We’re all pretty familiar with the 3 sets of 10 when it comes to weight training, but there may be a routine that works better for your body. Give it a try!
My strength and conditioning texts teach that the best repetition ranges for strength-gains fall between 1 and 5 repetitions. Put another way, "If you want to get strong, you have to lift heavy weights." They also teach that a person who wants to add muscle like a bodybuilder should train in the 6 to 12 rep range, and that muscular endurance athletes should train with 15 or more repetitions. Speaking for myself, putting my muscle-building goals aside, I would prefer to lift a moderate-to-heavy weight for a few repetitions than lift a lighter weight and bang out 20 reps that become increasingly painful and nauseating as muscle failure approaches.
Vary Your Repetition Ranges for Maximum Muscle Growth
With the wealth of training information available online, one might think the words "3 sets of 10 reps" would be removed from our vernacular by now. Unfortunately, a peek inside any big box gym proves the practice is alive and unwell. For beginners, this isn't automatically a bad thing. Any organized training will provide a solid muscle-building stimulus for the newbie. It may also benefit someone looking simply to pair a little exercise with their fat loss diet. However, for those who've been training consistently over time and wish to maximize muscle-building efforts, varying the load lifted (in conjunction with the number of repetitions used) will lead to greater overall muscle hypertrophy—or what you may now know as "gainz."
The Fiber of Your Being
Lifting heavier weights for a low number of repetitions, as is the case in training for strength, leads to hypertrophy in our type II and type IIb fast twitch muscle fibers. Thanks to the work of researchers such as Dr. Stuart Phillips and Brad Schoenfeld, along with their colleagues, we know that lighter weight lifted many times to failure can also lead to hypertrophy in the case of our slow twitch type I muscle fibers. Studies show little difference in hypertrophy when using heavy weights and low repetitions (typically 1–5 reps) when compared with training to failure with lighter loads and higher repetitions. Type I, or slow twitch fibers, respond better to lighter loads and a longer set duration than do type II fibers. Meanwhile, type II fibers respond similarly to both heavy and lighter loads.1,2
I like to combine both approaches in my programs, personally and for my clients, as it not only allows for maximum hypertrophy, but it also equips the lifter to maintain strength and muscle endurance, both of which would be severely diminished in a textbook hypertrophy program.
Periodization for Greater Gainz
One approach to taxing the various types of muscle fibers is using different loads within a microcycle (one week) with what is called a "nonlinear periodization" or an "undulating periodization" model. This approach varies the weight loads based on days of the week, matching heavier training sessions with the beginning of the week, and pairing medium-to-lighter loads with days falling toward the end of it. Below is an example of nonlinear periodization.
Focus on increasing strength on:
Monday (Upper) 5–8 sets/exercise 3–5 reps 120s + rest
Tuesday (Lower) 5–8 sets/exercise 3–5 reps 120s + rest
Focus on increasing hypertrophy on:
Thursday (Upper) 3–5 sets/exercise 6–12 reps 60–120s rest
Friday (Lower) 3–5 sets/exercise 6–12 reps 60–120s rest
*Endurance training (15 or more repetitions for exercises) or power training (moderate weights, moved quickly for 1–3 reps) could be used as well or in place of other parameters.
Another way to attack nonlinear periodization is to vary the loads and repetition within each workout. I've been using this method lately, and even though I'm only on Week Six of my current program, I've seen quick results. I'm impressed as I am a trained athlete, a group among whom performance and physique changes take longer than untrained individuals.
Let's use a sample leg day as an example of what this approach looks like.
Barbell Back Squats 3–5 sets 3–5 reps 120s rest or more if needed
Leg Press 3 sets 8–10 reps 60–120s rest
DB Reverse Lunge 2–3 sets 12–15 reps 60–120s rest
BB SLDL 2–3 sets 12–15 reps 60–120s rest
Leg Extension 2 sets 20 reps 60s rest
Lying Leg Curl 2 sets 20 reps 60s rest
As people, we tend to prefer black and white truths, but I believe the answer to this issue is found in the grey. Therefore, I like to mix high-load-low-repetitions with low-load-high–repetitions to maximize muscle growth. This is not meant as an endorsement of one training philosophy over another. Just as is true with nutrition, results will vary from person to person. The stronger you become through heavy-low-rep training over time, the more weight you'll be able to handle at higher rep schemes, leading to greater hypertrophic response of muscle.
Trying to get stronger? Give these a try! 1. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- Versus High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Apr 3. 2. Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, Holwerda AM, Parise G, Rennie MJ, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One, 2010 Aug 9;5(8):e12033. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012033.