I work in a gym.
I’ve seen a lot of people perform exercises and follow programs that aren’t terribly beneficial. Programs that don’t stimulate much in the way of muscle growth, calorie burn or improved function (the three main reasons people participate in an exercise program). But unless they’re my clients (or I think they’re about to hurt themselves) I don’t bother correcting or suggesting an alternative.
Lately, however, I’ve been seeing an awful lot of extremely high rep workouts and fitness challenges popping up online. And because my clients have been asking me what I think about programs like ‘200 squats’, ‘100 pushups’ and ‘plank-a-day’, I’m assuming that you might be curious too.
Let’s start by talking a bit about the science behind repetition ranges.
Almost every program you’ll see that’s written by a fitness professional will suggest that you perform between 1 and 20 repetitions of a particular exercise. That’s because exercise scientists have discovered that certain repetition ranges are best for certain goals.
- Looking to improve your maximum strength? Choose a heavy enough weight (or a challenging enough version of the exercise) so that you’re able to perform ONLY 1-8 good form repetitions before hitting complete muscular fatigue (or ‘failure’). Rest for 2-4 minutes and repeat for 3 to 5 sets.
- If muscular hypertrophy (size and definition) is your goal, the appropriate repetition range is a bit higher; 8 to 12 reps with 60 s or so rest between sets for 2 to 4 sets. Note that the weight required to fatigue your muscles in this rep range will be a bit lighter than that used when training for pure strength.
- Training for muscular endurance typically calls for higher reps at an even lighter weight and with relatively little rest between sets; 12-20 repetitions and 1-3 sets with about 30 s rest between. (Note that many trainers feel that even 20 repetitions is too many and muscular endurance is better trained in the 12-15 rep range).
Note that none of these three fitness goals prescribes anywhere near the number of reps suggested by the extremely high rep workout ‘programs’ and challenges described above.
Not only will high rep workouts NOT help most people reach their fitness goals, they may actually hinder your progress via;
- overuse injuries. Several summer ago I started the 100 pushups program (just for fun…). I was about half way through the program (128 pushups over 5 sets with 90 s break between sets) when I aggravated an old shoulder injury. I wisely decided that being able to use my shoulder for other things was more important than being able to complete 100 pushups in a row.
- muscular imbalances. While holding a good form plank for a minute or two is a great way to improve your anterior core strength, good posture and function require that you work your muscles in a balanced fashion. Spend half your time planking and the remainder perfecting your bridging technique. And even better yet? Progress that static plank by adding movement to engage even more muscles.
- missed program elements. The ‘specificity of training’ principle recognizes that a body only gets stronger at movements it regularly trains. Regularly perform 500 body weight squats and get good at performing body weight squats (not barbell squats or lunges or pushups or pull ups or dead lifts). Unless you have a lot of time for exercise, those 500 squats are going to eat into the 45 minutes you scheduled for your workout and keep you from fitting in any of the other elements required of a balanced fitness program.
While it’s great to aim for personal bests and sometimes it’s fun to challenge ourselves, there are better ways to improve your fitness and reduce your risk of injury. Try training in a rep range that’s conducive to reaching your goals. Need some advice or a program that’s tailored to YOUR specific fitness goals? Hire a certified personal trainer; I’d love to help!
What’s your favourite repetition range to work in?
Does it mesh with your fitness goals?