The topic of rep ranges is one of the most hotly debated subjects in the fitness industry, and like anything when it comes to training, there is never a one-size-fits-all approach. If we take a quick glance at the different athletes we see in the fitness industry, it is easy to understand why this topic may produce some confusion amongst less experienced lifters. Bodybuilders vary widely with their approaches to maximising muscle growth. Powerlifters and weightlifters typically use lower rep ranges to build strength and power but many are also able to pack on lots of muscle mass. CrossFit athletes take the opposite approach, often doing very high rep sets and yet many of these individuals are very strong and in excellent shape.
The real answer to the optimal rep range for you will always depend on what your goals are, but even then the answer is not always obvious. Are you training for strength? Hypertrophy? A combination of the two? Or maybe you just want to improve your overall health and fitness. Current research indicates that these goals will necessitate training within specific rep ranges in order to optimise your progress. But does this mean we should never venture outside of these optimal rep ranges? It is clear to see why opinions vary widely on this topic, but if we look at the current body of evidence we can get a better idea of which rep ranges work best for our goals.
Best Rep Range for Hypertrophy
For building muscle, it is commonly believed that the 8-12 rep range is best. Whilst this range will certainly yield significant growth, recent evidence suggests that lower and higher rep ranges can be equally effective. In fact, it seems that as long as sets are performed at >30% of an individuals 1-rep max, and that these sets are taken to/close to failure, then similar muscle growth can be achieved across all rep ranges (Schoenfeld et al., 2021).
However, high rep sets (15+ reps) create more fatigue than low and moderate rep sets without causing more muscle growth (Sanchez-Medina and González-Badillo, 2011). Therefore, training at low-moderate rep ranges may represent a more efficient method of training, both in terms of time spent in the gym and minimising fatigue.
For big compound exercises which work multiple large muscle groups at a time (squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups etc.), implementing sets of 5-8 reps seems to be an efficient and effective method of maximising muscle growth whilst minimising fatigue. For lighter, isolation exercises, utilising higher rep ranges (8-15 reps) would be more suitable to ensure proper technique is maintained and that larger muscle groups don’t take over from the actual muscles we are trying to target.
Best Rep Range for Strength
Compared to training for hypertrophy, the evidence regarding training for strength is much clearer. To put it simply, lifting heavy weights for low reps is the way to go. Although you can certainly get stronger using moderate and even high rep ranges, in order to maximise your strength gains the majority of your training should be in the 1-6 rep range (Schoenfeld et al., 2017).
It should be noted that very heavy training is not sustainable for long periods of time due to the toll it takes on the nervous system. Therefore, it is vital to vary your training with a combination of different loads and rep ranges. For example, if you are squatting twice per week, you could have a heavy day where you perform 4 sets of 3 reps, and another day where you perform 3 sets of 6 reps. Occasionally implementing some sets of 8-10 reps may also be useful to add variation and focus on technique without sacrificing your strength gains.
Best Rep Range for Power
Similar to training for strength, training for power is fairly simple. It’s all about exerting maximal force as fast as possible. Exercises such as snatches, cleans, jerks, and weighted jumps are essential. Since fatigue will build up quickly and impair your ability to generate rapid force, the majority of your sets should be in the 1-3 rep range, and certainly no more than 5 reps per set. Always perform these “power exercises” such as snatches and cleans at the beginning of your workout when you are fresh before moving on to strength/hypertrophy work.
Best Rep Range for Muscular Endurance
It is logical to assume that low load high rep training would be most beneficial for improving muscular endurance, but interestingly the research doesn’t always support this. Indeed, some studies have found that moderate rep ranges (15-20 reps) are superior for building muscular endurance than high rep ranges. It seems that the link between high rep training and muscular endurance may only be relevant for lower body training, and when viewing the body of research as a whole, both moderate and high rep training are equally effective for improving muscular endurance (Schoenfeld et al., 2021).
Other Factors to Consider
Since most gym goers have several goals, it is likely that a combination of rep ranges will be needed to target these specific goals effectively. Here are two simple tips to help you optimise your training when trying to target multiple adaptations at once:
- Regarding the order of exercises, in general you should perform power exercises first in your workout, strength second, hypertrophy work third, and muscular endurance work last.
- Use big compound lifts to target strength and power with heavy weight and low reps (sets of 5-6 reps will also lead to hypertrophy). After this, perform lighter accessory exercises using moderate reps to target hypertrophy and muscular endurance.
Another factor to consider is your experience level in the gym. Here at Dabbs Fitness we tailor our training sessions according to the needs of our clients. With beginners, we prefer to use moderate rep ranges (8-12 reps) since performing lots of high-quality reps is key for learning proper technique. For our more experienced lifters, we may implement slightly lower rep ranges (4-8 reps) to challenge our clients with heavier weights so that they can effectively target strength, hypertrophy, and even power.
Take Home Message
Always pick the rep range which will allow you to effectively target your primary goal. If you are chasing multiple adaptations (e.g. strength and hypertrophy) simultaneously then you will need to put more thought into how you can effectively target these. However, don’t be afraid to experiment with rep ranges that fall outside of the “optimum”, as more often than not a bit of variation will do more good than harm.
Sanchez-Medina, L. and González-Badillo, J.J., 2011. Velocity loss as an indicator of neuromuscular fatigue during resistance training. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(9), pp.1725-1734.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D. and Krieger, J.W., 2017. Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low-vs. high-load resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(12), pp.3508-3523.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Grgic, J., Van Every, D.W. and Plotkin, D.L., 2021. Loading recommendations for muscle strength, hypertrophy, and local endurance: a re-examination of the repetition continuum. Sports, 9(2), p.32.