There are a lot of different ways to exercise, and every personal trainer, strength & conditioning coach, and instagram guru wants to tell you that their way is the best. In fact, the entire fitness industry exists using the same sales strategy: Selling you on the idea that you’re fundamentally missing something, and they have the solution. It’s the concept of “one weird trick,” that has devolved into internet memes and tacky sales ads. So what is the best way to train? The answer is, unsurprisingly: It depends, but the good news is, it really only depends on two things:
- The fitness level of the trainee
- The goal of the trainee
Yes, in that order. In this write up, we’re not going to debate whether high rep or low rep training is better, we’re going to explain the benefit of each, and why you should be using both.
Reps: A General Overview
The amount of reps performed produces different results. Note: this is a simplification.
1-3 reps: Maximal strength and power
3-6 reps: Strength
8-12 reps: Hypertrophy (increased muscle size)
15+: Muscular endurance
There are a couple things to note here, first that these numbers assume you’re using an adequate load given the number of reps. If you can bench press 100kg, and do 3 reps with 25kg, you’re not going to improve your maximal strength. Also note that this is a bit of a sliding scale, and the attributes listed are the predominant adaptations from these rep ranges. That means while sets of 10 may be great for increasing muscle size, you can also get stronger from doing them. And while sets of 3 are mostly making you stronger, your muscles may get a bit bigger doing them as well. It’s important to mention that muscle size, and strength are not directly correlated. That’s why the strongest men in the world are not the most muscular.
Understanding Basic Periodization
In training, periodization is a fancy word for “planning.” I judge other coaches and trainers heavily on how detailed their training plan is, and how far it extends. Coaches of Olympic athletes program their athlete’s training in four year blocks! While every single workout isn’t written out four years in advance, the different phases of training are. Typically I plan 36 weeks ahead for my general fitness clients, and anywhere from 1-2 years for my Weightlifting team. The discrepancy in length between the two groups exists only because a Weightlifter’s competitive calendar is laid out well ahead of time. So what does all of this have to do with the amount of reps you use?
We are organisms, and exercise is a stress. When you place stress on an organism, the organism adapts to handle the stress being placed on it. If we are doing sets of 15 reps, we are training our body to adapt to the stress of lots of reps, which creates the adaptation response of our muscles having better endurance. But eventually, our bodies have adapted enough to cope with the stress, and the stress has little effect. This is where periodization comes in to play. Since we “planned” ahead of time, our training naturally moves into a different phase, with a different stimulus/stress. Periodization serves two basic functions: keeps us from plateauing, and it helps us to be well rounded. While programs like CrossFit try to sell you on the idea that you can be all things fitness at once, it’s not realistic. That’s why a Weightlifter and a Marathoner train differently. But regardless of your goal, it’s important to be a well rounded individual. This is for health if for nothing else. A common periodization model I utilize is called “linear periodization.” This means that the planning happens in a linear fashion. Typically the reps decrease from block to block, and weight increases from block to block, until the cycle is repeated, or another periodization model is used. This would look something like this:
3-4 weeks of sets of 10 @ an average intensity of 65-75%
3-4 weeks of sets of 5 @ an average intensity of 75-85%
3-4 weeks of sets 3 @ an average intensity of +85%
As the reps decreased in a linear fashion, the intensity (weight) increases in a linear fashion, hence the name “linear periodization”. There a lot of methods of periodization, another common one is undulating:
1 workout of sets of 10
1 workout of sets of 5
1 workout of sets of 3
Repeat weekly for 3-6 weeks.
Both models aim to accomplish the same thing: train a variety of attributes, and keep the organism from adapting to the point of plateauing. Which model you would choose would depend on a variety of factors, the ultimate desired outcome, the trainees schedule, fitness level etc, as well as the coach’s understanding of the method used. I’ve seen too many people ruin great training methods by improperly implementing them. If you don’t fully understand it, you won’t be able to make it work! When it doubt, keep it simple. There are hundreds if not thousands of variables you can manipulate in training, but the most important thing is being consistent and being organized. If a periodization model has too many moving parts, it can get confusing for the athlete and the coach.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
It’s uncommon for our clients to come in to our gym without any training knowledge. Most people have done some homework on their own, which can be a blessing or a curse. For example, if you have the goal of improving your 1 rep max bench press, you may be surprised when you see sets of 15 with lighter weights on your program. But higher rep training with lighter weights can be hugely beneficial for lifting heavier weights down the road. Building up your work capacity will prepare you for harder workouts with the heavier weights more sets and reps, and more exercises. A bit of hypertrophy training helps to increase blood flow to muscles and connective tissue which reduces the risk of injury when lifting heavier weights, and of course, the drastic change in stimulus to your body when the weights get heavier and the reps decrease, will produce a greater adaptation later on. Occasionally people are too impatient and want to do the type training they think is directly in line with their goals, without realizing that some foundational work will yield better results overall. Think of it this way: You can’t be too good at the basics, so there really is no risk or downside to taking some extra time to make sure you have a strong foundation to build upon. On the flip side, using training methods that are above your pay grade could very easily result in injury which could sideline you for weeks or even months. It’s also important to get the most results out of doing as little work as possible, that way when you plateau, you have some where to go. If you are already throwing the proverbial “kitchen sink” at your training, what happens when that stops working?
Toning, Trimming, Lengthening, Slimming and Sculpting
The exercise world is rife with funny terms to describe different aesthetics, and most of them make coaches cringe. We are going to go through some of the more popular terms, explain what they really mean, and how to truly get the desired outcome that these words imply.
This is probably the most common thing we hear from new clients. But it’s very, very misused and misunderstood.
What muscle tone really is: Simply put, there is an actual “tone” that travels through your nervous system at all times keeping your muscles at a minimum level of tensity. Without this “tone” you would fall into a pile of mush on the floor. While there is some mild variance to the amount of tone in your body, outside of clinical diagnosis, we have no way of really knowing if you have too much or too little, and it doesn’t matter anyway, having more wouldn’t benefit you.
What people mean when they say it: most people mean more muscle definition. This is accomplished one of two ways, either decreasing body fat, or increasing the size of the muscle. Ironically most people usually say something like “I don’t want to get bigger, I just want to tone.” But if the muscle isn’t developed enough, then decreasing body fat won’t give you the desired look. How big is too big is going to vary a lot from person to person, but it’s easy to see how these attitudes can quickly devolve into unhealthy obsessions with how we look. This is why we encourage people to put a premium on health and performance first.
How to train for it: This is going to depend greatly on whether you need to reduce fat to uncover the muscles, or build muscle to give the uncovered muscle a more pronounced look. If you’re a completely new trainee, any solid strength training program is going to make you look more athletic.
“I want that long, lean look of an athlete, not big bulky muscles.” Fortunately it seems this term is dying out.
What muscle lengthening really is: Your muscles are connected to your joints, and it’s the muscles that move the joint through its range of motion (end to end). The muscles bind together at each end, and turn into tendons, which connect to the bone. Where the muscles/tendons connect are known as “insertion points.” These insertion points cannot be changed. Therefore we cannot technically make a muscle longer. People who have insertion points with a greater distance end to end, give the appearance of bigger, fuller muscles, which is why it’s so desired, but this is completely determined by your genetics. Smaller joints will also give the appearance of a longer muscle since the maximum width of the muscle belly compared to the small joint size will create a tapered look.
What people mean when they say it: Decreased body fat will expose joints, and thus muscle insertions better, which can give the appearance of a “longer muscle.” We also hear this one in regard to “I don’t want to get too big, I just want to lengthen.” There is also a small subset of people that equate large muscles with being inflexible, which is not inherently true. Sometimes these people want to “lengthen” meaning they want to improve their flexibility or mobility.
How train for it: Go back in time, get new parents. Genetics are the determining factor here. You can create the illusion of having longer muscles by decreasing body fat and increasing muscle tissue, but the actual length of your muscle will be more or less the same.
This is probably a coach’s worst nightmare.
What muscle slimming really is: Truthfully, almost any type of training is going to create some hypertrophy (muscle growth), so the only way to really make a muscle smaller, is to not use it, and letting it atrophy. This is fundamentally opposed to what I believe as a coach. My number one priority for my clients is always their health and well being, and letting a muscle atrophy for the sake of aesthetic is unethical in my opinion. Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing someone develop into a strong, capable, healthy individual, only to be upset that they’re “too big” (and they’re definition of too big is usually anything more than waif thin).
What people mean when they say it: Sadly, they often mean exactly what it is. I’ve had to turn people away from my facility because they said “I only want an upper body program.” As mentioned above, I will not be part of sacrificing someone’s general health to achieve a very particular aesthetic. While there may be reasons to limit the amount of training of a particular part of your body, to simply let muscle waste away is never a good idea.
How to train for it: The good news is, losing body fat will make a lot of your body parts smaller in circumference, even if your muscles get bigger! The reason for this is muscle is more dense than fat. This means that 1lb of fat takes up more space than 1lb of muscle. If you are really worried about muscular hypertrophy, your best bet is going to be nutrition, and very, high rep training, I’m talking 15 reps at minimum per set,but possibly upwards of 20 or more. With that said, you would still want to rotate through different phases of training to keep your body from adapting and plateauing.
What muscle sculpting really is: Just like “toning” sculpting is the concept of having well defined musculature. And just like “toning” you need a combination of low body fat and developed muscles.
How to train for it: This like all the others on the list, is dependent on the person. The idea that some exercises are “sculpting” and other exercises are not isn’t exactly true. Any exercise that stimulates muscle tissue (which is all of them) can be sculpting. If you are a muscular but overweight person, you need to dial in your nutrition to reduce body fat, and reveal the muscles beneath. If you’re a very thin person, and you don’t feel like you have enough muscular definition, your goal needs to be weight gain in the form of increased muscle mass. The target rep range should be 8-12 reps per set. The number of sets, and total number of exercises is going to vary extensively based on the individual. For a beginner trainee, this could be as little as one exercise per muscle group. A more developed athlete will take more work to create the desired outcome. With that said, sometimes even highly developed athletes can benefit from a reduction in their total workload, because the stimulus was too fatiguing and the muscles couldn’t adequately recover.
Selecting your Workout
Hopefully there was one single point driven home through this whole article: The needs of each and every individual vary greatly, which is why a program written specifically for you is a much better option than a generic program from the internet, a book, or magazine. Regardless of your goals, the first step should always be to build a solid foundation. We don’t have someone squat with a bar before they can squat without one. We don’t have someone follow a strictly muscle building program until they have built up the ability to handle the large amount of training volume that goes with it. And even once you’re ready to tackle your goals head on with full force, you cannot do the same type of training endlessly, or it will lose its effect in short order. Increasing your general strength and fitness is ideal even for someone only interested in aesthetics, for multiple reasons:
- The stronger you are the less prone to injury you will be
- The greater your fitness, the more training options you will have
Nothing stimulates muscle like load. The heavier you can lift, the more effectively you can train your muscles. The amount of muscle stimulus you can get doing body weight or kettlebell squats will never come close to that of barbell back squats or front squats, and no amount of reps, or number of exercises will ever make up for that. In the end, there are hundreds of different training variables you can manipulate for different results, but the one training variable that should be varied the most, is your reps.