High rep workouts | Why you don’t need to do 500 squats or hold a 7-minute plank

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?

 

Comments

  1. Thanks- I needed this! I’ve been trying to do lunges several time a week (50) and will add weights instead adding more. Same thing with pushups- doing 15xday or 3×10 per day and also trying to hold plank (2 min). I mentally can’t push myself past the 2 min mark, so I’m happy with that plateau, but may consider adding in some additional dynamic work. =)
    Amanda @ Click. The Good News recently posted…Zoe & Mia Playing April 2013My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Hooray! Your pushups are coming along great! Do you do them every day or take a day off between? I’ve found that every 2nd day training helps a lot with form and progression!

  2. Thank you! Thank You! Thank You!

    I’ve also been seeing more and more of this (in the gym and on my FB feed). I’m seeing injuries, lack of progress and people spending so much time on their workouts that they are neglecting their lives.

    As with anything, there is a balance – in this case, between intensity and duration. The best outcomes (and the least amount of injury) occurs when those two elements are in check.
    Lisa Arends recently posted…Mom: A Mother’s Day TributeMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      You’re so very welcome Lisa! You made my day with your very positive response!
      Good point about the time commitment as well. I would rather do a 1 minute plank and have time for squats, lunges and pushups than spend my entire workout in the same position…

  3. Great post! I feel like everything becomes a competition. My friends recently did a 100 burpee challenge – 1 the first day, 2 the 2nd and so on to 100. They refused to give up despite aggravating old injuries b/c they did not want to lose. What?! Seriously? I also get aggravated by extreme running programs. Unless you have a coach telling you (and even then), why push to extremes. Thanks for the sanity break!
    Erica @ erica finds recently posted…Dreams for Free – Get Some?My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      So true, Erica. Happy to provide you with some evidence to back your claim and share with your friends! (It won’t make you popular, I’m guessing…)

  4. THANK YOU SO SO SO SO MUCH FOR THIS
    I always feel like the wet blanket when I attempt to share the same thing.
    YOU said it far more articulately than I have.

    love,

    wetblanket Mcgee
    Miz recently posted…Walgreens Way to Well tour.My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      I’m okay with being seen as a wet blanket… in fact, I was expecting a lot of negative comments today. Perhaps tomorrow?

  5. I agree with all that you said but I do occasionally like to see how far I can push myself with certain things. I don’t tend to participate any of the challenges that are always floating around the blog world (or Face Book) – I just like to come up with little tests for myself. I don’t do it every day (or even every week) and I really work on making sure that I still evenly work all muscle groups.
    Kim recently posted…Big Plans and GoalsMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Kim, that’s the perfect way to challenge yourself! Sometimes it’s good to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Once in a while isn’t going to cause overuse injuries. It’s the daily challenges, with lots of volume and increasing load that I’m referring to. Keep it up!

  6. And what about time? Not enough people exercise period? That many reps might scare someone out of a workout. But do 10 squats as your homework seems more doable in the eyes of a beginner. And if it achieves the goal, even better.

    • Tamara says:

      Yes! Pam you’re so right. One of the commenters above brought that up as well and with the very limited time many of us have for exercise, we’d be spending it better by training whole body.

  7. Great post, Tamara. Sometimes people just don’t get it, if some is good, more must be better. Though I can’t imagine 500 squats! Ouch :-).
    Debbie @ Live from La Quinta recently posted…Recovery Week and What’s Next. And the Bestowed Box WinnerMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks Debbie. Me neither. I don’t think I’d be able to get off the toilet for a week! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Great post! I just did my up/down planks and bridges this morning. I’ve never been a fan of holding them a super long time. I feel I get better muscle engagement if I take intermediate breaks, and go again.
    Michelle @ Eat Move Balance recently posted…Friday’s FiveMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Michelle, I believe that there’s even some good scientific evidence to show that shorter holds with more repetitions is better for core engagement. Try 4 or 5, 15-s planks and tell me that they don’t get harder towards the end of the set!

  9. Excellent post! While every once in awhile I’ll do very high reps with just bodyweight, I 100% agree with sticking to the 12-15 rep range. So much research has been done on that being the beneficial range. Plus it’s “manageable”. How would a client react if you told them to do 100 reps vs. 3 sets of 12 reps?? Thank you for putting this out there!
    Katie @ KatieEnPursuit recently posted…Big Easy MIMM Edition…My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Katie, most of my clients would run for the door if I ever suggested such high repetitions. In fact, many of them work in the 6 to 12 range and aren’t happy when I occasionally ask for 15!
      Thanks for your comments; much appreciated!

  10. I am SO glad someone is finally saying this! There is absolutely no reason to do the same exercise every day. Balance is key and variety will do your body good. 🙂
    Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table recently posted…Marvelous Mandible MondayMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Sounds like a lot of trainers have the same view that I do. Happy to share my thoughts with you all!

  11. Awesome posts, it helps to see the science behind it all!
    Nellie recently posted…That One Time My Front Tooth Got Knocked OutMy Profile

  12. Great post! I completely agree. These challenges seem to be popping up all over – and it’s enough to make me nauseous. The 300 squat-a-day challenge? Really? I’m a cyclist and that would tear my legs completely apart and make hill climbs even more terrible than they already are… Just wish there was science behind these challenges BEFORE they started.

    Sarah
    http://www.thinfluenced.com
    Sarah recently posted…A Weekend On The Street via the Healthy Living Event In OshkoshMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Hmmm, well a lot of online fitness peeps are fans, not professionals. While I love that everybody wants to share their favourite workouts, I only ever share those that are balanced and look like they’ve been written by somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

  13. Good information, Tamara. Thanks. I always wonder about these little challenges too. I was pleased to find your explanation of repetition ranges for the different goals as the goals for my upper body (cosmetic for sure) are different for the goals for my lower body (strength and endurance).

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks Elle! And good point, upper and lower body goals often differ for women and should be trained differently too!

  14. This month for the first time I decided to try two challenges that I’ve seen all over the place. Today, I stumbled upon your blog and I’m so glad I did! After reading what you wrote, the two challenges that I WAS doing don’t really make sense. I’m going to keep going with squats and planks in addition to the rest of my strength training but quit the high repetition of the challenges. Thank you for passing along some good information!
    Angie @ A Mother’s Pace recently posted…Spring Wichita Prairie Fire 5K RecapMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Angie, you’re so very welcome. Hopefully you’ll be saved from a couple of overuse injuries!

  15. When I’m training for a competition, my main lift rep range is the 5/3/1 range. My supplemental lifts are steady at 50% weight/10 reps/4 sets.

    In the off-season, I go for a lot more endurance – living in the 8-15 range and varying my exercises a lot! Emphasis on moving outside the saggital plane to get that stability.

    I ALMOST NEVER go above 15 reps in any exercise. I believe that after 50 it’s an important choice to limit inflaming likely arthritic joints.

    • Tamara says:

      Hey Deb, thanks so much for weighing in. I’m like you, very rarely go over 15 reps (although sometimes do 16 in my group fitness classes to keep on the 32 count beat 😉 )

  16. Meg Root says:

    Hi Tamara! I knew you would deliver the goods! I loved the information you shared, and it seems to have helped some people from going down the rabbit hole into high repetition oblivion! I think Angie @ A Mother’s Pace hit on a good point too–these things continually pop up on our news feeds until you just can’t resist giving them a try! They always seem to have so much promise–like the newest diet or workout approach on the block. But as your post points out, it is really important to consider the source. Most reputable certified personal trainers would not recommend this type of approach. There is just NO SCIENCE behind it! When I search for the source, I often find it is a fitness enthusiast or someone without credentials (But maybe a nice looking “behind” that photographs before and after pictures really well!) paying this stuff forward. Reader beware! That’s why I count on the fitknitchick for all my workout advice! It is always stuff you can trust! As for my favorite rep range–I’m a 12-15 most of the time because I love to swim as well. If I lift to much I’ve got heavy arms the next day! Thanks for the post, now let’s hope it goes viral!

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks so much for all of your support Meg! And in particular, thanks for the push to write this post! (I had expected to see some negative responses, but so far, so good!)

  17. LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! I read all this stuff & just don’t say anything – I am not a trainer.. I don’t do it either! 🙂 Although I am a drop set queen, I actually consider it multiple sets when I go form 25 – 20 – 17.5 on an exercise that adds up to maybe 20 resp. I also get a bit of strength, size * endurance training as in your 3 points above based on the way I drop & number of reps – I love it but I watch my form & am careful! 🙂

    I did 100s every once in a while – very few – when I was bodybuilding but those were few & far between & shocked the bod & I moved back to my heavier training per my trainer.. 🙂

    GREAT POST!!!!!
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted…Gratitude Monday, The Fan, OC Marathon & More!My Profile

  18. Thank you for this post Tamara!! I got caught up in all the challenges out there. More isn’t always better and it’s so important to balance it all out. I mean, so many of my injuries are due to muscle imbalances from doing the same thing or neglecting some body part.
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…Run MommyMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      You’re so very welcome Christine. Balance is definitely key (maybe not possible in life but certainly in fitness 😉 )

  19. Ahhhh! You took the words right out of my mouth! I always cringe at those sorts of challenges because they aren’t balanced. Sometimes they pop up in my BBB group and I always add my two cents that they can cause imbalances which can lead to injury and won’t really add much benefit to training anyway. Great post!
    Tina @ Best Body Fitness recently posted…Move It Monday: Drop It Like It’s HotMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Thanks for sharing Tina! I’m always happy to hear that other trainers share my point of view on things like this. It might not be a popular opinion, but it’s definitely what I believe to be true!

  20. This is interesting. Would you lump CrossFit into the high rep category? They often ask for way more than 15 reps, but the workouts change daily.
    Thea @ It’s Me Vs. Me recently posted…Frederick Running Festival Twilight 5kMy Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Thea, I haven’t had much personal experience with CrossFit, so my comment needs to be prefaced. From what I’ve seen of CrossFit workouts, the volume may be high, but not repeated day in and day out. The workout-to-workout variety may be enough to offset the potential down side to high rep workouts. And presumably, you’re taking a day off between high volume workouts?

      I’d love to hear from other CrossFitters on this point!

  21. Since I possess a degree in Exercise Science, and have worked in fitness for 30 years, I feel I can speak somewhat authoritatively on this — just sorry that I’m so late to the conversation.

    What gets lost in all of this, far too often, is Time Under Load (also referred to as Time Under tension)

    I rarely do more than 8 reps of anything, and often as few as 4-6. Whether my objecting is toning, shaping, bodybuilding, strengthening, or conditioning to support other activities such as cycling, running, etc., this protocol NEVER changes.

    My repetition speed is much much slower than most. On average, depending on the exercise, a set of 6 repetitions for me takes about 1-minute. I see others do sets of 10, 12-, even 20 reps in less time than that.

    Hypertrophy, shaping, etc. are dictated as much by range of motion and time under tension than they are by quantity of repetitions, or by set volume.

    Pure love for this one T!
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted…Aggressivley Humble…My Profile

    • Tamara says:

      Roy, yes! I often refer to that as TUT to my clients. We talk about rep speed and I am always advocating for slower (why do people always want to rush through their reps?).

      Thanks so much for chiming in and enriching our conversation!

  22. Stumbled on this . . .

    My two cents is that you haven’t cited any scientific studies to back up your assertions re. rep ranges. A lot of a what is taken for gospel by “fitness professionals” (whatever that means) doesn’t have an actual double-blind broad-sample long-term study to draw data from. I think a lot of it is just parroting what other say over and over with much confidence.

    I have never used the super high rep training protocol myself, but anecdotally I’ve come across individuals who swore by it. For example, the convict with the self-assumed name Charles Bronson spent years doing pushups in his cell and was/is enormously strong and muscular. Football legend Herschel Walker preferred thousands of pushups to the weight room and still does a 1000 every morning at age 50, looking fantastic.

    In bodybuilding’s golden age (70s), the top competitors were all doing very high rep work. The legendary Serge Nubret would do sit ups for half an hour straight every day and had the best abs of anyone, ever. Arnold and his training partners all worked with 20 sets per body part, at about ten reps a set that’s 200 reps just for biceps. Granted that’s not every day, but then it was lifting heavy weights (!)

    I think the idea behind high reps daily is that you are using body weight. With body weight you’re not going to overload the joints. I think lifting weights does much more joint damage than a high rep body weight program would.

    In India wrestlers have been doing Hindu squats for centuries, they do it as a rhythmic breathing exercise, racking up hundreds of reps every morning.

    I could go on but check out this video and listen to the man, then try to argue that high rep bodyweight doesn’t work — at least for some!

    • Joe, you’re so right and this is a really big problem with exercise science in general. The studies are often small, non-randomized, not double blind and performed on a very specific demographic (men of a particular fitness level and age range). And of course, for every study that says one thing, you can probably find another that says the complete opposite!

      The studies that come quickly to mind re: high rep workouts is Dr. McGill’s work on crunches and sit ups. More is not better. In fact, more leads to spinal degeneration. While there will always be individuals that high rep workouts DO work for, in my experience working in a gym and working with clients with a wide range of goals and fitness levels, more tends to lead to compromised form and subsequent injury. Not for everybody, but possibly for the many people who follow the workouts frequently seen on Twitter and Instagram 🙂

      • The question is this- how many of those people in the gym do high rep BODY WEIGHT training? You are repeating the same gospel we have all heard from “fitness professionals” without bringing something new to the table- making a distinction or even bothering to research the difference when it is done with weights or without any equipment. I do not see high rep body weight exercisers going to the gym to train. They do it at home or around the neighborhood. There is nothing in the gym that warrants them showing up there to train. It’s equipment free training after all. You did not take in what the OP Joe had to say because you are still repeating the exact same thing you said regardless of the issues that have been pointed out and I suspect the same will go for this comment I am posting.

        • I am allowing this comment to be visible because I believe we’re all entitled to our opinions. I would, however, appreciate a less finger-pointing and more contributory post next time you share. I answered Joe’s question thoroughly and included reference to some known studies supporting it; something you’re welcome to do too in support of your opinion. This site is a place for us all to learn and support one another.

          • Tamara, you have not answered Joe Green at all. What he is saying is that people who do high reps don’t start out doing high reps, they start out doing low reps. Perhaps 2 or 3 reps squats daily, then add a rep gradually l. In fact they do not feel fatigue at all, nor soreness. Over a time they do 500-800 reps a day or more. Same with push ups and pill ups. This builds stronger ligaments, conditioning and strength, especially if you add weights gradually or decrease leverages. The rep ranges posted here are not correct. Strength and endurance exists on single continuum, a spectrum if you will. 10-30 will build strength the best, 150 and up endurance.

  23. I have trained in the gym for years. im sub 8.5% body fat with a high body mass / muscle at 48. I have always done the 20 15 10 5 1 style of lifting. recently i have started doing 500 push ups in sets of 15 and 20 reps with as much rest needed to continue. it works! great upper body tone compared to lifting very heavy weight. This week i am using one exercise vertical leg press 50 kg five hundred reps…. it works! And that is daily. So thats five hundred push ups 500 leg press every day for a week. OK. So I train very hard, I deadlift, squat, bench, clean every other day. I would rate myself right now as the second most athletic person in my gym during the period I go. The first and in fact he is rated in the captial here as the man to beat does 650 reps one body part every day for a week runs 15k am 15k lunch and 15k eve. he is well below 8% body fat and extremely strong. I disagree with this article in the context that in my opinion if you want to reach your goals the secret is mind over body and pushing yourself to extreme limits. Constant challenges and changes. If your lifting low reps lift very heavy constantly seek to lift heavier. Increase rest time. Again change is key some weeks we train no rest heavy weight multiple exercises heavy switching upper body lower body.
    No pain no gain and you have to put it on the line. Calculated hard endurance pays off. I will switch tomorrow to 500 bench at 50-60kg. Then the next day back to legs.

    I’m 48 and in the best shape of my life. But one thing you learn is everybody responds differently. But for my cents of advice great bodies don’t get built in a gym they get built in a kitchen. The biggest and fastest way for a great body is the right food at the right time. 1hr in gym 23 hrs away from gym. Take a look around most gyms very few people get results. Ask yourself why.

    The bodies that look great are not following the text book.

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  3. […] Interesting perspective on high rep workouts.  I completely agree regarding not wanting to participate in challenges that sound like 100 pushup […]