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High Reps vs Low Reps For Muscle Growth: What Does Research Say?

by Jeremy Ethier - December 30, 2018

If you want to learn what the best rep range is to use for muscle growth... Then you need to read this article.

Using the right rep ranges within your workout is an extremely important factor for muscle growth, yet is an area of confusion for many lifters.

In fact, most of us simply follow what’s known as the “strength-endurance continuum”:
high reps vs low reps
This is the long-held belief that:

  • Training with low reps, for example a powerlifting type routine, is the best for increasing strength but not the best for adding size
  • Training with high reps on the other hand is best for muscular endurance and again not the best for size

As a result, there exists a hypertrophy rep range of roughly 6-12 reps, which is often proposed as the best rep range to maximize muscle growth.

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What Does Research Say?

The truth is, recent emerging research has indicated that this hypertrophy rep range is actually much bigger than most people realize . In fact, multiple recent papers, including this recently published 2017 meta-analysis on the topic have come up with the following conclusion:

Given that:

1) Volume is equated for
2) You’re training close to failure
3) You’re using a weight that is at least 30% of your 1RM

Then muscle growth will be similar regardless of what rep range you choose to use!

Therefore disproving the concept of this hypertrophy rep range altogether.

However, when you take a step back and start to think about it more practically rather than scientifically... The hypertrophy rep range actually starts to make more sense.

Why The "Hypertrophy Rep Range" Is Best

We know based on the recent work of researcher Brad Schoenfeld that there exists a dose-response relationship between growth and volume:
training volume and growth
Whereby increases in volume performed close to failure leads to increased muscle growth.

And this is exactly where the 6-12 rep range comes in handy:

It’s simply the most effective rep range to use in order to accumulate volume.

The Downside Of Lower Reps

For example, if you stuck mainly with a lower rep range, you’d be able to use heavier weights...

BUT you would need to do more sets than you’d have to when compared to using a higher rep range in order to match volume.

Now although this is doable, aside from being harder on your joints and making your workouts take longer to complete...

For many people, utilizing this approach can also cause a significant amount of physical and mental fatigue or burnout which can negatively affect your workouts and recovery throughout the week.

The Downside Of Higher Reps

And on the other end of the spectrum, if you stuck mainly with a higher rep range, for many people this would be extremely metabolically taxing and exhausting.

Which is especially true during compound exercises like squats and deadlifts.

And this is problematic since it would negatively affect what you’re capable of doing for the remainder of your workout.

Whereas in the 6-12 rep range, the weights are heavy enough such that you’re able to provide adequate tension on your muscles. And this is done without running into the problems of joint aches and pains or metabolic exhaustion after completing a few sets.

Hence why it is actually the ideal rep range to use in order to build muscle, since it enables you to accumulate volume most effectively without overtaxing the body.

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Should You Stick To 6-12 Reps Exclusively?

So does this mean that you should stick to 6-12 reps exclusively?

No, not at all.

Especially since there’s benefits to incorporating lower reps and benefits to incorporating higher reps.

The Benefits Of Lower Reps

For example, we know that lower reps are more beneficial for strength gains.

This 2016 paper by Schoenfeld and colleagues illustrates this idea perfectly.

The researchers compared the effects of sticking to a rep range of 2-4 reps with heavy weight versus sticking to a rep range of 10-12 reps with relatively lighter weight.

Here's a shot of the results:
high reps vs low reps for muscle growth and strength graph
After 8 weeks, it was clear that the lower rep range was superior for strength gains whereas the higher rep range was superior for muscle growth (since subjects were able to achieve more volume).

Although all measurements weren't significant, there was a clear trend that you can see in the above graph - which I'd expect to all reach significance if the study was run for longer than 8 weeks.

The Benefits Of Higher Reps

And on the other hand, incorporating higher reps with lighter weight can both:

  • Indirectly help you push through metabolic fatigue during your sets in other rep ranges
  • May in fact stimulate more growth itself from the added metabolic stress

Not to mention that certain exercises like lateral raises and cable flies simply lend themselves better to higher reps in terms of maximizing your mind to muscle connection and minimizing joint stress.

Therefore suggesting that incorporating both approaches would likely be optimal in the long run for strength AND size.

Conclusion: The Best Rep Ranges To Build Muscle

You may be a little confused now as to what exactly you should do, so here's what I'd recommend.

Given that you’re past the beginner stage and are now more familiar with the main movements, aim for the following:
rep ranges to build muscle

  • Get the majority (60-70%) of your working sets done in the 6-12 rep range
  • Get the remainder done with a mix of both lower reps with heavy weight and higher reps with light weight (15-20% for each)

This way, you're able to reap the benefits that all rep ranges have to offer.

Incorporating This Into Your Routine

And in terms of how to incorporate this into your routine, there’s several ways of doing so.

For example, in the following chest workout here’s how you could effectively vary the rep range within it in order to maximize growth and strength:
chest workout rep rangesOr if you run an upper/lower split or a push/pull/legs workout split...
upper lower split rep ranges
You can structure it such that some days are more strength based in the lower rep range with heavier weight whereas other days are higher volume by using the moderate to high rep range with lighter weight.

Another option is to use some form of periodization:
periodizing high reps to low reps
For example going from blocks of training that are more strength focused in the lower rep range and then transitioning to higher reps and lower weight overtime to manage your fatigue.

These are just a few of many examples. But the key is to experiment with it and see what you’ll be most consistent with and find what your body responds to best.

Whatever it is you do though, avoid sticking exclusively to just one rep range in order to reap the benefits that they all have to offer.

Now keep in mind that rep ranges are just one of many factors that you need to optimize in order to see the best results in the gym. And if you’re looking for a step-by-step evidence-based program that shows you how to do so and how to maximize your efforts in the gym...

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Anyways, that’s it for this article! Hope you enjoyed it and found it useful! Don’t forget to give me a follow and connect with me on InstagramFacebook, and Youtube as well. Cheers!

High Reps vs Low Reps For Muscle Growth: What Does Research Say?