A Scientific Look at Reps
When planning a workout you should first determine the desired training effect
and select a repetition bracket to suit that goal.
The following illustrates the typical training effect of various rep ranges (I
still haven't worked out how to do lists yet).
= Maximal strength increases through enhanced neural drive
Reps = Optimal
compromise of maximal strength and hypertrophy gains
= Maximal hypertrophy gains leading to increased maximal strength
= Strength-endurance gains and lower hypertrophy gains
Using this table we can see that the best gains in strength are made using very
low reps (1 to 5) whilst the best gains in muscle size (hypertrophy) are made
using medium to high reps (6 to 12).
The weight you lift will be dictated by the rep range you choose. If you are
looking to gain muscle size you would select a weight that allowed you to
perform between 6 and 12 reps. If you can only complete 3 reps the weight is too
heavy. If you can do more than the chosen number of reps, the weight is too
In addition to the above it should be noted that the fibers in your muscles are
"typed" according to their oxidative capacities and how fast they
fatigue. In simplistic terms you have slow twitch fibers (type-I) and fast
twitch fibers (type-II). Fast twitch fibers respond best to low-rep training
whilst slow twitch fibers respond better to high-rep training.
Therefore, you should periodically juggle low-rep training, intermediate-rep
training, and high-rep training to make the best progress.
Scientific Look at Sets
A set is a group of consecutive reps. There are a number of factors to consider
in determining how many sets to include in a workout; assuming that nutrition
and rest are in check the most important factors are as follows.
of reps selected
It is generally accepted that there is minimum amount of time a muscle must be
stimulated for maximum size and strength gains. Conversely there is a maximum
amount of time a muscle can be stimulated before overtraining sets in. Basically
the more reps per set you perform the lower the number of work sets you should
perform and vice versa.
Number of exercises per training session
The more exercises you perform per muscle part, the fewer sets you need to
achieve an optimal training effect for each exercise.
The number of sets performed should be proportionate to the size of the muscle
mass trained. You would therefore expect to use more sets when training larger
muscle groups than you would with smaller muscle groups. In direct conflict with
this is the fact that smaller muscle groups recover more quickly than larger
groups; it should be remembered that many smaller muscle groups are worked when
training larger muscle groups e.g. biceps when training back.
One or two sets per exercise are usually enough for beginners whilst experienced
trainees will often require increased volume.
Muscles that are inherently fast-twitch respond best to more sets. Muscles that
are inherently slow-twitch respond best to fewer sets.
The optimal number of sets required to increase muscle mass is one of the most
controversial topics in bodybuilding. There are the low-set proponents such as
Mike Meltzer and Dorian Yates and there are the high-set proponents like Arnold
Schwarzenegger. Both camps are right, what counts is the proportion of high-set
and low-set work through a sound periodized approach to training.
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