Throw Out the Rep Ranges: A Different Perspective

One thing I've learned in the past couple years is that all of those set and rep tables that students have to memorize in their exercise science classes should be thrown in the trash can. OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme. However, a basic understanding of physiology combined with some common sense and critical thinking can make a person question what all the experts hold to be the absolute truth about rep ranges.

Disclaimer: This article isn't a physiology text. The complexities of the biochemical reactions and hormonal responses to training have been left out. Instead, this article gives practical examples that should be understandable by any coach willing to allow his mind to venture beyond the classroom. We can’t continue to live in the confines of the box.

The current model

While there are several different set and rep tables available, they're all fairly close in what they display. The table below is an example of what is commonly taught:

Let’s bring a new factor into the equation—energy systems. Energy systems are critical when taking into account the biochemical reactions that are responsible for supplying the energy to achieve each of the above objectives. We know that the energy system being used is determined by both the intensity and duration of the activity being performed.

Below is a table displaying the energy system and the corresponding timeframe:

As stated earlier, the energy system used is dependent on both time and intensity. It isn't an either or situation. I can reach across my desk and pick up a calculator in just a few seconds, but that doesn’t constitute utilizing ATP because the intensity is far too low. An athlete with relatively strong abdominals can hold a front bridge (plank) for a minute but not break out of the oxidative energy system because the intensity is far too low. As a lifting example, a maximal attempt (1RM) is going to take 4–8 seconds to complete, so ATP is the primary energy source. Furthermore, a 12RM in the squat for an average height lifter will take about 45 seconds, utilizing lactic acid as the energy source. A wrestler or 800-meter runner needs muscular endurance to last about two minutes while 1500-meter runners need to last 4–6 minutes and marathon runners 2–4 hours.

So, using the practical examples above, let’s adjust the original table:

Problems and critical thinking

  • Can muscles count? A muscle doesn't automatically flip from strength to hypertrophy mode when eight reps have been achieved if the duration of the set hasn't been long enough or the intensity high enough to elicit sufficient lactic acid.
  • In order to achieve maximum hypertrophy, the muscle must be pushed to or near failure in order to achieve maximal protein degradation. If 60 percent is a 20RM, how is performing a set at 60 percent for 12 reps suppose to produce hypertrophy?
  • While training for hypertrophy necessitates training at or near failure, neither the achievement of strength nor muscular endurance require sets to be taken to this point.
  • While a 12RM in the squat takes about 45 seconds, a 12RM of shrugs takes only about 15 seconds, meaning that while it's in the proper rep range, it isn't in the proper time frame to achieve hypertrophy. Conversely, a maximal set of 35–40 shrugs does take about 45 seconds.
  • If a set of 15 shrugs takes only 15–20 seconds, how is muscular endurance trained when muscular endurance requires the muscle groups utilized to last more than 45 seconds? Furthermore, how would a set lasting only 15–20 seconds benefit an athlete who has to display endurance for two minutes or ten minutes or even 2–3 hours?
  • While strength and endurance are both physical abilities, hypertrophy isn't, making its presence in the table curious. However, the training utilized to achieve hypertrophy still makes use of the principles demonstrated in these tables.
  • There are two different types of hypertrophy—sarcoplasmic and sarcomere. While sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is responsible for the biggest improvements in size, sarcomere hypertrophy contributes more to strength gains. Think bodybuilder versus weightlifter.
  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is achieved from high rep, low rest (lactic) training. Sarcomere hypertrophy occurs from utilizing heavier weights. Think about the differences in how a bodybuilder trains compared to a weightlifter.
  • Oftentimes forgotten, any time energy systems are taken into account, the rest interval between sets can't be ignored. Each fuel source responsible for producing energy has a time interval for recovery after it has been exhausted.
  • When training for hypertrophy, in order to stay in a lactic state, short rest intervals must be used. This necessitates the ability of short-term muscular endurance in order to recover from previous sets so that subsequent sets will allow enough muscular tension to be maintained for maximal protein degradation and the buildup of metabolites that lead to hypertrophy.
  • There is a huge difference between the muscular endurance of a wrestler and that of a marathon runner. Therefore, not all muscular endurance is the same.
  • When training for muscular endurance, performing sets of 15 reps of any exercise for an athlete who needs to work for 20 minutes to three hours or more is pointless but commonly prescribed. Athletes of this nature need muscular endurance that comes from ultra high rep sets (100 reps or more per set).

New recommendations and guidelines

By examining the information above, new guidelines can be taken into consideration. The table below omits the rep ranges and focuses on the time the exercise needs to be performed. This is important due to the fact that not all exercises have the same range of motion, therefore making rep recommendations obsolete. The metabolic processes that take place within the body to achieve strength, hypertrophy, or endurance are determined by the intensity and duration of the activity. Accordingly, it is inappropriate to assume that all exercises will have the same rep range to achieve these goals. Each exercise has a different range of motion that must be taken into account, as this affects the duration of the set.

Recommended reading

  • Science and Practice of Strength Training by Vladimir Zatsiorsky
  • Facts & Fallacies of Fitness by Mel Siff
  • Periodization of Strength: The New Wave in Strength Training by Tudor Bompa
  • “Everything Is about to Change” by Chad Waterbury on
  • “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training” by Brad Schoenfeld in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Volume 24, No. 10