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One of the questions I get asked most often in the gym is, “What rep range should I be working out in?” The answer to this varies from person to person and often depends on what their specific goals are and what body type they are (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph). There are many pre-established notions on rep ranges and their effect on the body. I believe that each person will have a basic range that has the most effect on their physique, for some it will be heavy and low, while others might thrive in moderate rep ranges with slightly less weight. I personally believe that rep ranges should be varied within each workout and that your perceived rate of exertion (specifically your number max effort sets) must be closely monitored.
I stated earlier in this article that goals and body types play a role in selecting the rep ranges for your workouts. As you start to read my basic workout plan with rep ranges included, I feel it is important to understand that my goals are to maintain as much muscle mass as I can and that my body type is probably that of a meso-ectomorph. Although I currently compete in bodybuilding, my original background stems from strongman and powerlifting. Consequently, I generally prefer those types of workout routines.
One of the things I do is try and hit 3 different ranges in each work out. I will usually start each workout with a heavy compound movement, starting light and adding weight each set until I have maxed that rep range out. For these “strength sets” I will usually use 2, 3, 4, or 5 as my target reps. My next set will be in a “hypertrophy” range. For these sets I work in 6, 8, or 10 rep ranges. Generally speaking, my second lift in a workout is also a compound exercise, but I have been known to occasionally make this set an isolation move. My third exercise will be done with Time Under Tension (TUT) principles. I use several different methods to achieve this TUT. Four-second negatives and four-second isometric holds on the negative portion of the lift (make sure and vary your hold position) are two that I rotate in most frequently. I will limit these sets to no more than three sets and I keep the weight manageable to make sure to focus on the muscle group that I am supposed to be working. This third set is most often an isolation movement.
It is at this point that I will differ from most philosophies. Once I have completed exercises in the two rep ranges (strength then hypertrophy) and done an exercise in the TUT range, my fourth set will be done in either a strength range (off season) or a hypertrophy range (pre-contest). Whichever range I choose, I will make sure and work up to a max effort on my last set. I feel that by making the muscle re-fire at a max effort after exhaustion is beneficial in recruiting any additional muscle fibers that might have been “missed” in my first three lifts.
As contest prep continues and cardio increases while calories decrease, I will tend to try and drop the total number of sets I do during a workout. Our CNS (central nervous system) is a key player in all of this. By dropping the total number of sets, I feel it allows my CNS to recover better (remembering that the added cardio must also use our CNS for recovery). HMB also helps immensely during this time and allows for a fuller recovery between workouts. HMB is extremely beneficial in not only aiding the recovery process, but also in helping to maintain muscle mass during the dieting and cardio process.
I know that my ideas may vary from those of other bodybuilders or strength athletes, but over time I have found that this basic workout pattern allows me to vary rep schemes and intensity levels from workout to workout. I also find that this style of workout allows me to maintain more of my strength during the “cutting” phase of bodybuilding.
I hope that this article has been helpful. I would like to thanks Metabolic Technologies, Inc. for allowing me to share my thoughts on workout rep ranges and the construction of my workouts. Their products help me in my recovery from workout to workout and maintain more of my muscle mass as I endure contest prep.
- Tim Nassen, Bodybuilder/Strength Athlete