Written by: Kevin Cann
This is a question I have been asking myself a bit lately. This article is just going to be some thoughts, an inside to my thinking process if you will.
My guess is that this started around the 1970s when there was this obsession about the Russian’s training secrets. This was the birth of our periodization models here in America. These periodization models broke training up into specific phases.
These phases tend to be a preparatory phase, a competitive phase, and a transition phase. The preparatory phase recommendations are for lots of non-specific high repetition work. In some sources they recommend around 12 to 20 reps. The competition cycle would be more specific work and between 2 to 8 reps, and the transition phase would be time off after competition. Perhaps the lifter does some different activities here.
Over time this got adapted more. There became hypertrophy, strength, and power phases. Even those these phases had different names it was the same exact model repackaged in a different way.
So, back to my original question, “Why do reps matter?” The idea between higher rep sets is to increase the size of the muscle within the lifter. Theoretically a larger muscle has the ability to lift more weight. When we look into the literature this narrative just does not hold true.
Muscle mass can be obtained from various loading schemes. However, strength tends to be higher in the groups lifting heavier. This makes sense as the heavier loads are more specific to the sport.
There is some correlation to larger muscles moving more weight, and if you are a coach or lifter that performs high rep sets for this, and you enjoy doing them, by all means keep doing it. I am just not convinced by the available evidence that this is worth the time, which is also a constraint on lifters, in the gym. There is a Boston’s Strongcast episode with researcher, Dr. Loenneke, that discusses these topics in further details.
If we analyze the sport of powerlifting this may help to give us our answers. It is a sport where the lifter takes 3 attempts of a single repetition of the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Each attempt gets heavier from the first attempt to the third attempt of each lift.
The third attempt should be a maximal lift for the lifter. A maximal lift may take anywhere from a couple seconds, and I have seen upwards of 11 seconds. Looking at this information, I would say that reps matter up to the maximal amount of time the lifter will be lifting a maximal attempt for. For the information I have, 11 seconds (that was on a deadlift, squat was 8 seconds, and bench was a little less than squat).
This is the equivalent to a set of 3 repetitions. A hard set of 3 reps is probably taking a bit longer as well. The research has shown that to get stronger, you need to lift larger loads. Well, what is a larger load? The research suggests that loads greater than 85% of 1RM are ideal.
Research also suggests that the internal loads, not the external loads, are the drivers of physiological adaptation. The most common way to measure internal loads is with RPE. From practical experience I have found that an RPE 8+ is pretty sufficient for strength increases.
The closer to maximal we get the better here. My guess is it is due to psychological factors. The heavier weights peak arousal from the lifter. This forces them to handle their emotions. As Keith Davids says, “Training should have consequences.” There are a large number of lifters that undershoot this RPE, so I make our hard sets a range from 8.5 to 9.5. I would rather them overshoot here than undershoot because of the number of sets we are performing. Usually starting out at 1 to 2.
The dogmatic argument to this is that you can’t lift heavy every day like that because of overtraining. The idea of overtraining comes from Hans Selye who shocked rats in the 1930s. This literally has nothing to do with lifters taking a handful of hard sets 3-4 days per week.
Research struggles to induce overtraining symptoms from intensity alone, and they do things that are far removed and much crazier than the real world would. There needs to be an endurance component to this. Higher volume programs have an endurance component, perhaps this is where that fear came from? I do not know.
The argument then is always “But volume matters! You’re dumb! (insert appropriate emoji here).” Not all volume is created equal. Seems there needs to be a higher intensity to it, and a duration of no more than about 11 seconds.
We typically start at 5 repetitions. My argument is that this gives the lifter greater exposures to new variations to figure it out. It is hard to load it up for a heavier triple right away. When I go back and analyze the 5s, I saw some interesting things.
Reps 1 and 2 are definitely not intense enough to be included in the volume that matters. Reps 4 and 5 were mostly effective reps, and rep 3 was sometimes effective. Keep in mind the majority of the sets are taken at around an RPE 9.5. The days of the 8.5s is usually when the lifter is feeling a little tired and banged up. This puts that 3rdrep around an 8.
On sets of 3 the first rep is probably outside of the range of intensity to be counted as an effective rep. However, the 3rdrep is important for the timing component of the sport. We need to learn how to lift for upwards of 11 seconds.
In terms of volume, we need to define how we use volume. Most use total tonnage and average intensity. I use “number of hard sets.” I don’t care whether it was a set of 5 or a set of 1 it gets the same score, 1 volume unit. The reason for that is with the effective reps for one.
Also, there is a lot of uncertainty with using volume to predict progress. Tetlock showed in a long running study that experts with more information tended to make worse predictions. I choose to keep it simple and to give me an idea about how hard the lifter is working. If progress seems to be stalling, we can add more hard sets. This is pretty simple.
I think reps are important for practice. However, we want them to be more deliberate for the sport that we are competing in. A set of 10 at 70% is not practice for powerlifting in my opinion. The weight is too light to create technique issues, it is too light to create an emotional response, it lasts longer than 11 seconds, and its reasoning is based off of Russian folklore from the 1970s and before.
I view volume as measuring practice time within the sport itself. Wouldn’t I want to know how many sets the lifter is performing that is actually going to yield benefits? Wouldn’t this help me see the training process better and give me the necessary information to make the decisions for that lifter to increase progress? I think so. Of course, we can’t forget about manipulating other factors such as exercise selection. That is usually my go to. You will be surprised at how often adding more volume is not the answer.