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What is the best rep range for building big muscles?

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What is the best rep range for building big muscles, that allow you to challenge the Incredible Hulk to a flex-off?

Quick question for you, “What happens when the incredible Hulk flexes, while wearing a t-shirt?

Answer: His muscles pump up like balloons getting ready to burst, the t-shirt explodes right off his chest, and you’re left staring at the jaw dropping, chiseled out of granite upper body, of arguably the strongest Avenger. A most impressive display of rippling muscle, by anyone’s standards.

But, now the real question becomes, “how many repetitions does the Hulk do per exercise, to build so much muscle than he bursts out of his t-shirt when he flexes?”

Lets find out…

Building muscle is often labeled with neat scientific terms, such as:

• Hypertrophy
• Cell swelling
• Anabolic effect

However, for the sake of simplicity, no further scientific jargon will be used in this article. The focus of this article is getting bigger muscles, and determining the best rep ranges that allow you to do just that.

Sound good?

Great.

The three ways you can make your muscles bigger

When it comes to increasing muscle size (hypertrophy) there are three ways to do that:

1. Progressive overload/ mechanical tension –> Lift heavier weights for low reps
2. Muscle damage –> Lift moderate heavy weights for a handful of reps
3. Metabolic stress –> Lift light weights for a lot of reps

Research seems to support that the ideal muscle growing sweet spot is between 6-12 repetitions.

After reading through many a scientific study (and discussing this with some very high level PhD’s) my thoughts are that increasing muscle size has less to do with the repetition range used, and much more to do with intensity of effort.

Mangine et al. demonstrated that high intensity, low volume sets (4 sets at 3-5 reps of 90% 1RM) utilizing long rest periods of 3 minutes, stimulated greater lean arm mass than moderate intensity, high volume sets (4 sets at 10-12 reps of 70% 1RM) utilizing short rest periods of 1 minute (Mangine et al. 2015).

Morton et al. demonstrated that both high repetitions of 20-25 at 30-50% 1RM, and moderate repetitions of 10-12 at 75-90% 1RM, performed to failure, induced similar skeletal muscle hypertrophy (Morton et al. 2016).

Campos et al. demonstrated that all three muscle fiber types had a similar hypertrophic effect in a low repetition group, of 4 sets of 3-5 reps with 3 minute rest, and an intermediate repetition group of 3 sets of 9-11 reps with 2 minute rest. However, both groups had a much greater hypertrophic effect than the high repetition group of 2 sets at 20-28 reps with a 1 minute rest (Campos et al. 2002).

This finding is at odds with Morton et al. However, between these three studies there is evidence that increase in muscle size occurs at many different repetition ranges, with different weights and rest periods

Again, these findings lead me to believe that increasing muscle size has less to do with repetition range and load, and much more to do with intensity of effort (ie…training to failure vs. not, and/or manipulation of rest intervals).

Lets dive a little deeper into the research…

Research on muscle growth tends to support doing between 8-12 reps per set of an exercise [4]. This is sort of the “gold standard” approach to muscle building, and was popularized in the 60’s and 70’s by the Golden Era bodybuilders.

But, is this really the best rep range for packing on slabs of dense, flex-worthy, muscle?

Perhaps, but it’s certainly not the only rep range you can use to get bigger muscles, and start challenging the Hulk to intermittent “flex-offs”.

Low rep ranges, as low as 3-5 per set, using heavy weight and higher rep ranges, as high as 20-25 per set, using light weight have been shown to build beefy slabs of t-shirt bursting muscle just as effectively as training in the 8-12 repetition range [1,4].

The caveat; the light and heavy sets were done to failure. So, is training to muscle failure good for getting bigger muscles? There is a lot of supporting research that would say yes.

Training to muscle failure has been shown to build bigger muscles; even when you are using fairly light weights, and doing a lot of repetitions (20+) [3,5]. Phrases that come to mind when thinking about this type of training are:

• The burn
• The pump
• Suns out, guns out

On the other side of the coin, training to muscle failure has been shown to build bigger muscles; even when you are using fairly heavy weights, and doing just a few repetitions; between 3-5 [2,3]. Phrases that come to mind when thinking about this type of training are:

• Loud grunting
• Epic neck veins
• Going to your dark place

So, it appears that going all out on your set and taking it to failure, is just as effective for building beefy slabs of t-shirt bursting muscle than simply doing the classic 8-12 repetitions per set [1,4].

Conclusion

There are many different rep ranges you can use to build bigger muscles, that even the Hulk will be jealous of. Six to twelve repetitions is a great starting point, and has been the gold standard for quite a while.

However, training to failure using heavy weight/ low reps, and light weight/ high reps are also highly effective techniques you can use to start getting bigger, t-shirt bursting, muscles [4,5] .

References

[1]. Morton, R. W., Oikawa, S. Y., Wavell, C. G., Mazara, N., Mcglory, C., Quadrilatero, J., . . . Phillips, S. M. (2016). Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of Applied Physiology,121(1), 129-138.

[2]. Mangine, G. T., Hoffman, J. R., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Wells, A. J., Jajtner, A. R., . . . Stout, J. R. (2015). The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports, 3(8). 

[3]. Chestnut, J. L., & Docherty, D. (1999). The Effects of 4 and 10 Repetition Maximum Weight-Training Protocols on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13(4), 353-359. 

[4]. Schoenfeld, B., Contreras, B., Ogborn, D., Galpin, A., Krieger, J., & Sonmez, G. (2016). Effects of Varied Versus Constant Loading Zones on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(06), 442-447. 

[5]. Jenkins, N. D., Housh, T. J., Buckner, S. L., Bergstrom, H. C., Cochrane, K. C., Hill, E. C., . . . Cramer, J. T. (2016). Neuromuscular Adaptations After 2 and 4 Weeks of 80% Versus 30% 1 Repetition Maximum Resistance Training to Failure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(8), 2174-2185. 


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