REP VARIATION: HOW TO INCREASE MUSCLE GAINS THROUGH REP RANGE MODIFICATION.
A seldom considered factor when planning bodybuilding-focused workouts is the scheduling of varied rep ranges to encourage continuous gains. When beginning the training process, many of us are told to employ a moderate range of 8-12 reps per set for most movements. Why 8-12 reps? Why not 15-20, 25-40, or 2-6? As it turns out, the magic range of 8-12, given its influence on muscle hypertrophy, and pure size building is deemed best for bodybuilding purposes, and for good reason. First, because it provides optimal training volume which, in turn, increases the time under tension (TUT) of the muscles being worked (with an ideal TUT for each set being 48-72 seconds) it successfully stimulates muscle micro trauma to promote, upon healing, greater size gains. Second, training in this range encourages sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (the growth of organelles, plasma, and non-contractile proteins) to increase muscle volume. Why is it, then, that non-bodybuilding athletes who utilize non-bodybuilding rep ranges (such as power lifters and Olympic weight lifters) sport muscle mass to rival, or even surpass, many physique trainees? And why do bodybuilders who mix up their rep ranges, rather than exclusively employing 8-12 per set, often experience greater results? Indeed, rep ranges other than the standard 8-12 may confer their own unique muscle building benefits. This article will explore the merits of including in our training varying rep ranges and determine a plan incorporating the best of these to produce fresh muscle mass gains.
Time and tension produce mass
Creating maximal tension in our working muscles through both the positive and negative phases of a repetition within a specific anaerobic timeframe is an unquestioned key to triggering an adaptive response and the building of larger muscles. Provided we do not cross over to the aerobic zone and tremendous effort is exerted in achieving a rep range of 8-12 (four seconds down and two seconds up, with a total, ideal, TUT of between 48-72 seconds) we are assured of an anabolic reaction, and, following sufficient rest and optimal nutrition over a 48-72 hour period, further muscle growth (or the maintenance of established muscle tissue). Our muscles are unlikely to grow in accordance with the number of reps completed per se, but as a result of the amount of time they are placed under tension. Thus, the trainee, in utilizing the heavily touted 8-12 rep range, must learn to work hard within a 48-72 second window; falling short of this target may negate the muscles’ TUT and shortchange our results. Extending this period may only be possible when using lighter training weights, again compromising the intensity we may inflict upon our muscles. While four seconds down and two seconds up may seem an inordinately long time in which to complete one rep (and indeed many are encouraged to adopt a total TUT protocol of 40-60, with three seconds down and two seconds up), such extended muscle stress can add up to some impressive results. Because the load we place on our muscles and the extent to which our muscles can sustain this pressure are inversely proportional, we must be sure to work harder with each and every set, not faster. Nowadays, however, trainees often work at rapid pace as they power through their sets as if to cram as much intensity into as short a period as possible. While their dedication and intention is to be commended, their training style is not. As noted, by training too fast we lessen the amount of tension we place on our muscles and, as such, a desired anabolic response is unlikely to occur. For pure bodybuilding purposes, we must remember that muscles don’t count reps: they count TUT.
So what about alternative rep ranges? Why do some physique champs respond well to higher reps, like 12-15, with a much longer TUT (72-90 seconds), and lower reps, like 3-5, with a lower TUT of 18-30?
Low reps (1-5)
Working within a lower rep range of 1-5 is traditionally thought to stimulate strength, rather than muscle gains. Powerlifters, weight lifters and other pure strength athletes typically employ a disproportionate amount of low rep work when aiming to become freaky strong. Because of the specific central nervous system (CNS) adaptations that occur when we train heavy with low reps (the simultaneous recruitment of all available motor units and the relaying of information from the joint capsule and connective tissue to the CNS via proprioceptors, which encourage each maximally contracting muscle to rest shortly after each heavy set has begun, to protect the integrity of our joints) an increase in contractile tissue results. What many don’t realize, however, is that training within this range may also stimulate muscle size increases, specifically myofibrillar hypertrophy (an increase in the size and number of actin and myosin filaments inside muscle tissue). Myofibrillar hypertrophy is thought to lead to more permanent muscle gains, those which remain longer once training has ceased. Hammering low reps also stimulates all three muscle fiber types: slow twitch, fast twitch, and intermediate – after the first rep (in which predominantly slow twitch fibers kick in), the weight becomes increasingly heavier (at which point intermediate fibers are recruited). Finally, after the first few reps, the fast twitch fibers (those responsible for anaerobic power and which have the greatest growth potential) are activated and take over to round out the set. Low reps may also increase our myogenic tone, or the degree to which our muscles take on a hard look, even at rest. Utilizing low reps can therefore promote strength gains, which may translate to heavier weights lifted during our more hypertrophy centered protocols, harder muscles, and direct size increases.
High reps (15+)
Of all the rep ranges from 1-15, 15+ is the least effective for directly stimulating maximal muscle fiber recruitment, but it is nevertheless an effective accompaniment to both lower and higher rep work. Often used to stimulate fat burning to achieve a shredded appearance (which may not be a smart strategy due to the amount necessary to produce results, which may deplete the energy required to lift heavy and hard, which is infinitely more important to the fat burning/muscle building process), higher reps work best to improve our work capacity via increased mitochondrial density (to improve our tolerance for heavier training and to boost recovery rate between sessions), and to enhance visible muscle size by increasing the amount of glycogen, minerals and water attracted into our muscles due to glycogen depletion which promotes insulin sensitivity and nutrient uptake; more extreme glycogen depletion can also cause our muscle cells to stretch, thus leading to greater overall muscle growth as well as the release of anabolic hormones. Research also suggests that such low load, high rep training can boost protein synthesis better than high load, lower rep work can, though further studies may be needed to provide conclusive proof. Further, joint health and connective tissue benefits may also result from this style of training (a rest from exclusively heavy workloads provides much needed respite for heavily taxed joints and soft tissues). Not typically associated with muscle building workouts and gargantuan size gains, high rep train does have its place, but must not be prioritized ahead of hypertrophy focused methods. By using high reps for the final set of a movement we may experience the benefits noted here without compromising overall workout intensity and size gains.
RESEARCH ALSO SUGGESTS THAT SUCH LOW LOAD, HIGH REP TRAINING CAN BOOST PROTEIN SYNTHESIS BETTER THAN HIGH LOAD
A plan of attack
Many a hypertrophy-based workout has included a variety of rep ranges to target different aspects of muscular development and to promote long lasting gains. Indeed, the process of changing variables within our workouts is, in and of itself, an effective way to prevent training stagnation; to keep our muscles constantly guessing as to what will come next, to avert the dreaded plateau effect. To maximize the effectiveness of each of the rep ranges discussed above and to fully recruit as many muscle fibers as possible and to create the metabolic and anabolic conditions necessary for ongoing gains we may incorporate each rep range (low, moderate and high) across each movement, over four total sets. Being mindful that advanced muscle hypertrophy is the ultimate goal two sets must be within the 8-12 rep range, while the remaining two sets will be strength and endurance based (and, structured in this fashion, will confer the metabolic/anabolic advantages discussed above). To kick-start fresh gains in pure muscle size (both sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar) and to improve muscle endurance and strength, begin each exercise with one set of 1-5 reps (after a light warm up of 8-10); then proceed to two 8-12 rep sets ensuring that total TUT does not exceed 72 seconds; conclude with one set of 15-20 reps. Muscle failure must be reached on the final rep of each set, though the maximal number of reps prescribed need not be completed (provided we stay within the correct range). Following six weeks of training in this fashion, switch back to your regular training style (incorporating, if you want, elements from this plan; for example, you may wish to apply this rep scheduling for one movement per body part).
Hit the GAS
So we have determined that a variety of rep ranges may confer unique muscle building benefits and have decided upon a plan of attack incorporating each. Now we must also consider the problems inherent in applying the same training methodology over and over, namely the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), a state during which our muscles may cease to respond to a particular training stimulus; and during which a plateau response may ensue. To counter the GAS we must periodize our training; in other words we must periodically change the nature of our training by manipulating rep ranges, sets and session structure to encourage continuous muscle growth via increased over-compensation. Whereas traditional periodization models may have the trainee gradually modify their training approach or employ distinct training phases (both of which are valid in their own ways), the way I like to do this is to ensure that no two workouts are ever the same: whether the rep range for the first two sets of a movement is lowered (or increased), or an additional movement is added (or an established one subtracted) try to change your workouts without negating the intensity and overall volume of work completed. For the six week plan outlined above, stick within the prescribed rep parameters, but do change exercise selection and training split if necessary. Once regular training is resumed then reps can be modified with each workout to promote fresh gains.
A STATE DURING WHICH OUR MUSCLES MAY CEASE TO RESPOND TO A PARTICULAR TRAINING STIMULUS
Changing the ranges for explosive growth
By using all three rep ranges (low, moderate and high) we may effectively maximize the growth of all muscle tissue structures, become stronger, harder, and more capable of lasting the training distance. Instead of continuously applying the same 8-12 rep protocol for each of our workouts, we may vary our rep ranges to stimulate new gains in pure muscle size. For the bodybuilding purist such training may be considered heretical, a radical departure from the established training norm, an undermining of years of trial and error, and a slap to the face of proven effectiveness. Rather than speculating on any potential negatives, give this range-changing method a decent shot. It might be just what you are looking for to reach your next level of bodybuilding excellence.
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