If you’ve been in the iron game for any amount of time then you will be familiar with rep ranges and one-rep maxes.
Even if you are completely new to the gym you can still appreciate that there is a target number of times you want to be lifting the barbell for individual exercises.
It also seems logical that the weight we lift matters too, the more we can lift for the more reps the better, right?
But does the number of reps you perform make a difference? And is there an ideal number you should be performing for each working set?
The same goes for the weight you lift, is there an ideal amount that will maximise your gains? What about if your goal is strength rather than hypertrophy, or vice versa?
Below we explore these questions and try to come up with some recommendations.
And we cover 2 common ways to set your weights and reps that will deliver strength and muscle gains.
Why lift weights anyway?
Before we look into reps and weight, let’s re-examine why we lift weights in the first place and how this relates to strength and muscle growth.
When we lift weights we aim to cause muscle fibre hypertrophy. In simple terms, this means an increase in the size of the component parts of our muscle fibres.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs in response to a stimulus (our training) and when the rate of protein synthesis within our body exceeds the natural rate of breakdown.
Provided we’ve delivered a sufficient stimulus, that is we’ve trained hard enough, our body will use protein synthesis to repair and then build new muscle tissues.
Given enough time, training sessions, adequate nutrition and recovery, this can lead to an increase in muscle strength and size.
From our body’s point of view, this means we are better placed to handle the stresses the next time we encounter them, i.e. future training sessions.
This constant dance of stressing and then supporting our muscles, through adequate nutrition and recovery, is the ongoing life of a lifter.
So, we know that we need to apply a sufficient stimulus to our muscles to force an adaptation (e.g. a growth and/or strength increase). But does it matter how we apply this stress, as in the number of reps we complete and the weight we lift?
The rep range continuum
Classical gym bro thinking subscribes to the idea of a rep range continuum whereby the number of reps completed in a working set leads to a specific outcome. I.e.
- low rep ranges (1-5 reps at 80-100% of 1RM) lead to strength gains
- moderate rep ranges (8-12 reps at 60-80% of 1RM) led to better hypertrophic gains; and,
- high rep ranges (15+ below 60% of 1RM) are best for building muscular endurance
More recent research, however, suggests that the evidence to support these assumptions, at least from a hypertrophy perspective, is not compelling.
Indeed, more recent studies contradict the rep range continuum and show that trainees will see similar results regardless of the rep range employed, provided the intensity of training is sufficient. I.e. sets should be taken fairly close to failure.
It seems there is support for lower rep/higher weight ranges if the focus is on strength and powerlifting/Olympic lifting, however.
Although, as the authors of the linked review point out, this may be more due to training specificity, and the fact that these lifts rely on perfecting 1 rep maxes thus dedicating practice to low rep lifts is more likely to deliver better results.
All that said, as with most things in the lifting world, there is a paucity of robust research and evidence, particularly for well trained/experienced individuals, and lots of anecdotal conflicting real life case studies.
For instance, successful powerlifters and Olympic lifters train predominantly in the lower rep ranges, focusing on honing techniques at these low ranges, and it produces spectacular results.
Successful bodybuilders train predominantly with a moderate to high rep range. And, again, there are countless examples of incredible physiques showing that this approach works.
Countless highly experienced/highly successful strength coaches use low (1-5) rep ranges to build strength and power in athletes competing in all manner of different sports.
And, talk to a PT in your local gym or browse the many online muscle building programmes (including ours) and they will recommend working with a moderate rep range if you want to build bigger muscles.
So, what gives? Is everybody wrong or is there a right weight/rep range to work in?
Well, as ever in lifting, there is no absolute right way. But there are reasons why you may want to work in a specific range, regardless of what some of the research seems to now suggest.
So how many reps should I be doing?
If you are new to resistance training then you can take heed of the more recent research into rep ranges and weight.
That being that the reps and weight don’t really matter.
As long as you are training at an appropriate intensity, taking your working sets close to technical failure, and often enough, 2-3 times per week, then you will see substantial strength and size gains.
That said, time efficiency may still be a concern.
If you can get the same benefit from 3 sets of 10 bench presses as from 3 sets of 20, then why not stick with 10 reps and get your workout done in half the time?
Plus, 20+ reps in one set can cause joint discomfort and can be more intimidating. If working sets are painful and/or you stress just thinking about doing them then your adherence may wane.
Resistance training has to be hard to be effective, but you need to enjoy your workouts or you are unlikely to stick with them long enough to see any notable improvements in your physical appearance and well being.
So, for beginners and more novice lifters, completing the majority of your exercises with a weight that allows you to complete anywhere between 6 – 15 reps is a great place to start.
We would also recommend that you vary your rep ranges for the same or similar exercises between training sessions.
For example, you complete 3 sets of bench press on Monday and aim to complete 6 reps per set, thus push a moderate to heavy weight, say 80-85% of your one rep max. On Thursday you again complete 3 sets of bench press but this time for 15 reps, thus you push a lighter weight, say 60% of your one rep max.
This change in rep and weight range from one session to the next is known as undulating periodisation and is designed to force continued adaptations. And to reap the benefits of working in different rep and weight ranges (despite what the recent research may say!).
Remember, regardless of the rep range employed, the last couple of reps must be tough and a struggle to complete with good form.
Thus novice lifters will benefit from learning to gauge their efforts in the gym. One of the best ways to do this is via reps in reserve, which we’ll come to below.
While not strictly necessary for a beginner, this form of undulating periodisation and the use of reps in reserve will put you in good stead for more advanced training as your experience grows.
The case for specificity as you become more experienced or want to specialise
As we’ve seen from the more recent research, if the goal is simply to build muscle and get stronger then fatiguing your muscle is the more important element. How you reach this point, as in how many reps you use, appears less relevant.
But, at the same time, if you want to get good at a specific ‘thing’ then you need to dedicate specific time to practising said thing.
And, to really master it, you need to practice the component skills that form the greater overall skill.
Take football as an example. If you want to get good you practice by playing football. But, if you want to become really good you also master the component parts that make a great footballer, e.g. passing, tackling, shooting, positioning, fitness etc.
But, each of these skills also requires further scrutiny and specific practice to master the component parts.
For example, to master dribbling with a ball, you have to master balance and touch/ball control. This is done by practising in specific ways tailored to improving a specific skill, or component part of a broader overall skill.
Lifting is not different.
If you want to master Olympic lifting then you have to practice Olympic lifts and their component parts (flexibility, technique, power, force generation etc.).
And, if you want to become great at lifting super heavy weights for one rep then you need to practice lifting heavy for low reps.
With the best will in the world, doing 20-30 lightweight squats is not going to prepare you for a powerlifting competition where the aim is to lift as much as you can for one rep.
Squatting heavy isn’t just about strong quads and glutes. You also need to be able to generate high force via neural stimulation of muscles. That is, you need to train your CNS to get as many neurons firing in your muscles as possible.
Again, multiple high rep/low weight sets aren’t going to optimise this.
What will is a combination of low rep/high weight maximal lifts supported by more dynamic moderate weight sets focused on improving your bar speed, thus force generation.
This is why, despite what some of the more recent research suggests, many strength coaches around the globe make use of both low rep/high weight sets and low rep/moderate weight sets focused on maximal bar speed as part of their training programmes.
If you want to squat or bench heavy, then you absolutely need to build in some low rep/high weight sets into your training.
Conversely, if you are focused solely on endurance or aesthetics then force generation and lifting as much as possible is not as big a concern.
In this case your training may be better optimised by skipping the heavy sets and focus more on higher volume and generating a greater ‘pump’.
In our view, a combination of both low rep/high weight and more moderate rep/moderate weight is the ideal combo. And, we provide an outline of how to programme for this in the final thoughts section below.
2 methods to set your weight and rep ranges
Even if we did buy into the notion that the exact number of reps doesn’t matter, we still need some mechanism to set our total and starting rep range, right?
Below we set out two common approaches and how you may want to use them in your programming.
Rep ranges based on a percentage of a one rep max
As with the rep range continuum, the number of reps performed at a given % of your one rep max is thought to achieve specific results, i.e. improved max lift, improved power, improved endurance, greater hypertrophy.
Essentially, you take your true one rep max for a specific lift and then, depending on your training goal, work at a given percentage and for a corresponding number of reps and sets.
One of the most recognised methods for determining reps and sets based on a % of a one rep max, and the most widely used and abused, is the work of Russian Olympic lifting coach Alexander Prilepin.
Back in the chalky mists of Olympic lifting time, a Russian Olympic lifting coach Alexander Pirelpin also wrestled with the problem of how much weight his athletes should be lifting in training.
This conundrum led to him undertaking a study with his own athletes to try and determine if there was an ideal weight to train with to maximise Olympic lifting performance.
Pirelpin and his coaching colleagues looked at the effect of weight and reps on a lifter’s bar speed, form and contest max. For instance, they found that 3-6 reps per set at 70% of a contest max led to a positive training result (i.e. good form, good bar speed, increase in max lift).
Crunching all the data from hundreds of lifters completing thousands of training and competition lifts at many different weights, reps and set ranges led to a summary table that is now known as Prilepin’s chart.
This chart is essentially a table that provides a guide rep and set range for various percentages of a one rep max and has been used by numerous strength coaches over the past few decades and/or modified to form many other well regarded strength training programmes.
Using Prilepin’s chart
The first column is the percentage of your 1 rep max for a given lift and thus the weight you are pushing.
The REPS column is the ideal number of reps per set to complete with OPTIMAL REPS being the total number of reps to complete in a given training session.
The final column, RANGE, is a guideline suggested total of reps to complete in a session. As every trainee is different, and your training can be affected by many external factors on any given day, the optimal rep suggestion may not always be advised/achievable. Conversely, some days you may feel super strong and thus want to benefit from increased volume.
So, looking at the entry for 85%, we see the recommended reps per set is 2-4 for a total of 12 reps. How you achieve those 12 reps is down to you to programme. I.e. 3 sets of 4 reps, 6 sets of 2 reps, 3 sets of 4 reps etc.
*we would suggest working at the lower end of the rep ranges, if not a touch lower, for your squat, deadlift and bench press as these moves are more fatiguing than the Olympic lifts the chart was originally designed for.
Using percentages of your one rep max in your workout plans
Is Prilepin’s chart a foolproof guide to how many reps and what weight you should be lifting?
Absolutely not, and it should be used cautiously for non-Olympic lifting and by less experienced lifters.
Bear in mind that the research behind the chart, and the results of its implementation, were based on professional, highly trained, highly experienced lifters.
And true Olympic lifts can be less fatiguing than the powerlifting moves performed in the gym, as you tend to drop the weight rather than use a controlled eccentric.
But the methodology behind Prilepin’s chart can be used as a guide/starting point for you to plan your programs and rep/weight ranges, particularly for your big compound lifts.
Indeed, we use the principles ourselves for our squats, deads and presses for this very reason, as do many other highly respected strength programmes.
When programming, we favour using 2 different percentages and alternating between them from week to week.
As a basic example: Week 1 sees you lift at 85% of your max for doubles, then in week 2 you drop the weight to 80% but complete 3-4 reps.
Week 3 sees you return to 85% but you aim for one more rep, you then do similar in week 4 but again at the lower 80% weight.
Once you can comfortably complete the optimal rep range you increase the weight and repeat the cycle.
Setting rep ranges via reps in reserve
Another common method to determine rep and weight ranges is via the use of reps in reserve (RIR) or relative perceived effort (RPE).
Both RIR and RPE are measures of effort and designed to gauge how hard you are working in a set or across an entire workout.
The logic being that, for maximal hypertrophic gains, you want to be working as near to failure as you can without over fatiguing yourself and hampering recovery and your ability to work in future training sessions.
RIR is our preferred measure and is simply an indication of how many good reps you had left in the tank for a specific working set.
For example, if you were working to failure then you would have an RIR of 0, that is, you couldn’t do another rep with the correct form if your life depended on it. At the other end of the scale, finishing a working set with an RIR of 5 means you had 5 reps left in the tank.
Using RIR takes the issue of how many reps out of the equation. Whatever range you are working in you regulate effort and weight by RIR.
If your plan calls for 3 sets of 8-12 reps you work with a weight that means that you can barely complete the 8 reps, having maybe 1-2 reps left in the tank if you really pushed yourself. Another indicator of getting near to technical failure and appropriate intensity is a marked drop off in the speed at which you can perform your reps. Your bar speed should get noticeably slower for the last couple of reps.
If you can complete 3 sets of 8 reps with multiple reps in the tank and no drop off in bar speed, increase the intensity by going for 10 reps each set, or adding weight so you are back in the 1-2 RIR range for 8 reps.
Again, intensity and overall volume are key. Regardless of the number of reps or sets you complete, you should be pushing to finish the last couple of reps and feeling the stress in the target muscle.
All that said, we would still recommend a rep range for general hypertrophy of 8-15 reps as this ensures a sufficient stimulus while remaining time efficient.
If you’ve got this far you will have noticed that there are contradictions between research, real life examples and the practices we suggest.
The bottom line is that there isn’t an absolute 100% right rep range and weight you should be training with.
But if we subscribe to the idea that the range and weight are less relevant than ensuring we are training at a sufficient intensity and for sufficient volume, we may as well go with what has worked for others, what is the most time efficient, and, ultimately, what we most enjoy.
We would agree that reps/weight is certainly less of a concern for less experienced and novice lifters. If you are an absolute beginner by far the most important aspect of training is to actually get in the gym and do it.
Provided you are lifting with good technique and feeling the target muscle, you will see gains regardless of the weight and reps employed.
That said, for expediency and time efficiency, we would still recommend working in the classic ‘hypertrophic’ range of 8-12 reps for 2-3 sets per exercise to get the best bang for your buck.
For more experienced trainees, however, we feel there are advantages to working within certain rep/weight ranges for specific goals.
For the vast majority of trainees, and certainly those that are more focused on aesthetics, then a mix of both low and moderate reps, with high and moderate weight, is a great way to go.
We like to use and prescribe low rep/high weight % of 1RM for our compound moves and moderate/high rep work, based on a low RIR score (close to technical failure, at least on the last set of each exercise), for our isolation and accessory moves.
We feel this provides a great balance of intensity and volume, training both our muscles and central nervous system. Plus, it is time efficient while still supporting decent numbers on the big compound moves. And, let’s be honest, we all like to see new PRs on the big moves.
We would also recommend alternating rep and weight ranges between sessions, utilisation undulating periodisation, and increasing intensity over a 6-8 week period or training cycle.
If you are more focused on out and out strength, however, then it makes absolute sense to flex your training more towards heavier weight/lower rep work, at least for your competition lifts.
As with any sport or competition, you should practice what you will be performing. Out on the contest floor, you won’t be required to complete 15 reps, you’ll be required to nail your absolute best one rep.
So, it makes sense to spend time honing and improving your one rep performance with low rep/heavier sets.
But don’t go crazy. You don’t need to always be training with 90%+ of your one rep maxes to see great strength improvements. Indeed, you rarely need to go this high in training to see great strength improvements. And, you should reduce your reps and overall volume when you are training in the higher percentages.