I have previously covered the basics of programming in this post, where I explained how to tailor the repetition ranges of your workouts to your goals. To refresh your memory, if your main focus is gaining strength, you should be targeting 1-6 reps for 3-4 sets. If you are seeking hypertrophy (muscle growth) look for 6-12 reps for 4-5 sets. Finally, if your goal is muscular endurance hit 12-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets.
Generally, that advice works pretty well. However – and this is a big however – everyone is different, and just because your goal is muscle growth doesn’t mean you won’t see results from practicing your three rep max.
Personally, I have learnt the way my body responds to certain exercises, sets and repetitions. Not only is my body different to yours, each of my individual body parts optimally function at different ranges. For example, my back responds best to high repetitions, my chest originally grew in response to high rep training but has now evolved to a lower rep range, and my shoulders favour a high volume approach, while my legs prefer low rep training.
The best example I can give you is how I train my back. I never, ever target personal bests for my back training (excluding deadlifts and pull-ups). I can perform a seated cable row with the equivalent of three-quarters of my bodyweight, but does that mean I ever do? No. Most of my cable rows are 25 kilograms (55 pounds). Even by adding one extra plate, taking the total to 30 kilos, I feel like I lose almost all the pump and squeeze in my back.
For me, most of the results I see in my back are purely the result of squeezing and having a perfect mind muscle connection. The back is the only muscle group you can’t see when you train it, so it is incredibly important to develop a sense for what is going on in the muscles. I typically target 10-15 reps, but mostly 12, for all my back exercises. I often close my eyes – I might look like a weirdo, but at least I can zero in on what’s happening. At the end of each and every rep, I squeeze my lats and shoulder blades for one second.
I get much more benefit from training this way, as opposed to maxing out and engaging other muscle groups to execute the lift, which not only risks injury but also overinflates my ego.
Even though I’m not regularly pushing my max weights, my strength has improved. As you may know, I have made it my goal to complete at least one unassisted chin-up by mid-April. I have been doing a mixture of assisted chins and negatives approximately three times a week since last month.
I honestly cannot believe how much stronger I have already become. I’m now releasing my negatives in 10 seconds (when before I would drop down in about 1.5 seconds!) and last Wednesday I managed a half chin up on my own – I jumped to the half-way position and pulled myself the rest of the way up. Because of a few setbacks with my training, I may not achieve a full unassisted chin-up by mid-April but I’m confident it will be done by the end of the month. Plus, my new gym doesn’t have an assisted machine so I better learn quickly!
The moral of the story is that it is so, so important to experiment with what works for you. Find a trainer that knows what they are doing and will understand how your body responds, rather than one who will just give you the same rep ranges over and over again. If you feel confident enough, you can even try writing your own program.
What kind of repetition range do you usually target? Do you find it varies for different muscle groups?