How to Use Multiple Rep Schemes for Power, Size, and Strength!
If you listen to conventional bodybuilding and strength training wisdom, you probably believe that lifting for size and lifting for strength are totally separate endeavors. For decades, gurus and gym rats alike have been parroting the same old “3-5 reps for strength, 10-12 reps for size” mantra, and still few people seem to question it. But I do!
If you really think about what builds muscle mass AND strength, this tired old nonsense just doesn’t add up. Have you ever seen a guy with huge legs, a broad back, and a massive chest who couldn’t put up some serious weight? Likewise, how often do you see skinny guys lifting larger than the experienced bodybuilders? Sure, you’ll see a freak every now and again who can bench 405 or squat 600+ weighing under 200 pounds, but for the most part that stuff just doesn’t happen!
No, the truth is that training for size and training for strength are basically the same. Still, focusing on various rep ranges is absolutely essential to getting the most out of training and reaching all of your goals as efficiently as possible. Instead of thinking about any one rep range as a “strength builder” or “size builder,” use them all to your advantage to blast every fiber in your body and elicit maximal growth!
Is Periodization Really Necessary?
So, you’re going to be using both high and low reps in your routine – we’ve established that much. The next question is, should you periodize? In case you don’t know, periodization in a nutshell is the practice of transitioning from higher reps and lower weights to lower reps and higher weights – and vice versa – over the course of a planned training cycle. It’s a technique that’s long been used by powerlifters, weightlifters, other strength athletes, and it’s certainly proven effective. But I think there’s a better way, at least for the more physique-oriented trainee.
Since each rep range is going to affect your strength, size and overall look a bit differently – and because one isn’t more valuable than another – I favor a routine that includes them all, ALL the time! Instead of transitioning from one rep range to the next, I like to constantly improve my numbers in a variety of rep schemes, only taking steps back when my body needs a break. This may not be the optimal plan if you’re purely focused on powerlifting, but I find it yields the best results for maximum muscle size, strength, density and tone. Want that “hard,” constantly-flexed look that experienced bodybuilders all seem to have? To me, this is the key!
Your Main Lifts
Of course, we can’t talk about rep ranges and progression schemes without actually discussing the lifts you’ll be performing. Think you’ll get away with doing nothing but leg presses for legs, machines for chest, and wimpy pull-downs for back? Think again!
I know some bodybuilders claim they get better fiber recruitment, mind-muscle connections, etc. with machines, and that’s all well and good for super-advanced guys. But if you’re aiming to gain slabs of muscle, you need to be doing the big, basic lifts that tax your body and mind the most, and that place the greatest demand on your body to GROW! These are the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press.
This program won’t lock you in to just those 4 movements, however. You can certainly pick variations – as long as they allow you to use lots of weight and make relatively quick progress! So, you can’t chicken out and substitute light dumbbell lunges for squats, for instance, but you can pick between high-bar and low-bar squats, and you can vary your foot placement, depth and other factors. The same goes for the other moves. You might do incline or decline press instead of the regular bench press, sumo deadlifts rather than conventional, and seated OR standing military presses. Just make sure you stick with one choice per movement pattern for at least a couple of months at a time – otherwise you won’t be able to gauge your progress and gains.
Choosing Your Reps
I’ve said a lot about using different rep ranges, but we haven’t talked specifics. Exactly what numbers of reps should you use?
It’s going to vary based on experience level, but most lifters do best with three ranges: 3-5 reps, 6-8 reps, and 9-12 reps. If you’re a rank beginner who still doesn’t have great technique and a feel for each lift, you’ll need to up those numbers a bit, more like 6-8, 9-12, and 13-15.
Also, I don’t like prescribing one-rep max percentages for each rep range, since some people can do a lot more reps with a given percentage than others. So, no matter what rep range you’re using, always aim to leave one in the tank. This means you should never MISS a rep in training (unless you’re testing your max), and in general you’ll finish each set feeling like you probably could have just barely eeked out one more. Trust me, you’ll be doing enough overall work that you won’t need to blow a gasket on each and every set! You want to stay somewhat fresh and ensure progression from one workout to the next.
So, we’ve covered the rep ranges for your basic lifts, as well as WHAT basic lifts you should be doing. While these are BY FAR the most important aspects of your program, you still don’t want to leave out your accessory work. A lot of onlookers might call this “bodybuilding” work, but really, just about any athlete who needs to get bigger and stronger is going to do these movements. These are your rows, pull-ups, ab work, calf raises, curls, etc. – all the exercises that “fill in the gaps” left by the main movements.
There are hundreds if not thousands of different accessory movements you can choose, so to a large degree these movements are up to you. I will say, however, that your upper back work should include some heavy basics: barbell rows, dumbbell rows, pull-ups (not pull-downs!), and maybe some shrugs if the deadlifts aren’t doing enough to build your traps.
Other than the back work, you’ll want to use a few different variations on the curl, tricep extension, side raise, and rear raise for your upper body. For lower body, you’ll need heavy calves and abs exercises, as well as a couple of additional moves for quads and hamstrings. As much I love the squat, you’ll probably run out of steam too soon if you try to do nothing BUT squats for your legs, so don’t be afraid to use the leg press or hack squat machines once your core (and mind) are too fried to do yet another set of squats.
Alright, here’s a basic template of you you’ll lay out this program. The most important things here are the basic movement patterns, the rep ranges, and the progression of weight and reps from week to week. Remember, you can sub in any other exercises that meet the same goals.
Day 1: Push / Upper Body
- Main lift: Close-Grip Bench Press: 2 sets 3-5, 2 sets 6-8, 2 sets 9-12
- Secondary: Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Upper Back: Parallel Grip Pull-ups: 4 sets 8-10, adding weight as necessary
Day 2: Squat / Lower Body
- Main lift: Low-Bar Squat to Parallel: 2 sets 3-5, 2 sets 6-8, 2 sets 9-12
- Secondary: Leg Press: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Weighted Crunches: 4 sets 15-20
- Seated Calf Raises: 4 sets 50 (yes, 50!)
Day 3: OFF
Day 4: Push / Upper Body
- Main lift: Seated Behind-the-Neck Press: 2 sets 3-5, 2 sets 6-8, 2 sets 9-12
- Secondary: Decline Barbell Press: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Upper Back: Underhand Pull-ups: 4 sets 10-12, adding weight as necessary
Day 5: Deadlift / Full Body
- Main lift: Conventional Deadlift Standing on 2 45-pound plates: 2 sets 3-5, 2 sets 6-8, 2 sets 9-12
- Upper Back: Close-Grip Barbell Rows: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Secondary: Hack Squat Machine: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Weighted Sit-ups: 4 sets 15-20
Day 6: Accessory Work
- Upper Back: Plate-loaded Machine Rows: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Standing Calf Raises: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Swinging Dumbbell Side Raises: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Reverse Pec Dec: 4 sets 10-20 (all the same weight)
- Superset Dumbbell Curls and Skull Crushers: 4 sets each 10-20 (all the same weight)
Day 7: OFF
The Progression Scheme
Since there’s no traditional periodization here, your progression from one workout to the next is going to be simple. For your main lifts, just add 5 pounds to the bar for each rep range each workout – as long as you’re staying within the range! Once you’re not able to get at least the bottom-end number of reps for that rep range, take 15 (yes, FIFTEEN) pounds off and start anew. You’ll be able to get more reps immediately, and you’ll blow past your old sticking point in a few weeks once you get back to the weight that gave you trouble.
For your secondary lifts – and any others that have you doing 10-20 reps for 4 sets with the same weight – keep using the same weight until you’re able to get at least 15 reps for all 4 sets in the same workout. At that point, you can up the weight, but not by so much that you can’t stay within the 10-20 range for all 4 sets.
Finally, for all of the upper back work, just use as much weight as you can without letting your form get too ugly, and without making it too hard to get all of the prescribed reps. You’ll ideally use the same heavy weight for each of the 4 sets per back movement, but don’t worry if you have to lighten the load for the third or fourth set to stay within the rep range. Once you’re hitting near the top of the range for all 4 sets, it’s time to go heavier! Seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? But really, that’s how your training should be, at least most of the time! Far too many newbie lifters are spending hours upon hours over-thinking their programs. Smart training is essential, but your progression should rely on consistent hard work, not some overly-thought-out, “scientific” program! The greatest lifters – whether they’ve competed in powerlifting or bodybuilding – have busted their asses with simple programs to get wh