Most of us would agree that resistance training is an integral part of any fitness programme. What might be more open to discussion however is how we approach it.
Some will have us believe that we need nothing more than bodyweight exercises, others will insist that we should do higher reps with lighter weights while others are convinced that if the weight isn't super-heavy we are not providing the body with enough of a challenge. But who should we listen to and what is the best rep scheme to use if we want to get into shape?
The amount of reps that we perform will determine the workload we put on the body, and the subsequent changes that we can expect to see. In simple terms, the heavier the weight, the greater the potential for strength, and the more reps that we do, the more potential for muscular endurance and muscle building. There is of course crossover between the two - add to that the fact that we all respond differently to the same approach, and certain exercises lend themselves better to certain rep ranges - but the two rules generally hold true.
When it comes to working out exactly how many reps we should be doing it isn't as simple as "15 reps is good for toning" or "heavy weights bulk you up" - neither of which is always true by the way - and it is almost impossible to talk with absolute certainty. The best approach, and ultimately the outcome, will come down to individual factors such as our genetic make up, our training age and training history, our nutritional approach, the quality of our sleep, the intensity with which we exercise and our ability to engage our muscles during certain exercises, amongst other things - which is not the same for any of us.
However, if you take away the maths of total time a muscle is under tension and the inverse relationship between reps and sets, there is one simple outline to remember when counting your reps in the gym if you want better results:
The 1 to 5 rep range: This is where we can expect to get the most relative strength gains, without building too much muscle. Workouts in this range tend to have longer rest periods between sets and less overall training volume. This range is more suited to advanced gym-goers and most of the adaptations here are neural.
The 5 to 8 rep range: Where we develop what is known as functional hypertrophy, i.e. where we gain equal amounts of strength and muscle. The weights used in this range will be relatively lighter than at 1 to 5 reps, but we can still expect to gain some strength, whilst the increased reps (volume) will allow us to build some muscle also.
The 8 to 12 rep range: The traditional muscle building range. This is where the weights are still moderately heavy, but the increased reps or volume will cause more muscle damage, which promotes greater need for repair and subsequent muscle building. This is also a very useful starting point for a lot people who are new to exercise.
The 12 to 20 rep range: Where we develop strength endurance above all, but a range that's also very effective for muscle building. We might go beyond 20 reps if we are looking at specific rehab requirements or more advanced muscle-building strategies, but it is unlikely that most of us need to go any higher.
The reality is that there is overlap between each rep scheme. However, beginners however will gain significant amounts of strength when performing 8 to 12 repetitions for example, and have absolutely no need to train in lower repetitions initially for good results. In fact, most beginners will get what they need in the first few weeks in the 8 to 20 reps ranges. Advanced gym-goers on the other hand might need to lift at the heavier end of the weight scale to force the body to adapt if they want results, especially if it is strength gains they are after.
The key to remember however is to keep switching up rep schemes. Any programme and rep scheme will work for a short period of time, but too many of us do the same thing for too long; we would all benefit from a period of strength training with heavier weights for example, coming back to our preferred 8 to 12, or 12 to 15 rep ranges, as after a few weeks developing strength we get better results from our relatively lighter weights and higher reps. My trick is to cycle the rep schemes and keep the body guessing.