Gaspari Nutrition

Ron Harris


High or low reps – who says you have to choose?
09/15/2013

Lately I have been writing a lot about TORQ training, and not too long ago I was also writing about another training system I picked up from IRONMAN editor Steve Holman called 4X (please Google these for more info rather than email me, thanks!). Before that, I was also enjoying the 7's from Hany Rambod's FST-7 training system. All three of these either incorporate higher reps, multiple sets of the same exercise with minimal rest between or both.

One thing I am asked often is, what would I have changed or done differently if I could go back in time 30 years to when I first started training. There are quite a few things I would do differently, but the one that really stands out to me is that I would not have gone as heavy as I did all the time. For many years, I considered anything over ten reps to be 'high reps,' and I would estimate about half my sets were in the 7-10 rep range, with the other half being 3-6. As far as I was concerned, getting stronger was the key to gaining more muscle mass. For the most part, that was actually pretty accurate in the first ten years of my training. I became steadily stronger and continued to gain weight too, since I was eating out of control in my twenties. In my late twenties is when I really should have started incorporating some higher reps, as I was starting to really beat the crap out of my joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). My lower back had already been injured many times by then, and I was already starting to develop chronic elbow and shoulder pain from insisting on doing everything heavy, heavy, heavy.

What I should have done is one of two things: either taken a couple weeks to train lighter after every six to eight weeks of heavy training, or mixed up my rep ranges more so that my tendons and the disks of my spine weren't constantly strained by mega heavy loads. There have always been debates about which way is best, and there is no consensus. Incidentally, whether you realize this or not, science still does not fully understand the mechanism of muscle growth and what causes it. That's right. We put men on the moon and cured various deadly diseases, but we still don't know exactly how to best stimulate muscle growth!

I do feel that neither high reps nor low reps on their own is the optimal solution for optimal gains. Instead, a mix of both is best, either in the same workout or at different workouts. Getting stronger and using heavy weights is one pathway to growth, but so is getting the best possible pump in the muscle. Why the pump is key to growth isn't fully understood. Could it be that stretching the muscle fascia from inside is responsible, or are there signals sent to the muscle from higher reps? Or do higher reps and/or shorter rest periods between sets stimulate different muscle fibers that lower reps don't? No one really has these answers. If they did, there would be one way to train that we could all follow and be confident that we were using the most productive method. Regardless of what anyone tries to claim about their way of training, at present such a system has not been discovered and proven.

Another reason higher reps can be a great addition to anyone's program is that certain exercises are virtually worthless if you do them heavy. Take dumbbell lateral raises, for example. Despite what anyone claims, heaving up a pair of 75's for six sloppy reps isn't doing a damn thing for their side delts, just as cheat curls with 200 pounds aren't giving anyone giant biceps. If instead you took a lighter weight and did one of these rep schemes, I guarantee you would feel the exercise in the target muscle and get an insane pump:

(all these using the same weight)

TORQ: 30 reps to failure, rest 30 seconds, 20 reps, rest 30 seconds, 15 reps

4X: 10 reps with a weight you can get 15 reps with, rest 30 seconds, 10 reps, rest 30 seconds, 10 reps, rest again, try for 10. If you can do all 10 on the last set, increase slightly next time.

FST-7: 8-15 reps with same weight for 7 sets, 20-30 seconds rest between.

These can be done in place of heavier training, or in conjunction with it. I am firmly convinced now that rep ranges are a lot like the free weights vs. machines debate. Why would you ever have to do utilize just one? The best results in the long term for anyone would combine both.

It's too late for me to turn back the clock and prevent all the chronic injuries and tendon pain I have now, but for many of you reading this it's not. It's also too late for me to make the best gains I can, because even though I am still training hard, my prime growing years are behind me now as I have been training so long and will be 44 years old at the end of this week. But again, not for a lot of you reading this! So don't make the mistake I did and shun higher reps. They can be a very valuable tool in your muscle-building arsenal and will also help keep your joints and connective tissues healthier so you can train for many more years with minimal pain to get in the way.

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