Behind the Whiteboard: Rep Counts
Before we begin the surface level physiology of what happens during each rep range, it’s very important to understand that the most benefit is received when all rep counts are complimenting each other. It’s like making a stew. You cook it slowly and flavors in one ingredient start to bring out flavors in the other.
“Strength”: 1-5R @ Heavy (~75%+)
The reason why the lower rep option will focus more on building strength is that in this rep count, we are targeting more of our central nervous system (CNS) and less of our muscles. I know that might sound very confusing, and honestly, it’s a little misleading as of course we can’t lift something heavy without the use and development of our muscles, but it’s less about the breaking down of those muscles (like in an 8+ rep physique focus “pump”) and more about the total recruitment of them. This is a process called neuromuscular efficiency (NME), and it is the skill at which you can efficiently and intensively recruit muscle fibers to produce the movement pattern accurately and powerfully. A muscle will produce more strength if a larger number of its fibers contract at once, which depends on how efficiently our nerves send impulses to our muscle fibers telling them to do so. Under the stress of heavy load in a 5R front squat, our CNS is forced to recruit more motor units and establish patterns of those units to efficiently complete the movement.
Think about this as your brain talking to your muscles through a walkie talkie. At first, your walkie talkie is all broken up with static and can’t quite get the message. Over time, that signal becomes more clear, there is less static, and the muscles slowly begin to understand what to do and become stronger. Simply put, strength training is the process of your brain getting better at communicating with your muscles to lift something.
The 5R count also has a physique benefit in the form of dense, Type-II muscle development. Muscles will grow, just not at the same rate as the next rep count.
“Muscle”: 8-12R @ Moderate (~60%)
The lighter load approach enables us to lift for more volume so we begin to shift away from our CNS and into our Musculoskeletal System (MS). Note that lighter doesn’t mean light, it’s simply a statement of relativity based off of the 5R strength comparison. In this rep range, we’re breaking down the muscle fibers and filling them with all sorts of physiological byproducts with the end result that they repair and rebuild bigger than they once were.
The reason that this rep count doesn’t typically get you as strong as the lower rep strength focus is two part. One, we’re targeting different systems (MS, not CNS). Two, we’re targeting different muscle types (Type-I, not Type-II). In addition to the physique benefit, the higher rep range also has some fitness benefit as well that often doesn’t get much love from the strength-only community.
- Increased capacity for glycogen — The more muscle we have, the more glycogen we can store for workouts. Glycogen is our main source during training and the more we can store, the more we’re able to use for our workouts.
- Improved acid buffering — By training more in the higher reps, we are able to buffer nitrogen out of our muscles more efficiently and increase our lactate threshold. This allows us to have better endurance and and move faster when time calls for it. Timed rows, timed runs, and benchmark workouts come to mind.
- Injury Resistance – High rep, moderate load training is excellent for joints, tendons and ligaments and a hugely important inclusion if you cherry pick the strength days and do little else.
- Physique and Performance Balance – If we are quad dominant or hamstring dominant, performing squats and deadlifts all the time will do little to fix that since those muscles will continue to take over. By performing movements that isolate muscle groups, we target and eliminate the imbalances that lead to plateau and injury.
- Improved Metabolism – The more muscle we have the more calories we burn.
- Increased Life Span – The more muscle we have, the longer we are proven to live.
If I may speak for my own personal bias, this is my favorite rep count as I personally feel it has the most benefit with the least risk.
“Conditioning”: 8 – 15R @ Light (50%)
In this rep count, you are doing the same amount as you are for muscle/fitness but the key differentiating variable is that the load is lighter. I hate the term ‘light’ as it insinuates that it shouldn’t be challenging. Remember, it’s all relative. Light in relation to strength’s ‘heavy’. These reps should still be challenging, but repeatable. It’s not heavy enough to provide the stimulus needed to break your muscles down in a meaningful way, but it’s light enough so that you can push yourself on the amount of total volume, resulting in the maintenance of an elevated heart rate, oxygen demand, and all around aerobic conditioning.
All three rep counts were highly generalized and put a bit too much into a silo, but the hope is to illustrate the different benefits of each on a surface level. The intertwined productivity that all three provide when built upon together are what yield someone who is strong, balanced, and able.
Bay Park PSC
First, for Strength:
8 Push Press
10 Gob. Curtsy Lunge
Then, for 4 Rounds:
20 Plyo Lunge Rotations
20 Plyo Skaters
Pacific Beach PSC
8 Push Press
5 Box Jumps
10 Half Kneeling Banded Rows
10:1 DB Goblet Squats
10:1 SA DB Push Jerk
10:1 DB H2H Swings