Vary Your Rep Range for Greater Gains

Avoiding heavier sets and lighter sets could be holding back your muscle gains.

Dunking a basketball, deadlifting 600 pounds, growing big biceps—these are all things I wanted to do when I started lifting. But there was a problem. I didn't know how to reach those goals.

I asked questions. I read books, articles, forums and anything I could get my hands on. But every answer brought more questions.

RELATED: The Perfect Rep Ranges for Size, Strength and Power

As I learned more, I questioned more. With time my results mirrored my knowledge. I could dunk, deadlift 600 pounds, and had grown a decent pair of biceps—by training with a varied rep range.

One question that helped me was: What is the best way to gain muscle? The answer: train in the 65-75% range for 6-12 reps and get a lot of volume (sets x reps x weight).

Why do we train in the 65-75% range for 6-12 repetitions? Should we avoid greater than 75% and less than 65% intensities, or should we be doing sets of 3, 5, and 20-plus reps?

The Typical "Hypertrophy Range"

The mechanisms of hypertrophy (building muscle) are:

Mechanical tension

This is based on the load lifted. Training heavy elicits the most mechanical tension.

Metabolic stress

This is based on metabolites produced by the muscle from prolonged contraction. Training lighter and for higher repetitions (at or near failure) elicits more metabolic stress than heavier, lower-repetition sets.

Because these two factors are on different ends of the spectrum, hypertrophy training lies in the middle—the 6-12 repetition range (65-75% of 1-repetition max). This range allows for mechanical tension and metabolic stress to balance out while allowing for high volumes of training, thus optimizing size gains.

But what about the 3, 5, and 20 + rep sets?

RELATED: How Many Sets and Reps Should You Really Do?

Nontraditional "Hypertrophy Ranges"

When looking at studies on the effects of different repetition ranges, it's important to ensure volume is equal between groups. As volume increases, typically muscle gains increase. For this reason, the following studies are volume-equated.

Study 1

Training with either 3 sets of 10 repetition max vs. 7 sets of 3 repetition max elicited no significant changes in muscle thickness.

Takeaway: Lower repetitions (3 and probably 5) work just as well for hypertrophy as traditional rep (6-12) schemes.

Study 2

Training with either 3 sets of 25-35 repetition max vs. 3 sets of 8-12 repetition max elicited no significant differences in muscle gain between groups.

Takeaway: Higher repetitions (20+) can work for hypertrophy.

Study 3

One group trained on a constant rep scheme of 8-12 repetitions, and another group trained on a varied rep scheme of 2-4 repetitions on Day 1, 8-12 repetitions on Day 2, and 20-30 repetitions on Day 3.

The study reads: "Effects sizes favored varied over constant condition for elbow flexor thickness, elbow extensor thickness, maximal bench press strength, and upper-body muscle endurance."

Takeaway: Training in a variety of rep ranges may be superior for gains in muscle size and increasing strength (better capacity for mechanical tension) and muscle endurance (better capacity for metabolic stress). Varying the repetition range can both directly and indirectly lead to better gains in muscle.

Avoiding heavier sets (<5 repetitions) and lighter sets (20+ repetitions) could be holding back your gains in muscle. Ask questions, find answers, and soon you'll have the muscle gains you set out for—the type that makes you look like you lift.

RELATED: The Truth About Rep Ranges


Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). "The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-72.

Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G. T., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). "Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2909-18.

Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). "Effects of low- vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954-63.

Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Ogborn, D., Galpin, A., Krieger, J., & Sonmez, G. T. (2016). "Effects of varied versus constant loading zones on muscular adaptations in trained men." International Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(6), 442-7.

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