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Have you continuously been hearing that you should be doing 3-6 reps to build strength or 12-15 to build muscle? Whilst some of this advice might make sense, it also isn’t very reliable. In fact, there isn’t a set rule when it comes to how many reps or sets you should do.
Truth is, it all comes down to one thing, which is progressing. Let’s shatter the myth of high reps/lightweight and low reps/heavyweight! It’s not that these terms aren’t true, they are just not explained in the right way.
After this article, you will know exactly how many reps to do to build muscle!
Table of Contents
If you understand how to build muscle, you will know how many reps to do!
You have to progress the way a bodybuilder has to progress
One of the key factors to make your muscles grow is to get stronger, and by stronger, it does not mean training only for strength as powerlifters do. It has to be done by increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting while exercising enough volume in your training.
The first part of this series of articles will explain the difference between the bodybuilder and the powerlifter. You might think this has got nothing to do with how many repetitions to perform to build muscle, but this is a great illustration of understanding it.
The powerlifter and the bodybuilder
In the gym, all of us different fitness enthusiasts tend to look at each other. If you look attentively, it’s quite easy to spot what a bodybuilder or powerlifter looks like. One seems to focus on a low volume, focused, and very repetitive type of training (powerlifter) while the other is focusing on training with a higher volume while also doing a repetitive type of routine (bodybuilder). The examples below are just stereotypes and certainly not applicable to everyone, however, it illustrates the point.
The powerlifter is the person you see doing squats 4 times a week. Usually, they will overtime be stronger than you if you are a bodybuilder. They “don’t sweat much” and can be seen resting between sets more than the bodybuilder.
So why do you keep seeing powerlifters with incredible strength, but without a lot of muscle mass?
As a powerlifter, you don’t care about building muscle – most of the energy you use comes from your nervous system. This is the most important one to focus on when recovering. It’s because their type of training is designed to make them stronger, not bigger.
It also is technical. The way they perform the movements, ex: arching on the bench-press. Their focus is on building strength and on three specific movements: squat, bench press, deadlift. They avoid doing too much volume and high repetitions so they don’t hit this hypertrophy orientated type of training meant to build muscle.
This way they also save their nervous system and are able to be repetitive with their sessions and main movements. Indeed, muscle recovery does not really come into place for them as they are not trying to build muscles. Therefore, to some extent, they can rest less between two sessions targeting the same muscle/area.
They don’t want to “waste time” on what’s pointless for them. They probably won’t do a full biceps session which won’t have any effect on their squat, bench, or deadlift. This would just take their energy away. Doing a highly consistent low volume type of training makes sense for someone with these goals in mind.
The bodybuilder is the person you see jumping from place to place, sweating buckets, whilst always doing sets and not resting much in between them. Bodybuilders are usually looking to train all their muscles and hit a hypertrophy orientated/high volume type of training, required to help “unlock” the factors of building muscle, not strength.
They are focusing on destroying their muscles and they won’t be able to do squats 4 times a week like a powerlifter, because not only their nervous system needs time to recover but so do their muscles. In most cases, bodybuilders are bigger than powerlifters, but not stronger over time due to the differences in training techniques.
Stereotypically, this is what the bodybuilders are advised to do, “high reps without focusing too much on strength”.
Bodybuilders who stagnate usually neglect one of the two following factors:
Sometimes bodybuilders just focus on this one factor of hitting the generally advised hypertrophy type of training with high reps and totally neglect the notion of strength. On the other hand, others totally neglect the hypertrophy part and focus too much on strength.
We believe the perfect match is to be a PowerBuilder and mixing both of these. If you ask us, the word PowerBuilder should not exist. But there are too many bodybuilders not training the right way… and with performance-enhancing drugs, we tend to forget we even have to scale any sort of progression and become stronger.
The world “bodybuilder” has lost its definition!
The real bodybuilder is a powerbodybuilder?
Strength for the bodybuilder!
The stronger you get, the more potential you have in building muscle. There are those who argue against this and say that strength doesn’t matter when it comes to building muscle, but let’s look at this with common sense.
What if you could perform the exact same high-volume workout that you’re doing at the moment, with the same perfect form, feeling as easy as it is now – but with 20kg added onto all your exercises?
Wouldn’t you get bigger?
If your answer is still that strength doesn’t matter and it’s about increasing volume/intensity, then it comes back to the same. Being able to increase volume and intensity comes back to being stronger. If you can do more sets than before in your new session, for example, going from 20 sets to 25 sets, or do more reps in a high rep-range, 15 to 18 reps – then there is a good chance that your PB would also go up if you tried.
In the end, it is all about getting stronger, which overall simply means improving. Progressing. Progressive overload is important while maintaining enough volume. The level of stress and tension needed for your muscles to grow must be more than it used to be, in terms of weight/volume.
A practical example with a balloon
Think of your muscles as a balloon.
Let’ say we have one balloon called bodybuilder.
The other one is called powerlifter.
Our goal is to get these two balloons as heavy as possible without the same components. One component is using water and the other one heavy metal. We will use water to fill the bodybuilder balloon while using heavy metal for the powerlifter balloon. As we said previously, the goal of the bodybuilder is to lift as heavy as possible overtime while performing enough volume.
And as said previously, the goal of the powerlifter is to lift as heavy as possible overtime without caring much about the volume. If you’re filling the “bodybuilder balloon” with water, it gets heavier and it takes a lot of space overtime.
If you’re filling the “powerlifter balloon” with heavy metal, it gets super heavy but won’t take that much space (considering we are using some heavy but small in size metal).
These are exactly the differences between the two. They both get heavier (replace the term heavier by stronger in this example) but their types of training is different which changes the way they will look overtime! Building muscle is getting stronger but getting stronger by making sure you are doing hypertrophy training by doing enough volume.
Now, which way to train to grow faster?
Should it always be training with high reps?
Should it first be by getting stronger “powerlifting mode” and then starting a hypertrophy program?
Should it be by mixing strength and high volume at the same time from the start?
You see, there is no perfect solution.
As soon as you understand that you should try to progress in the weights you lift and following a hypertrophy type of training, it’s already a win. This is why power building is interesting. You combine strength training and volume training.
We believe this is the most efficient way of building muscle. Just like Charlie says in his interview, getting stronger and doing enough volume helped him improve considerably faster. We also made an article on how it can be interesting to apply the 5×5 method to your arms training.
If you are a beginner, you just should not wait before implementing strength in your training!
Just to say that if there was only one way to pick to train forever with, 10 x 5 would be more efficient than 5×10. Hand-in-hand it kind of all goes together. Your body gets fooled by too many positive factors all at once!
That’s why if you can do your best in all factors to build muscle: dieting, training, resting the right way… you will grow quickly, but as soon as you take one factor away, things get slightly more complicated.
Eat well/enough>more energy>more energy>stronger>stronger>higher volume possible>higher volume possible>more muscles>more muscles>more strength>more strength>more muscles etc…
Now we know building muscle comes from your strength and volume potential and what you are going to do with it. This is a great opportunity to end the famous debate between high reps/low weight vs low reps/heavyweight!
High reps/ light weight or low reps/ heavy weight? End of the debate
If you have read this article attentively, it already makes sense that such debate should not exist… Have you always heard about whether doing high/reps light weight or low/reps heavy weight? The final goal as a bodybuilder is about getting stronger and doing enough volume. This literally means that you should aim to do high reps with heavyweight!
But if you can do high reps with heavyweights aren’t these lightweights now?
And we come back to the whole point of progressing as a bodybuilder. By doing things the right way, what used to be heavy is now light! And when light-weight is as light as doing some 20x60kg barbell curls – you can guess you are about to put on a good amount of muscle!
Even if it feels light to you, it is not.
It simply means you’re a freak with a lot of muscles now!
Building muscle is quite logical if you think about it.
Let’s keep it quite simple and realistic.
You should also read “Stick to your bodybuilding routine to avoid stagnation” and “Should you train to failure? It really depends” to complete this article.
Any questions, let us know in the comments!