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Are Low Reps Ideal for Strength?

December 14 2010

Every now and then, you will articles saying bodybuilders should do low reps since that will help them increase their strength. And you will also see training programs for muscle which will have a mix of low and high reps to target both strength and muscle.

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But are low reps ideal for strength?

Why is low rep considered ideal for strength?

Powerlifters: Powerlifters are the strongest blokes around, and their training involves a lot of low reps ( 1-6 reps).

Guidelines: According to text books and exercise guidelines, the repetition range for strength is 1-6 reps.

So what is the problem?

Types of strength: There are different types of strength: Maximal strength is the amount of weight you can lift for one repetition. And people are usually refferfing to maximal strength when they say just strength.

On the other hand, strength endurance is the maximum amount of weight you can lift multiple number of reps, say 15-20.

Specificity of strength: According to the theory of specificity, strength is very specific to the repetition range.

So if you want to increase your maximal strength, you do a lot of low reps (1-6). If you want to increase the weight you do for 10 reps, you do a lot of reps around 10 (8-12). If you want to increase your 20 reps, you do a lot of 20 reps ( 18-22).

Example: Consider 3 people A, B, and C with the same genetics, diet, body weight and motivation. A does a lot of bench press in the range of 1-6, B does a lot of bench press in the 8-12 range, and C does a lot in the 20-25 range. Who is stronger?

            A is the strongest in 1-6 reps
            B is the strongest in the 8-12 reps
            C is the strongest in the 20-25 range.
                           

Is there any evidence for this?

The above example was tested in a study. The first figure shows what happens when they were tested for maximal strength. As predicted, A was the strongest.

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In the second figure, they were tested for strength endurance. And guess what, A was the weakest!
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Practical Applications

  • Strength is very specific to the repetition range.. There is no magic to low reps that is missing in high reps in increasing strength
  • If you are training for muscle, there is no reason to add low reps to increase “strength” as most people say.

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Al | Tue December 14, 2010  

So my question is which repetition range will contribute to contribute to muscle growth?  Does time under tension win or most significant stimulus?

Looking forward to your insight.

Anoop | Wed December 15, 2010  

hi al,

Thanks for the comment.

Any rep between 1-15 will work. I would lean towards high reps since it gives you a greater volume and cause less fatigue.

Please check this article: http://www.exercisebiology.com/index.php/site/articles/are_low_reps_1-6_better_than_high_reps_8-12_for_muscle_growth/

Anatoly | Wed December 15, 2010  

As I remember correctly the perfect example from the real life was a squat duel between Fred Hatfield and Tom Platz. Hatfield managed to make more 1RM squat, but Platz made much more reps with lower weight

Anoop | Wed December 15, 2010  

True.

People think that “Low reps are best for strength” and it is if you are testing for maximal strength. And all studies which looks at strength are looking at maximal strength.

And people also think neural adaptations ate higher or better for low reps. Not true. the greatest neural adaptation is intermuscular & intramuscular coordination.They are both different for low and high reps.

So I don’t see a point when people add low reps to increase “strength” in a muscle growth routine. If you are testing our 1RM once in a while, then it makes sense.

FullDeplex | Thu December 16, 2010  

Good article, but I don’t agree entirely with the last conclusion:

‘If you are training for muscle, there is no reason to add low reps to increase “strength” as most people say.’

That training with low reps does not increase strength in the higher rep ranges does not directly mean that adding lower reps or higher reps to a bodybuilding routine does not increase muscle building results. I know this is not what you said, but I just want to be clear.

Also, some time ago I saw as study in which one set of 25 reps was added to a lower rep routine. I did not reread the study, but I think it showed an increase in muscle mass compared to no high reps added.

I will try to find it later.

flow | Thu December 16, 2010  

hey anoop.

Good stuff, but really have to add up to the last post and wondering about not including lower reps for hypertrophy like 5´s (FT Hpertrophy,neurons recruit more fibers etc…).

As time goes by homeostasis needs more disruption-and 5x5 for example does that more than 3x8 via straight sets.
Sure u could as a next step work to near failure on the 8´s on each set(descending sets) to also disrupt homeostasis more than via straight sets of 8 but then we will have again the problem with the cns. so how you make more work? By “clustering”. More volume or same volume with more weight-and thats exactly what you can achieve via lower reps.

Anoop | Fri December 17, 2010  

Hi Flow,

That’s good point, but that’s an entirely different topic. The most common reason why people do low reps is because they want a blend of strength and muscle growth. And strength is very specific to the rep range. I think the misconception is because studies say strength when they really mean “maximal strength” . Powerlifters do 1-3 reps simply because that’s how many they do when compete, not because low reps are ideal for strength.

Karky | Sat December 18, 2010  

Nice article.. I assume they measure strength endurance as a relative 1RM and not an absolute load? Because if they used an absolute load it would probably have been different. If you want to be able to lift a specific load more times before you fatigue, maximal strength training won’t have a negative impact.

Anoop | Sun December 19, 2010  

Hi Karky,

Thanks!

True and yes it is relative load- 60% 1RM. Both are diametrically opposite adaptations so something will give in the long run.

Matt Halliwell | Sun December 19, 2010  

Interesting article. So for strength increase (but primarily for size)it is recommended reps are 8-12??
I thought for greatest strength increase ie. increase the weight you use for a specific rep range you have to get full muscle fibre recruitment or rate coding?? which you get from reps 1-6?? i understand you will get more neural fatigue from low reps so you theoretically train less frequently. Everyones thoughts??

FullDeplex | Sun December 19, 2010  

Hi Anoop

This is the study I was posted about:

http://iesaude.com/ficheiros/file/Muscular adaptations do different strenght Training.pdf

Hope you can comment on it.

Anoop | Sun December 19, 2010  

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment.

Strength as I as I said is relative. You have to specify which strength you are talking about. Is it maximal strength, strength endurance, 10RM and so on.

Just like full muscle fiber recruitment, there are other neural & muscular adaptations which is inherent to high reps and not low reps. It’s called the specificity of adaptations.

Anoop | Sun December 19, 2010  

Hi FullDeplex,

Thanks for the comment and the study.

It is hard when they don’t normalize the volume. The benefits can be easily due to an increased volume with thigh reps. And we know in beginners even high reps can increase muscle growth. And as we talked about enough volume for muscle growth is hard with low reps.

BJ | Sun December 19, 2010  

This is where goals come in handy especialy if your entering the weights room. For muscle growth it’s best to vary your reps and sets not your exercises. If you want to be stronger then go lower reps more sets loved this article.

FullDeplex | Tue December 21, 2010  

Hi Anoop,

If you look at the study you talked about in the article volume should not explain the strength results of my study. Increasing the total volume with high reps should not have helped increase the 1RM, but it did (if I read it correctly, please correct me if I didn’t).

I am convinced that strength training with a certain rep range or method produces specific adaptations to this rep range or method. Your study clearly shows this, but my thought/guess is that these adaptations can sometimes partly “overlap”. Like increasing your weight can result in a better bench press or powerlifting alone may increase your lean mass although these things may not happen in some cases.

I just think it might be a bit more complicated as always. smile

Matt Halliwell | Tue December 21, 2010  

Anoop, thanks for your response. What i meant was how frequently you can increase the weight..ie quicker progress with 6-8 reps or 10-12 reps for example. As an increase in weight = more growth!

Anoop | Wed December 22, 2010  

Hi Full Deplex,

There is always an overlap with adaptations. The further they move apart, the less optimal they are. Just like endurance and strength adaptations.

Hi Matt,

From what I know, I don’t think there is any evidence to show that you can go up in weight quicker with a 6-8 reps than 10-12 reps.

Matt | Wed December 22, 2010  

Ok Anoop, i get the research thing..i was just wondering as ive just changed from 6-8 reps to 10-12 reps as my progress was slow..im thinking training twice per week wasnt enough recovery time maybe?? My hypothesis is that 10-12 reps isnt as much neural fatigue which may help with the progression in weight, what do you think?? I don’t want to drop workout frequency you see…

FullDeplex | Wed December 22, 2010  

I wonder if high rep and low rep strength require different frequency, volume and intensity for optimal/maximum strength increases. What if, for instance, increasing your 25 rep max recuires less or more frequency that raising your 1RM?

Anoop | Mon December 27, 2010  

Hi Matt,

Yes. The damage and fatigue is low with high reps. So you probably can do more volume or a high frequency and a longer cycle theoretically.

Bill Cranton | Mon March 21, 2011  

What if one was to start with a heavy weight for a given exercise, go to failure, then dramatically lower the weight to a level that takes you to failure at much higher reps.  Wouldn’t this cover both bases?

Anoop | Thu March 24, 2011  

Hi Bill,

Thanks for the comment.

Yes I agree. Or you could start with high reps and gradually lower your reps in the next 4-5 weeks too like a simple linear periodization model.

Just keep in mind that heavy weight or low reps are highly fatiguing.

Dale | Tue March 29, 2011  

Anoop -

This is a timely entry as I am currently undertaking to master the pistol squat and the one-arm pushup. Depending on the source, I should either do low reps, or even singles (Pavel), or I should use higher reps while mastering easier progressions (Convict Conditioning).

I’m age 54 and am prone to tendonitis. Would you recommend the higher rep approach for me ? Thanks!

Dale | Tue March 29, 2011  

BTW, Go Gators!

Anoop | Wed March 30, 2011  

Hi Dale,


Thanks for the comment.

Thanks for the comment. Why not include both? Start with high reps and then after a few weeks end up low reps. A basic linear periodization.

Dale | Thu March 31, 2011  

Thanks, Anoop. I’ll give it a shot.

Ben | Wed November 09, 2011  

(Aside from the recruitment/creation of new sattelite cells) I’ve read that the whole concept of creatine being a useful supplement is that it facilitates more rapid ATP production during heavy exertion, and as a result extends the 10-12 second ‘window’ of exertion, allowing more ‘effort’ and hence more muscle growth.

If this is true, it would seem that without enough creatine, rapid ATP production within this exertion window would lag, and effort would be limited on a chemical level (not enough ATP at hand) instead of being limited on a physiological level (pushing the muscle to maximum effort which should create maximum growth.)

I’d posit that all other things being equal, lower slower reps that could be completed within this 10-12 second window (4-6 reps), or really fast medium reps (6-8?), would be more effective than higher reps that couldn’t be completed before the ATP production in the muscle slowed.

I don’t know if instantaneous ATP re-phosphorization is truly the limiting factor that “Big-Creatine” would have us believe.

It would seem that the studies haven’t shown any correlation, but maybe this ought to be looked at?

Strikerrjones | Tue December 20, 2011  

Hey, I was wondering what study you were referencing with the graphs. Is it posted somewhere around here and I’m just not seeing it? Thanks. Interesting stuff, and great site.

Tony | Fri December 23, 2011  

I posted the comment in the actual article that you wanted to. Thanks, Tony.

Sid | Mon December 26, 2011  

The data posted proves pretty much nothing. The error bars are big enough that there is overlap in nearly all the results. The only conclusion you can make with this data is that working with low reps has resulted in a slight increase in maximum strength and working at high reps has yielded a large increase in the ability to train at high reps. No conclusion can be made about the intermediate reps regime at all.

Your big discussion is greatly overreaching the evidence you have. The study also is insufficient against the common argument that strength first and then endurance is a faster training scheme than endurance first and then strength.

Dale | Mon December 26, 2011  

I hope this isn’t too far off-topic, but I’ve recently become intrigued about the time-under-tension controversy. I take it that TUT is controversial in that some maintain that 60 seconds (or roundabouts) must be accumulated in a contiguous set. Others maintain that TUT may simply be cumulative.

In my own experience, I find that somewhere in the vicinity of 60 seconds has various bodyparts smoked ... regardless the means of accumulations, whether by static holds, a few slow reps or more fast reps. Examples: 60 seconds of front lever progression holds or 25 pullups or ten negative one-armed pushups confer roughly the same effect in terms of perceived exertion.

Anoop | Tue December 27, 2011  

Hi

Thanks for the comment. Check this link on the forum: http://www.exercisebiology.com/index.php/forums/viewthread/510/

We talked a bit about a study which looked at TUT. I think it all goes back to Type 2 fiber recruitment. You have to recruit them and make sure they are recruited for enough time.

I think it goes back to the question of high and low reps. From all the studies done, we haven’t seen much difference.

Why don’t you register in the forum and start a thread, Dale?

Geoff | Fri February 03, 2012  

One thing that makes a huge difference is sets vs reps.  Say I can do 3 sets of 10 at 225 before I start to get fatigued and fail.  But if I do 6 sets of 3 at 275 I have the same effect.  It all depends on what you are lifting for.  The person who only does 225 10 times will never be able to have a great 1 rep max.  I say the answer to this is shock your muscles by mixing up your routine and you will maximize your strength/muscle outcome. I have done sets of 10 before and you reach a peak.  But when you do sets of 3 or even 5, the next time you do sets of 10 your weight goes up.

FitJerk | Mon February 13, 2012  

Nice site Anoop, heard about you from Jon Goodman.

Now, is there any more information on the test subjects of this study? As in how long they trained in the respective rep ranges etc.? Because I don’t know what they’re doing, but it seems like a case of scared-shitlessness and not pushing a load close to their 1RM.

I’ve trained my deadlifts in singles, doubles and tripless for the past 4 and a half straight months to get my 1RM upto 3x BW. Out of the blue one day, decided to have a contest with a partner to see who can bang out the most reps with 225lbs. Well at 130lbs BW, I easily managed 20 reps.

Am I an exception? Hardly. Most clients who I have doing pure strength, blow the pants of the high rep stuff. I’m not saying you don’t adapt to the way you train - you get good what you do the most, but it surprised me that they carry over of group A wasn’t better. From what I’ve seen, dudes training with such low reps usually have awesome muscular endurance.

Thoughts on this? And if you have any references that favor this carry over, I’d love to dive into that shit.

Anoop | Thu February 16, 2012  

Hi Fitjerk

Thanks for the comment!

I am not sure why didn’t link the study here. Here you go: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12436270

That’a a good question. The capillary density has gone down for the low rep group though. I am not sure why the strength endurance went below pre-training levels. In all other exercises, the trend remains to be the same but it didn’t go lower than the pre-test levels as in leg press.

erik | Wed October 03, 2012  

The example provided about persons A,B and C asks us to consider the persons tested have the same genetics. I’d imagine the actual tests were not performed on clones or genetically identical triplets but even so, the only conclusion that can be reached is that absolute strength and endurance strength overlap and your genetics determine which is more suitable for your goals.

If this test were repeated hundreds of times on different test subjects we could probably determine an average score suggesting perhaps person A is most likely gain more maximal strength in a given period of time than person B and C. Then again these results may only be valid to the rest of us if we follow the specific exercise regimes in this test accompanied by the same nutritional guidelines and recovery time.

So many variables mean it’s often easier just to experiment yourself and find out what works best.

Personally I have found that I tend to gain more maximal strength through high rep training (18-25 reps where squats are concerned) relative to low rep training. I do switch things up when my progress slows and do see results through low rep training but I’d say overall it’s the higher rep training that has made the largest contribution to my overall strength gains.

Tyler Dombrowski | Wed November 28, 2012  

5’11” 185 lbs.  I will say this- in training specifically for bench press strength I have previously (recently as last week) used the mantra of 3x8 reps. My endurance was good I think, I did 8x 115, 8x 165, 8x 185, and 5x 200. This week, I did 5x 165, 5x 185, 7x 200( woohoo lol) and set a new 1RM of 220! Don’t always train the same. Change it up every 4 weeks, when your gains don’t seem to carry for more than a couple reps more of endurance or 20 pounds of weight past what you have been doing recently, it’s time to change up for a little while. I am going to go next week and do 5x 185, 3x 200, and am pretty certain I’ll be able to do 1RM of 250. My friend who is 5’7” 165 lbs got his 1RM up to 315, he said from what he experienced low reps are better for not only raw power and strength but great for keeping strength up for a while ( a month or 2 at most) if you can’t train for whatever reason.

Derek | Thu June 19, 2014  

Is there any link to the test study data?

What do you think?

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