If you could only do one rep range for the rest of your life, what would you do? Of course that would be a hypothetical situation and you live in the real world. However, thinking though hypothetical questions such as this can be a great way to enhance your knowledge of effective training and help you get better results! Is there really a rep range that is better than all the others? I think there is.
If I could only use one rep range, I would go around 5 reps. Countless strength experts over many decades have found the 5-rep set to be a magical number. Based not only on their recommendations but many years of training myself and thousands of others, I use 5 rep set a ton – here’s why:
Why I love sets of 5
It forces you to lift heavy weight
Lifting light weights is largely a waste of time. Outside of beginners who need to use lighter weights to learn proper technique, and a few other situations (see below for details), you are really not going to get much out of light weight training. Also, contrary to the popular fitness fallacy, light weights are not the best way to “tone” your muscles.
Related Post: Selecting Rep Ranges
It keeps you from going too heavy
If heavy is good, then heavier must be better – right? Not always. A 5 rep set put you at about 85% of your 1 rep max. As you get into lower reps and heavier weights, you can quickly find yourself in the 90%+ range. This is an excellent range to be in when you want to peak. Getting into the 1-3 range will allow you to enjoy a quick spike in your strength levels and learn to do a true 1 rep max. The downside with this is that injury risk is higher and you can easily burn out. (Note: there are ways to work around this – for example at Westside Barbell works around this by rotating exercises every 1-3 weeks). By spending more time around the 5 rep mark, you can make some nice steady gains in strength and then you can drop the reps down to peak when you need to.
You can easily modify the number of sets for your desired training goal
Pure, non-exhaustive strength without size gain: 2 sets of 5
General strength: 3 sets of 5
Size and Strength: 5 sets of 5
Functional Hypertrophy: 6-10 sets of 5 (ideal for athletes needing to pack on high-performance muscle)
Related: Non-bulk strength training
When you don’t want 5’s
Despite these benefits, there are times when you want to use other rep numbers.
I have worked with too many different individuals to assume that everyone will fits into the same mold. I have great athletes who are very fast-twitch dominant who find 5 reps too high. I joke with them that anything over 5 reps is cardio. For these athletes, sets of 3 are the perfect fit those steady strength gains. One of the reasons for this is that the more fast-twitch dominant you are, the less number or reps you will get at a given percentage of your max. For these individuals, they may only be able to get 3 reps with 85% of their max when normal folks will get 5. Likewise people who are slow-twitch dominant might find they make steady gains strength gains with higher reps. Adjust as needed – make sure what you are doing is working for you!
Power: For power, I really like sets of 3 – especially for more complex exercises like Olympic lifting variations
Related post: How to Get Faster
Muscle size: some higher-rep work can be helpful for muscle gain
Fat Loss: moving the reps up a bit creates more of a metabolic impact and increases EPOC.
Local Muscle Endurance: if you were trying to build endurance in specific muscles, you might consider some high rep training. However, if you are trying to improve your cardio or conditioning, you should do appropriate conditioning and get stronger.
While sets of 5 are great, you do need a break from the heavy pounding at times. Lighter weight, higher reps sets provide an important break for your joints and tissues.
Accessory & Single-Joint Exercises
When doing single-joint or accessory exercises, you usually want higher reps and lighter weight. Heavy, low-rep sets for single joint exercises will beat up on your joints and are very awkward.
No matter how great 5 reps are, if you use them all the time, they will eventually stop working. In an effort to break plateaus, so spend some time working above and below the 5-rep sets. This can help to prevent training plateaus and make those 5-rep sets fresh and productive again.
How about you? What rep range works best for your body?