Can You Build Muscle with Super High Reps?

A while back I wrote a post demonstrating how while the general consensus has always been that a 8 – 12 rep range is “best” if you’re trying to build muscle, the reality is that there is NO best rep range for muscle growth.

This is because a superbly conducted study by BJ Schoenfeld demonstrates that when you equate for total volume (being total amount of WEIGHT moved), the muscular growth will be the same, regardless of whether you lifted for sets of 3 reps, or sets of 10 reps.

That is pretty shocking stuff, because it completely challenges what was always thought about in terms of rep ranges designated to providing different outcomes (ex. rep ranges for hypertrophy only and rep ranges for strength only).

What still seems to remain true however is that training in low rep ranges does result in better increases of 1 rep max strength than higher rep ranges.

But for the purposes of just gaining pure mass, it appears that there is no optimal rep range for growth; the only thing that matters is your overall training volume.

Which brings us to the topic at hand.

While it has been generally accepted that rep ranges of 15 are usually considered the upper limit for building muscle, with anything over that only being beneficial for endurance, it appears that this may not be the case.

 

The Study

BJ Schoenfeld and colleagues conducted a study to compare the effects of low-load, high rep training vs. high-load, low rep training.

Now what’s interesting about this study is that when they say “high-rep” training, they’re not talking about the typical 8 – 15 reps per set.

No, in this study, the high rep group was to perform sets of 25 – 35 reps.

The type of training conducted was just like any other bodybuilding regimen; it consisted of 3 days a week on non-consecutive days and included 3 sets of 7 different exercises. The experiment lasted for a total of 8 weeks.

Exercises included were: bench press, military press, seated cable row, lat pull-down, barbell squat, leg press, and leg extension. Virtually every exercise that a bodybuilder would train with.

Diet was also monitored to ensure that different variations in eating habits were not responsible for the differences in muscle growth between groups (ie. different calorie intakes among subjects).

Now I’m sure that most people would assume that the high-load, low rep group (which consisted of sets of 8 – 12 reps, the classic “muscle building” range) would achieve dramatically greater muscle growth compared to the super high rep group, but surprisingly this was not the case.

Yup, muscle growth was generally even between both groups, with the super high rep group gaining slightly MORE muscle than the 8 – 12 rep group in biceps thickness (8.6% vs. 5.3%) and volume of the quadriceps (9.5% vs. 9.3%).

So much for the saying “go heavy or go home”.

It should be noted that while the results of muscle growth was a huge surprise to most, the low-rep group performed markedly better in 1 rep max strength than did the high rep group.

Therefore, the notion that you should use high weight and low reps to develop maximal strength appears to still reign true.

 

Caveats

An important thing to note is that the researchers had all of their subjects perform these sets to failure.

Because of this, the researchers believe that training to failure is the reason behind the high rep subject’s muscle growth being on par (if not slightly better) than the low rep group.

According to them, it is still possible to recruit all of your muscular motor units using high reps, just as long as you train to complete failure.

Therefore, if the study had not permitted the subjects to go to failure every set, then it is highly possible that muscle growth would not have been even between groups.

The other important note to mention is that the researchers speculated that part of the reason for why the high rep group had such good results may have been because of a “novelty effect”.

In other words, since both groups were comprised of experienced lifters, it is unlikely that any of them ever performed such training protocols that involved going into a 25 – 35 rep range, given that it has always been said to never go above 15 reps if your goal is muscle growth.

As we all know, when we introduce a radically different stimulus onto our muscles than what they are used to, they usually respond very well in terms of growth.

While this comment is purely speculation, it definitely deserves consideration.

Personally, even if there was a novelty effect on the subjects, the results still demonstrate that super high rep training can be just as beneficial as low to moderate rep training, when done under the right circumstances.

The other thing I love about this study is that it provides some scientific basis for the benefits of high rep bodyweight training.

While subjects did not perform bodyweight exercises in the study, the main reason for why people dismiss bodyweight training’s effectiveness for muscle growth is because the reps are too high.

They say that doing sets of 20 – 30 push-ups or dips is not nearly enough load to elicit muscular growth.

Well now that we have a scientific study which demonstrates that rep ranges of 25 – 35 can elicit an even greater growth response (given the right conditions) than an 8 – 12 rep range, logic should tell us that high volume bodyweight training might just have some merit after all.

 

Conclusion

Now given that these results were attained through the use of training to failure, does this mean that we should all start training to failure from now on?

In short, it appears that if you like to train in an extremely high rep range like the subjects in this study did, than training to failure would most likely be necessary to achieve a maximum amount of muscle growth from such a training regimen (such as high rep bodyweight workouts).

However, in regards to typical weight training when the reps remain within a normal 5 – 15 range, does training to failure still elicit a greater anabolic benefit than not training to failure?

To find out, stay tuned for our next post; the answer might surprise you.

 

Comments

  1. Yannick Messaoud says:

    Since i injured myself at 29 doing heavy weights, took 11y to get better with prolotherapy and PRP, i am training light again this program looks amazing and i am going to try it.

    I respond a lot better to high reps then the 6-12reps.

  2. Jai Lybyk says:

    Routine?

    • If you are referring to the type of routine used in the study, I discussed it in the post.

      “The type of training conducted was just like any other bodybuilding regimen; it consisted of 3 days a week on non-consecutive days and included 3 sets of 7 different exercises. The experiment lasted for a total of 8 weeks. Exercises included were: bench press, military press, seated cable row, lat pull-down, barbell squat, leg press, and leg extension. Virtually every exercise that a bodybuilder would train with.”