I want to start with a caveat to this article that there is no such thing as one group of perfect rep ranges for maximum outcomes – variations in goals, genetic types, muscle fibre types, exercise experience, injury history & a myriad of other factors play a role. There are however appropriate, safe and effective rep ranges to be used dependant on the exercise being performed.
If we use hypertrophy (muscle growth) as a goal for example (which should be a part of everyone’s targets as I am not talking about bodybuilding bulk here, but developing lean tissue for long term health) then a mixture of rep schemes will give you the greatest result. This is because some muscle fibres respond better to high volume-low load (Type I), some respond better to high load-low volume (Type IIx), and some respond to anything in between that (Type IIa).
Just like the muscle fibre responses to differing rep schemes, exercises & movement responses differ, with some being safer and responding better to high load-low volume, and some exercises & movements responding better to high volume-low load, e.g. An Olympic lift like a power clean vs a banded rotator cuff exercise for stability. Quality over quantity is something everyone should consider when resistance training.
This article will address the topic from the perspective of the safest and most effective rep ranges whatever your goal, breaking it up into what is appropriate and most beneficial for you for varying exercises types. I will also try not to offend certain fitness communities as I discuss the dangers of higher reps, to exhaustion, and As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP) for time concepts in big compound lifts, like what might be seen in popular circuit type fitness trends. Now while the socialisation aspects & community feel are fantastic and get a lot of people moving, active & healthy, that may not have been otherwise, from a true physiological standpoint there are concerns. I want people to be educated on the risks involved and the concerns that exist for general population due to the flaws in their methodology.
We see a lot of people come to us injured because of this high volume, high reps with big movements, which are not designed for that – due to high technical ability and power output requirements. Ultimately, fatigue and loss of power leads to injury through poor movement patterns in technical lifts. As an example, the injury stats for some popular circuit training methods doesn’t look great on the surface, with studies showing between 20-75% of participants suffering from an injury that takes them out of training and/or work, and up to 9% needing surgical intervention (1,2). Shoulders show the highest rate of injuries, the Kipling swing (note I did not call them Kipling chin-ups, as they are not a chin-up, not even close) playing a big role, closely followed by lower back from using high reps and volume for Olympic and powerlifting movements. Please note that this research is still in its infancy as these types of fitness trends are still young in the scheme of things, a lot is still anecdotal.
Now let’s get started with a brief background on rep schemes:
Based on your workout target, there are some general rules or guidelines on number of reps, and therefore % of 1 rep maximum, to be used to achieve those outcomes. Please see the basic table I put together below for a quick review, I won’t go into more detail on this here.
I think it is also important that people understand the mechanisms of hypertrophy that we all need for health, strength, injury recovery & prevention and overall life expectancy, so please see my article here about that so you can understand the importance of load and mechanical tension in achieving the best outcomes.
Now let’s break down the different types of exercises and the appropriate rep schemes to make the most of any exercise, and stay safe & injury free for the long term. Please note that for beginners learning new movements higher repetitions with much lower relative loads are required, as that is needed to develop the motor patterning and neural recruitment pathways.
Stability, movement prep & activation exercises:
Exercises that compromise this group are generally aimed to improve neural pathways and increase activation for perhaps poorly functioning muscle groups (e.g. like hip abduction patterns for the Glute Medius) in either a rehabilitation program, or as preparation for more dynamic and loaded movements or activities to come. Another example of this would be banded scapula retraction or I’s, T’s, W’s, Y’s to improve rhomboid and middle to lower trap activation.
The muscles used in these types of movements are generally designed to stabilise your body for long periods of time, and therefore, anecdotally, respond to more endurance based or isometric hold type rep patterns as it matches the real-world requirements. The aim being to improve firing patterns through overload in repetition, or to improve the ability to resist fatigue that can affect posture. So, 15 plus repetitions are the most appropriate here, or isometric holds for controllable times by the individual, without going silly by performing hundreds of reps of course.
Isolated (single joint) exercises:
Exercises within this group are generally used as accessory lifts to compound lifts like Bench Press, Military Press, Hamstring curls or Chin-ups, and as such are designed to come later in a workout sequence(not before a big lift) so as not to limit the effectiveness of the big lifts through fatigued levers. Isolated (single Joint) exercise such as the bicep curl, a tricep extension or a shoulder lateral raise should be performed with moderate to high rep ranges (6-15), as they have low technical requirements and a low demand on the central nervous system. While low rep ranges in the strength range (1-5) are possible, going for max effort strength in these types of movements will often lead to swinging and cheat mechanisms, decreasing the effectiveness on the target muscle groups and increasing the risk of joint and connective tissue injury. You can also increase the reps safely, but they start to become less effective, whatever the goal.
Unilateral compound (multiple joint) exercises:
Exercises in this group, such as lunge & step up variations, dumbbell presses and single arm rows are great for those still mastering the technique of bigger compound lifts like, squats, deadlifts and Olympic lifts. This is because they allow you to put large amounts of force through the muscles, vital for all aspects of health, strength and injury prevention, with lower technical requirements and risks if technique is slightly off. Obviously, the aim is to build to great technique with these and the big lifts.
Because of their ability to put high force through the body safely, and be used for metabolic work, the rep ranges for these can range from heavy 3’s for things like Dumbbell presses, all the way to high rep lunge patterns of 15’s. You can go higher and do it safely but you then limit the effectiveness of the exercise (3,4,5). 1-2 rep max lifts are not recommended here as the challenge lies in being able to get the dumbbells or whatever load you are using in to position to safely use when they are so close to your max effort.
Bilateral compound (multiple joint) exercises:
Exercises in this group include movements like Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Military Press & Chin-ups. This is where the real action starts to happen, the movements that give you the greatest bang for your buck by recruiting huge amounts of muscle, meaning greater energy expenditure, great strength gain potential and therefore greatest overall health benefits. However because of the large muscle recruitment, neural demand, technical aspects and heavier loads possible, these types of movements are not designed for super high reps.
Body weight squats, and the upper body movements can absolutely go in to high rep sets, for example just performing chin-ups to failure could mean 30 plus for some, and is completely safe. Bench Press, Military Press and Row type patterns could also safely be performed for up to 15 reps sets, but for the greatest outcomes from all the above-mentioned big lifts, the greatest results for any health or fitness goal comes from High Intensity/Load and lower volume such as 3 to 10 rep sets (3,4,5). Please note, super high reps or training to exhaustion does not equal greater fat loss, developing greater lean tissue through quality over quantity lifting is the key to fat loss. And if you want to look deeper into the physiology beyond the scope of this article, I am not even touching on the negatives of hormonal imbalance issues that extreme volume and reps cause long term.
For loaded Squats and Deadlifts, not only are higher reps less effective for outcomes (3,4,5), the risks of injury through technique loss due to fatigue and neural demand significantly increase. For maximum results, and lowest injury risk, perform these loaded exercises with perfect technique in rep ranges of 1 to 10. Keeping at the higher end with lower load until technique and mobility is developed, then maximising strength outcomes through lower rep and higher load sets when progressed appropriately.
This is where I take my strongest stance on rep ranges – appropriate, effective, and ultimately safe. Olympic lifting movements are incredibly complex, require huge amounts of muscle mass recruitment, must be performed fast with high quality & good intention, and is incredibly demanding on the nervous system. Because the above components, Olympic lifting should never be performed for high rep sets, for AMRAP’s, to fatigue or in any high-volume circuit based format.
Ultimately this is about quality over quantity, so the full movements of the Clean, the Jerk, The Clean & Jerk, and the Snatch should really stick in the 1-5 rep ranges, ensuring it is light and speed based if you are heading up to the 5 reps. The derivatives of the above movements, such as high pulls, snatch drops or power cleans may creep a little higher and still be safe and effective, but anything beyond 6-8 is plain old ridiculous, unsafe, and a poorly educated approach, lacking understanding of human physiology and Olympic Lifting. Don’t you think elite sports teams and athletes would be using these movements in high reps if it did work?
When it comes to any form of resistance based training, from banded prep work to the Snatch, it is not a copy and paste for rep schemes. Every movement will have differing optimal rep ranges & volumes for everyone (we all respond differently so must also be specific to the individual). Your performance based outcomes and injury risk reduction relies on knowing what these are, not getting caught in fads, and being smart about your training. Know where quality is needed, know where quantity is needed, and most of all stay injury free. It’s the long-term training adaptions that make the difference, so make sure you can stay in the game. The above guidelines are a good start but ensure your program design is set up by a qualified and experienced Performance Coach. Happy, effective and SAFE lifting!
Written By Head Performance Coach David Smith
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- Hak, Paul Taro, Emil Hodzovic, and Ben Hickey. “The Nature And Prevalence Of Injury During Crossfit Training”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2013).
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