. However, the mode each of us might choose to follow is dependent on the visual result each of us wish to create. 

The focus of the study is perhaps to gauge whether there would be SIZE increases when one does 3 sets of 10 reps to failure vs 5 sets of 5 to failure. And his conclusion, as one might already suspect, is that there is no difference in the amount of SIZE gained. Whether it is sarcoplasm or muscle fibers really isn’t the scope of this particular study. 

However, I must say that you do make valid points in talking about which forms of training build bulk and which don’t. Awesome post, as always. Keep it up.

Kev December 8, 2010 at 6:52 am

Interesting post, very controversial indeed. At the end everyone has to find the perfect individual combination.

Ian Kelley December 8, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I agree with this article 100%. All that matters if you are trying to look toned and defined is that you do strength/resistance training with hard intensity and restrict calories. I have found classic hypertrophy training to be the most efficient but most people either can’t or won’t restrict calories so they blame the training style on making them big and bulky instead of the excess calories. There is no way to grow bigger muscles if you are eating lightly and you will develop muscle definition much more quickly with classic hypertrophy training to failure. The problem is most people can’t handle it and don’t like it because you have to deal with having sore muscles all the time and you would have to actually restrict calories to not get bulky so I have found the “boot camp” style training easier for people and better for total fitness because it includes strength, core/functional training, cardio and endurance. INTENSITY NOT REPS!

Alan December 8, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Sorry guys but I am a little bit confused now…
Is the bottom line: lift as heavy as you can, keeping the rest at the minimun so that every rep/set will be performed to failure?
I’m currently into Phase I of Visual Impact, is there anything that needs to be modified (reps & sets) after reading this study?!?
Thanks to everyone who’ll clarify.

Aaron V December 8, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Thanks brother, appreciate the comment, I’m 18 btw so I still have a lot to learn.

Jared B December 8, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Another great post! some really cool stuff to think about, I have a ? thats kinda off topic but i recently bought a suspension training system and I was wondering if you knew some good workouts or moves for building muscle with it? Thanks alot!!

Jeff - Get This Ripped December 9, 2010 at 12:10 am

This is a great article and it brings up a good point. I’ve personally found that reps really depends on the person.

Some people are able to go all out on a few reps, while others need more reps to get that intensity.

dominic December 9, 2010 at 5:48 am

This is pretty much what Tim Ferriss talked abut here – fourhourworkweek.com/…gained-34-lbs-of-muscle-in-4-weeks/

And if I remember correctly he met with an inferno of flames from the fitness community for his troubles. This just shows the carrying out research without preconceptions can lead to fruitful discoveries. Most big names in this community (and many of the littler ones) should take heed. Gentlemen: it’s not a religion.

James December 9, 2010 at 11:37 am

I noticed this when I started Convict Conditioning. Despite the fact that in the early phases I was still doing pushups on my knees, I was still seeing muscular development in my arms and chest. It makes sense if you think about it — as long as you make your muscles WORK, they’ll grow.

However, I think a mixture of different weight, rep, and speed ranges is ideal of overall athletic development. I do exclusively bodyweight training, but I alternate between slow-motion convict conditioning style exercises and faster, explosive movements. When I do the reps in slow motion, I can do considerably fewer than when I move as fast as possible, but you better believe my muscles get just as good of a workout.

The guy who know whats going on December 9, 2010 at 12:09 pm

This simply states that the amount of weight doesn’t matter as much as the amount of effort that is put into the workout. So whats the point of using heavier weights after a certain threshold of strength has been gain. To get us to the maximum effort (the point of failure) faster. GOSH! This sum up to have the last rep to be a negative rep to absolute failure for maximum results of muscle gain.

AC December 9, 2010 at 1:20 pm

If all this is true, wouldn’t we logically always build muscle more effectively in higher rep ranges? This might take a bit to explain.

When you life heavy weights, say you’re trying for failure at 5 reps, theres that chance you fail at 4 reps instead, especially in the last set or two that you attempt. But that could theoretically be up to 20% less (1-4/5) less than your actual failure spot. now say you go to 20 reps, and you fail at 19 reps, you can only miss that sweet spot by (1-19/20) 5%. Obviously at high rep ranges you run into other problems, but logically, the higher the rep range you use, the closer you can get to actual maximal failure.

The real downside to all this is we still don’t know when to stop. Do you do one set until failure, or fail over several sets?

Rajat December 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Excellent post Rusty…I always love the way you give enough resources on your blog to enable us to arrive at our own conclusions (unlike some fitness “authorities”)…I had a quick question for you. I am a lacto vegetarian (religious reasons) and i am on phase I of visual impact. I wanted your opinion about me following eat stop eat during this phase…I am at 15.6% BF with a weight of 190 lbs.

Steven December 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Rusty,
I was interested in the research, but it comes across as bashing of other points of view. I have been working out in commerical gyms for over 20 years and don’t think it just takes working out with light weights to failure to maximize muscle growth. 2 or 20 reps to failure ? I don’t think its that easy or I would be doing it along with everyone else in the gym.

Jacy December 9, 2010 at 7:27 pm

This is very interesting. keeping fit is a great goal to have in life but we should also remember to do things properly and safely.

MAXbarbell for weightlifting shoes December 9, 2010 at 11:34 pm

While I tend to mostly agree with the conclusion of this study, I think you got it right when you say “Like the findings of most studies, this is just a small snapshot at a few variables”. You probably heard about the guy that lost close to 30lbs on a diet of twinkies. Does that experiment show that twinkies are good for you and we should all eat twinkies? Or does it show that in isolation, a calorie deficit is an important variable for weight loss. Similarly, there is no doubt that effort does matter for strength and mass gain. But there are also a lot of other variables that play a part and any serious lifter/athelete would be remiss not to consider. For example, the study doesn’t explain why a beginner will tend to make significant gains in strength and mass without too much effort, however a more trained athelete could spend months putting in maximal effort just to increase his/her lift by a few pounds. So the number of weeks/years a lifter has been lifting is another variable that will play a big difference in the amount of strength or mass gained.

Josh December 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I used to do the standard 4 sets of 10 reps for about 2 years. I saw SOME size difference, but I was weak and couldn’t even compete with any of my friends when we arm wrestled. Now, I’m not a small guy: I’m 6’1 and I’ve had big legs, shoulders, chest and back since I was around 14. But when I switched from low weight/high rep to high weight/4-6 rep, I packed on ALOT of size in a few months alone. When I look at pictures of myself from two years ago, I’m amazed. It looks as though I’ve packed on 5-7 lbs of muscle on my upper body alone. And now, I can beat most of my friends when we arm wrestle.

Definitely low rep/high weight! Body builder stuff just doesn’t work unless you live it. And I have too much of a life to start working out 5x a week for an hour per session. I’d rather see awesome results from short and heavy 20-30 minute work outs 2-3x week that don’t make me look like the Hulk but still pack on some muscle.

Dennis Blair Fort Collins Personal Trainer December 10, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I have been training my clients with the Tabata method for years (max reps in 20 seconds), and I have seen tremendous results in strength and muscle building. Interesting study.

tunde December 11, 2010 at 8:21 am

thanks for d vid it was really helpful

Keturah December 11, 2010 at 9:19 am

Interesting article, Rusty!

In the same vein of things, can you compare/contrast high volume/low rep to slow cadence style of weight lifting program (Slow Burn, Power of 10, etc.)? They seem to be saying the same thing (more effort, less reps, heavier weights) but they do strive for failure by the last rep, as opposed to your conclusion of simply going for high volum/low rep, no failure.

My own experience: weight and volume do seem to affect my own size goals. I’m female. I have gotten bulky and gained an entire size when I tried kettlebells. Gave it up and went back to lighter weights and easier workouts. But after reading your article, I’m wondering if it isn’t the kettlebells, but the fact that I was doing so many reps and going to failure (I’ve never been so sore and exhausted in my life. One more reason I gave them up.)–I was definitely working too hard. Thoughts? Suggestions? I am EAGERLY awaiting your female program’s arrival in February. Don’t delay its release!! 🙂

IntensePhysique December 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Good Read thanks for the video too!

Aaron December 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Alright thanks for the vid Rusty!

Kinda understand more of what’s going on. So basically its saying that if I were to lift in the 8-12 rep range and the 12th rep kills me, it would draw the same effect as if I was lifting a lighter weight for the same move and lets say rep 50 is where I hit failure, it would produce similar results? Okay I see it recruiting more muscle fibers as the exercise became more demanding, in fact you’re targeting endurance fibers to start off with then fast twitch fibers as you struggle to push your way to rep 50. Again I’m not sure. I would like to see this study taken further, with athletes trying this out or at least already fit people and see what happens. It is a very interesting post and maybe muscle building doesn’t have to be as complex as some people think. A great post just like the one with nutrition playing a smaller role in muscle building. Trying to discern what the truth is from the guile that’s put out there to make people buy fancy equipment and supplements. Thanks!

Aaron December 11, 2010 at 2:16 pm

One more thing Rusty, I was wondering of you think this is a legitimate way to increase muscle building benefit from easier exercises (ex. push ups or light weight dumbbells, etc.) Pausing while doing reps. Take the push up for example which can be done for quite a few reps. Now while doing the push up I hold the down position for 50-60 seconds, then go up, then back down for 50-60 seconds. Lather, rinse, repeat for up to maybe 10 sets. The reps would stay low because well… its hard!! So does it have the muscle building effects? Personally I have yet to try this out, I’m just curious, thanks!

yasir December 12, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Hey Rusty:

I would like to ask you a question regarding which type of training I should do. I am 6 feet 2 inch 77 kg, body fat 20%. I am also after the lean hollywood look with angular looking muscles. However, right now I feel my weight is too low for my height and I look slim/skinny. I would like to increase my final weight to 85kg and decrease my body fat to 10% or lower. Is 85kg right for me or should I go a little lower as my final weight? Moreover, how should I go about it? Should I first increase my weight/build muscle mass and then decrease body fat or can I do both at the same time resulting in a final weight of around 85kg with body fat of 10% or lower.

tylerdurden December 12, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Long time, no post. Hey Rusty it’s a good article.
By the way Rusty do you know what training method Olympic wrestlers use?
They seem to have a very ripped muscular body type, I heard they train with high reps, since they need significant muscular endurance.

yasir December 12, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Hey Rusty:

I would like to ask you a question regarding which type of training I should do. I am 6 feet 2 inch 77 kg, body fat 20%. I am also after the lean hollywood look with angular looking muscles. However, right now I feel my weight is too low for my height and I look slim/skinny. I would like to increase my final weight to 85kg and decrease my body fat to 10% or lower. Is 85kg right for me or should I go a little lower as my final weight? Moreover, how should I go about it? Should I first increase my weight/build muscle mass and then decrease body fat or can I do both at the same time resulting in a final weight of around 85kg with body fat of 10% or lower. For achieving this will the techniques in the vacation body blueprint be better or in the visual impact muscle building be better? Which one of these is the latest book you’ve written?

Boot Camp Nolan December 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I’m a soccer player and I need muscular endurance more than I need muscular strength. I’ve found that when I do high reps at a low weight it increases endurance much more than my strength. I can do 100 push-ups, but I can’t bench press all that much.

On the flip side of that when I was in college I lifted more for weight. I could bench press 35kg more than I can now, but I couldn’t do more than 50 push-ups.

Eric Graham December 15, 2010 at 5:24 am

I think its right that a combination of heavy load, an increasing maximum effort (progression) and intensity regardless of reps stimulates growth.

Jeffrey343 December 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Jeremy & Kim – this sounds a lot like “drop sets”. I sometimes do drop sets, although it is more practical on machines than with free weights, since changing weights on machines is a lot easier & quicker. Your approach seems much better suited for free weights. I wonder whether they have the same result…

BTW, I do prefer free weights, but the gym where I mainly work out (due to my kids’ activities) is very limited in free weights.

I think that approach works well with pushups & pullups too. The number of consecutive pushups I can do varies a decent amount from day to day. I like to do 100 total most days. Twice in my life I’ve done 100 in a row. Sometimes I can make 75, sometimes 60, sometimes 50. I frequently like to do them in one set, so I’ll do as many as I can, rest, do as many more as I can, etc. until I reach 100. The last ones somehow feel different, like I really am using more muscle fibers. Maybe that part’s all in my imagination, but they do burn more of course.

About 17 years ago, I started working out with a guy who did the low rep – high weight approach. I was just starting lifting seriously for the first time. I gained strength very quickly, but I really didn’t bulk up much. I was surprised I didn’t look or weigh much different – I expected to appear more ripped. I had a good look, as I started out pretty thin from running a lot and playing a lot of basketball. Once I really cut down on the running without changing the lifting part, my strength (and weight) increased a good amount, which is pretty good evidence that it is hard to completely serve two masters. Although I do think weight training complements running a LOT more than running complements weight training.

I do think I got better definition (meaning, at least to me, more visible muscle growth) during the time in my life I did nothing other than running and pushups than from my heavy weight days.

MAXbarbell - weightlifting shoes December 15, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Hi Rusty,
I see that you posted on Tim Ferris’ 4HWW blog about his new book. I can’t wait to get your take on the book.

Darrell220 December 15, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I like the idea of this study. But what about the high reps for endurance idea? I train in two different ways depending on what time of the year it is. If its karate season for me (when the tournaments come around and not just regular class) I always have to switch to high rep exercises or im gassed mid kumite. In the off season i lift heavy and do alot of cardio so i don’t believe that is the problem. I believe the number of reps play an importance in muscle or motor memory, (can’t rememeber what its called) which leads to less “gassing”. Just my 2 cents. Great post Rusty. Maybe some day there will be a post for the best types of exercises for specific sports lol, now that would be complicated.

IntensePhysique.com December 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Good read definitely a mix of heavy and light reps is the way to go, just depends on your goals!

Seth December 19, 2010 at 5:26 pm

well it’s a good study about muscle growth and should be considered. wouldn’t you need more muscle, eventually, to get more strength? what if you are reaching your limit of strength gains/neural capacity for how much muscle you have? I recently went to a cluster/ rest pause training from the standard 5×5 training and am seeing good results so far. I am tired of the “your too skinny” comments I get even though i am lifting much more than my body weight, and in some lifts, twice my body weight, so I am trying to put on a little bit more size to get a better “adonis ratio”. So a mix of both should be considered.

Heith December 22, 2010 at 4:55 am

This is an interesting study. I tend to agree with the things you agree with. The one thing I have personally experienced is muscle growth from low and high rep exercise plans. At my peak size, 224, I had grown 10 lbs in about a month by just shortening my workout to about 25 minutes, very intense, moderate weight, 10 total sets of about 8 to 10 reps, 30 seconds max rest between sets, with a 3 to 4 day split. On the other hand, when I was doing high volume training, 5 sets of 5 exercises up to 12 or more reps, I put on very muscle (150 to about 170) and then plateaued for several years–nothing really worked to gain me size except the short, intense workout I gave about.

I tend to think that human bodies are so varied that, while general principles apply, the same workout works differently for different people.

I am currently trying to lose muscle weight, as you were, which is what attracted me to this blog. In the last year none of my program changes have really worked, high or low reps I don’t lose muscle. The only that that did it was a strict avoidance of sugars, starches, dairy and incorporating certain intermittent fasting principles. The think that has been annoying me lately is that I really enjoy weight lifting, and intense workouts, but can’t seem to achieve such intensity without contradicting my goal of losing muscle to get down to a more comfortable size.

I appreciate your blog–it’s been quite a help. Any tips?

Trent December 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Hey Rusty!
I was just wondering if you could clear up somethings for me with reps. I guess the 6-12 reps builds mass. And According to the ‘evil russian’ you can build mass with 5 reps, of a weight you can do 6 reps to failure and so on. Or is this based upon the cumulative fatigue thing?
Also for toning is it 2-5 reps with a high or low weight?
Thanks

Will December 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Why not just do a mix of these philosophies? Either have the static exercise added on to your last rep of your last set, or flip the two around every other day you work out.

I’m at my works computer so I don’t have the material on hand, but I remember reading an article on how a European country’s olympic team used the first method mentioned (do a static ‘pose’ at the peak of the strength curve of exercise) and got considerable strength and size gains (probably due more to the fact that they had massive diets as well).

When I was young I used to work for a neighbor by bucking hay for them in the summer and I used to start out in my average shape (was a swimmer and basketball player in HS). After lifting those bails (30-50lbs) all day for all summer I was lean and got some size to me.
When I joined the Marine Corps same thing (long work with various high weight/low rep, low weight/high rep, and static exercises) and I was in damn good shape for the 6 1/2 years that I was in.
Now that I have been out for almost two years I am still in shape and I have to say that it’s probably due to the variety of of work/workouts that I do (building houses [mainly stone walls and round timber frames], rock climbing, running, swimming, hiking, and MMA), and while I may not be the biggest or leanest guy in the room, I look proportional and fit.

I guess it’s really about the goals you have that will determine what philosophy you use.

lean and fit January 9, 2011 at 10:56 am

Hi Rusty
Haven’t been here in a long while, how is the new year so far?
Looking forward to hearing from you much more this year.
I intend to maintain my lean and fit lifestyle this 2011

Get A 6 Pac January 15, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Everybody is different, so I agree that effort is what counts, not reps.

paula wolf January 25, 2011 at 11:25 am

I agree that as with anything in life, the more you put into it the more you will get out of it. I have always believed intensity in the gym matters most. But in order to keep that level up nutrition and recovery are key. The effort of diet and recovery are equally important. The body will always adapt and you will always have to change up the stimulus no matter what reps, weights or exercise you do. Thats my 2cents.

ronjon February 10, 2011 at 11:27 am

would you please clarify for the un-initiated, namely me, what does failure REALLY mean?

thx,
rj

Brendan February 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm

A few points to consider. Part of hypertrophy is dictated by volume. Volume = reps x weight so in a way you can say reps don’t matter because you can tweak the formula to achieve the same relative volume. However, this sounds like a very elementary concept on training. What about the effects on levels of testosterone, cortisol, etc… There is significant research on what training protocols produce the greatest response in each of these and reps are a part of these studies. In addition, the size principle has been shown to be a general rule but can be bypassed using certain techniques (concept of a few heavy squats prior to box jumps). Lastly, the type of adaptations the muscle makes is in relation to the stimulus. Take a sprinter and a marathon runner. Both continually push themselves to maximal effort, but one does it using a million repetitions over 3 hours and the other does it using one hundred repetitions over 60 seconds. The physical differences in their lower body musculature were evident even prior to the prevalence of weight training for running sports. This is certainly an interesting topic but I still don’t think that 20 studies out of thousands on weight training prove that reps have no place.

David February 24, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Just read this article, and while I’m not convinced that their findings are true, or accurate for that matter, it’s still an interesting look at a question that weight lifters and gym junkies have been asking for a long time. I re-posted this on my blog, gowellnessu.com, for my readers to decide for themselves!

Sam March 6, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Great post. I’ve always thought that more effort = more gains. If you go in the gym, and do one rep of your max you’ll never really make any huge gains. However, if you go in the gym, and do 30 pounds below your max until you can’t put it up anymore, you’ll start to see great increases in the amount of weight you can lift as well as the size of your muscles. The harder you work, the more you get. That principle works in life as well as fitness.

Anyway, just my two cents! I’ve done high rep workouts that put half an inch on my arms in just a few weeks, and I’ve done low rep workouts where I didn’t make any gains. It all depends on how hard you work.

If you get a chance, I’d really appreciate it if you’d check out my blog! I’m trying to break down fitness in a methodical, sensible manner, starting with basic anatomy and physiology of the muscle groups of the body. I also just posted a basic 12 week workout program for beginners. Eventually, I want to get more and more advanced, creating a resource for anyone from the beginners trying to lose a few pounds to the veterans trying to add a few more pounds to their bench press. Hit up the site if you get a chance! dedicatedfitness.blogspot.com

Thanks!
Sam — Dedicated Fitness

Abdonda March 17, 2011 at 11:28 am

Interesting post about reps. I think many people would agree with you that higher reps tend to build muscle.

Troy - Cube.Dweller.Fitness March 18, 2011 at 12:24 am

Maybe I’m more of a hardgainer, but I’ve worked several different rep patterns. This post matches my experience that working to fatigue matters most; often that means working in different rep patterns.

I’ve done so many different types of programs: low-rep, German volume training with 10 sets of 10, 100 rep workouts, tabata drills, and more.

The variation every 4-6 weeks pushes the body. I guess P90 followers would call it muscle confusion. The principle matters and this post nailed it — work to failure.

Craig March 19, 2011 at 6:03 pm

So an individual who went from 100lbs X 5 in the dumbbell bench press, to 150lbs X 5, while avoiding training to failure would not have bigger chest muscles? That does not make one iota of sense.
As to your GF or any other individual, would not gross cal intake have a far greater bearing on whether or not additional bulk was put on. Not to mention how much cardio was employed over that time. Too, assuming she is natural, muscle building for women is definitely no easy task.
Anyone with any time in the trenches knows from their own trial and error that they will respond to some rep brackets and not others, and that this may very well change over time. So reps don’t matter? Bollocks.
Finally, for a drug free individual training to failure exacts a hell of toll on recovery. So much of failure training is from hyped shrunken testicled juice abusers. For those of who don’t go down that road though? If you can save your reserves and avoid going to failure, but progress your strength to some pretty bloody impressive levels by using the rep ranges you respond to, you are going to be big and strong. But that kind of commonsense doesn’t sell mags or supps.

shane March 23, 2011 at 2:24 am

took the words right out of my mouth. I was thinking, if you do heavy loads, do negatives after failure or take some weight off and do as many reps as possible immediately. You may get full muscle recruitment and any unproven benefits of heavy weight training?

Louber March 28, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Hi Rusty,
First time commenter. I had Dr R. Carpinelli during the ACSM Health and Fitness Instructor cert (which I pass) Very interesting and informative. Saw him years later and he had gone from 10 reps to 20 super slow reps. Tried it and it was not easy; very intense. Not many clients continued with it, but had mixed results with those that did. One positive; shorter workouts and thus longer rest time.

Tatianna June 15, 2011 at 10:47 am

This is a very interesting concept. I always believed that reps didn’t matter at all, and now this article confirms my beliefs. I really love reading fitnessblackbook, I found more information here than I did studying for my Personal Trainer Certification.

Nicholas August 5, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for putting this together. It’s very interesting and it makes a lot of sense to me that exhausting the muscle, whether with a heavy or lighter weight is going to increase strength. I prefer to lift fast, but the results of the study are saying that tempo isn’t really important, just the resulting force that the muscle had to exert?

hello nfl October 5, 2011 at 3:35 am

Thanks for putting this together. It’s very interesting and it makes a lot of sense to me that exhausting the muscle, whether with a heavy or lighter weight is going to increase strength. I prefer to lift fast, but the results of the study are saying that tempo isn’t really important, just the resulting force that the muscle had to exert?

Exercise On Abs November 8, 2011 at 10:16 am

I was a hardgainer, but exercising in 45-60 sec interval got me the best results. For example : 12 reps x 4 seconds = 48 sec
you can do 10 reps x 5 sec= 50 sec
Nice post!

David @ The Natural Health Service January 3, 2012 at 4:33 am

I like your video, and agree that the study is too narrow to have much meaning really.

I do know for certain that you will not increase in strength (beyond the beginner stage) doing sets of 12 reps, but you will doing sets of 3 reps.

If you use short rest periods with low reps and cause fatigue at the same time you will also gain size. Of course the weights you are using will have to be a bit lower for this than if you were taking longer rest periods.

Training with max weight to failure with low reps will soon overtax the central nervous system and stop gains. And even with higher reps only your last couple of sets should be max effort.

John Oxnard April 28, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I recently watched the documentary “Pumping Iron” which is about Arnold Schwarzenegger and body building. I remember Arnold saying that “the last few reps are the ones that build muscle”. Being able to squeeze out those last few reps will be the reason you build muscle. So as long as you are pushing yourself to your limit either method is fine.

Rocky May 1, 2012 at 8:52 am

I have been using this technique for about 2 months. I am currently in a juvenile prison facility that does not let us use weights but I have been using this method with body weight. I have noticed increased strength but I still have maintained my lean build. Also I have proven, using the maximum effort technique I can increase in size using strictly body weight, something that all of the inmates deny.

J January 10, 2013 at 5:50 am

Studies, studies, studies. everyone is doing studies and coming up with different answers and all contradicting themselves. its a joke going on the internet trying to find what to do and what not to do.

Logan Bates March 26, 2013 at 8:55 am

Interesting study!! I’ve always felt more repetitions gives me a better workout (simply using bodyweight techniques) but then again I don’t really fancy myself a body builder, I prefer to have an athletic build! I guess it just depends on your own personal goals!

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