You are probably wondering why I am tackling a subject was dealt with in a previous article?
It has, but I am going to go into specifics here in order to help you navigate the weight room and get a greater bang for your buck out of your training sessions.
The Rep Spectrum
In weight training there is a spectrum that goes from 1 to about 20 reps. 0 reps is no reps, so we’ll just forget about that one. Over 20 reps you’re basically doing cardio.
Maybe you are currently looking at several different programs. Some say 3×5, some say 5×5, some say 10×10, some say « 5, 3, 1 or more » You’re basically lost.
Poor thing… let me help you out… The number of repetitions you do should be connected to the weight used to execute those reps. You are, in most cases, looking to use as much weight as possible in order to do a maximum number of well executed repetitions at said weight.
If you look at the lifting continuum, you can look at reps and connect them to percentages.
A 1 rep max is 100% of the weight you can use for a single repetition. Try a second one and you’ll fail.
As the number of reps increases, the maximum weight you can use is going to decrease. So 2 reps is 95%. 3 reps is 90%. 4 reps is 87,5%. 5 reps is 85% and it goes down and down and down like this until you get to 20 reps for 4à-30% of your 1 rep max depending on the exercice.
How To Use The Reps
A) 1 to 5 reps – STRENGTH
Starting off with this framework, we can already see that low reps will require more strength than high reps.
On that simple basis, you’ll guess that to work strength, you want to work around that 80% and above range. What happens in these ranges is you drain both your muscles and your brain.
Contracting a muscles requires a command. There are two components to a command. The intensity of a command, and the complexity of the command.
How intensely you contract a muscle means that you use as much of that muscle as is consciously possible. A muscle is a bag filled with fibres. Fibres contract together when the nerve that connects to them has sent the command.
Lets say you have 1000 fibres in your muscle. Lets say one nerve connects to 10 fibres at a time. In order to contact maximally, you will have to send a simultaneous command with all 100 of the nerves to the 1000 fibres in order to achieve a 100% contraction. And a command is sent through neurotransmitters (little molecules), and they need about 5 to 7 minutes to get restored.
Now lets look at a complex set of tasks like a Clean And Jerk. This is nervously tiring because several different actions are taking place. As the complexity of the task rises, the felt tiredness will increase.
You need neurotransmitters to perform clean, which is complex because it is basically a deadlift, an upright row, and a front squat. Then the clean and jerk is a dip, an extension, a leg split, and an arm extension. Every command has used neurotransmitters, and the heavier the weight, the more they are depleted.
These two factors need to be taken into account in order to use the number of reps accordingly.
For a same weight, depending on the complexity of the task, you will be able to contract your muscles more or less intensively. This explains why there is a learning curve in lifts, because a task considered complex in the first stages of training will very quickly become simple, and therefore require less mental energy to execute and allow for a more intense contraction.
If you goal is strength, the closer you are to maximal load, the better you will learn to recruit motor units. If you want to lift heavy, you will need to lift heavy weights.
However, when you get close to maximal intensities, technique usually breaks down. So in order to work on both heavy weights and technique, slightly lighter loads are required.
In the beginner and advanced stages, in order to work on maximal strength, aim for rep ranges of 3 to 5 repetition in order to make sure you are honing technique. As your muscles learn how to properly fire together, in the correct sequence for the correct amount of time, and with heavier ad heavier weight, you can sign up for competitions in order to text yourself maximally, or set tests two or three times a year in order to make sure you are making steady progress.
B) 6 to 15 reps – MUSCLE MASS :
However, you cannot sustain maximal effort for more than three weeks in a row. You deplete your ressources over that period. If cannot recover, your performance will not be what you are expecting on week 4, because you will simply not be able to recruit enough motor units to contract your muscle effectively.
Therefore in order to use maximal effort and rep ranges of 1 to 5 reps, week 4 should be what is called a Deload Week. You reduce intensity, and work on muscle mass. If you look at the lift continuum, you will see that if you reduce the weight you should increase the number of repetitions.
We live in a decimal world, so anything under 10 reps seems strange. But remember these are ranges, and should be considered as such. If you can stay in between 6 and 12 reps you will be working on muscle growth. The idea here is that the last reps of these rep ranges should be difficult. So pick a weight for which these rep ranges are difficult.
But why do more reps make more muscle and more repetitions don’t? The answer to this is : Damage and time under tension.
A muscle grows because it has be put under a certain amount of stress, was damaged because of the stress, and grows back thicker. This means each nerve will therefore command thicker fibres to contract, and will mean the contraction is stronger.
The usual 10 rep scheme is useful because it gives an idea of how much time under tension you muscle has to be in order for it to have damage done to it.
So the other solution in order to uncross time under tension without adding reps is slowing the reps down. This is very useful when you are in between weights an you do not have fractional plates, or if you are looking for new ways of spinning up your training.
C) 15 to 20 reps + – Muscle Conditioning
This rep range is a bit special. The weights are low enough to be considered “cardio” work, because the muscle contraction isn’t intense enough to prevent blood flow. This is when the “pump” effect happens. This is especially interesting for muscles that have a high proportion of facias and tendons such as abdominals, calves and lower back.
As their fabric consist in great proportion of connective tissue, the blood flow is weak to then which makes them strong, but very poor at healing.
High rep ranges from 15 and above will help bring blood flow and nutrition into them and help them heal and strengthen in order to help with preventing hernias, low back pain, slipped discs, and skinny calf syndrome. They are zones that work all day, and need even heavier and more reps than the rest of the body.
Now you understand how to use reps in order to change what your goal is during your session. In the next article, I will be talking about what the number of sets you choose to do means and how to use them in order to make constant progress in the weight room.