“What Rep Count & Weight Should I Choose?”
Written by Dave Thomas
Understand that in every single workout that you do here, you will get stronger, burn fat, and build muscle. Every single one.
Building strength, burning fat, building muscle (as well as a host of other benefits like building athleticism, endurance, overall health, etc.)
THAT’S WHAT MARYLAND DOES.
However, here you have the free will to pull the strings on which of those outcomes you want more of in any given workout: Strength, Muscle, or Fitness/Conditioning (there is a fourth option for advanced athletes that we term Performance due it’s specific orientation towards absolute strength.)
Let’s use the following workout from a workout as an example:
5 Front Squats (2 Rep Option for Performance)
8 Rotational MB Slam
8 Floor Press
8 Renegade Row
Here’s a look at what each of those means, and why they produce the outcomes that they do.
Strength: Focus on Heavy Front Squats
In this rep scheme, you will be lifting challenging weight at a slower pace, completing less overall volume than someone with a different goal, but more volume than the 2R performance option.
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). 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 a pump) and more about the activation of them (like in a plank).
This is a process called neuromuscular efficiency, 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 the muscles are constantly saying, “What?! We do what?! We can’t hear you!” Over time, that signal becomes more clear, there is less static, and the muscles slowly begin to understand what to do and become stronger.
That is neuromuscular efficiency.
Simply put, strength training is the process of your brain getting better at communicating with your muscles to lift something. It is not only about the developing the size of them. Every person should want to get stronger as it helps your overall fitness, health, vitality, ability, injury prevention, confidence, and yes, physique.
Muscle: Focus on Heavy Front Squats & Heavy Floor Press
In this rep scheme, the idea is to push our musculoskeletal system along with our central nervous system. Here, we’re interested in the physiology of breaking muscle down and building it back up, aka, growing muscle.
- 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 might 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. The weight is not challenging enough to the point where the risk for injury increases, but it’s at a challenging enough weight that you’ll still see strength gains while everything else will improve, as well.
Conditioning: Move Lighter (still challenging) Weight, Complete More Rounds
In this rep count, you are doing the same amount as you are for other goals, but the key differentiating variable is that the load is lighter and you are moving faster. 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 rounds and volume, resulting in the maintenance of an elevated heart rate, oxygen demand, and all around aerobic conditioning.
Yes, you can be training aerobic conditioning in a weight training setting. In fact, it’s great fitness.
For those of you who still may associate caloric burn with the effectiveness of a workout, you would likely be surprised to learn that you will burn less calories going lighter than you would going a bit heavier. The reason is that it’s much more metabolically demanding in a thirty minute window to engage bigger muscles more often than it is to simply go faster at easier weight.
Performance: 2R @ Near Max (85%+)
In this option, you are after the pursuit of absolute strength, thus, will perform substantially less overall volume because your pacing is slower and recovery is of more importance. You’ll end up with heavier lifts and less volume.
Remember, in every workout you’re going to develop strength, improve your physique, and burn fat. Ultimately, it’s just a matter of which one you want to skew more towards. If you want to skew more of a strength focus, slow down and challenge the load. If you want to skew more of a conditioning focus, speed up and reduce the load, and if you want to strike the perfect balance like Goldilocks, then find that challenging weight where you’re still maintaining a solid pace.