Hypertrophy Rep Ranges Under The Microscope

by Vladi
Last Update  On December 5, 2011
In this article I'm going to cover what in my opinion are the best hypertrophy rep ranges. Of course this is just me and you will have to make you own choice I hope the information is helpful. Fire some questions.

"Bro...the most popular rep range for hypertrophy is 3 x 10? Is this what works best?"
Lift more than Marylin if you want to grow
To be honest I've only done 3x10 in the very beginning and I don't like it. I think that it's just too light. If I can do 3 sets of 10 with a certain weight I would be able to do 1 set of 10 with twice the weight. The intensity of your workout is much more important than volume. Think of it this way - if volume was that important you would get big legs from walking the dog every morning and evening. It won't happen. For the very same reason marathon runners and sprinters have very different builds. Marathon runners are “skinny” while many sprinters are looking so thick and powerful. It's because the intensity of the sprint is so high compared to a marathon race where endurance is what counts.

A muscle cell has a certain amount of energy. It can be used for two main goals - protein synthesis or some kind of activity. When a muscle is forced to work hard during exercises it loses that energy or the so-called ATP supply. So after that energy loss there is less left for protein synthesis. That's where the problems start or the so called catabolic (anti-muscle building process) process starts and you may lose some muscle. However since our body was built to survive it will actually
synthesizes more protein than you had before the workout provided that there is enough protein intake.

The muscle is like a bathtub - it can be filled with water but it can also be depleted. Obviously in our case we want to fill it with water (protein) and in order to open the “in pipes” we have lift intensely enough. If the weight is too light there want be enough depletion and if the weight is too heavy the “in pipes” won't be opened long enough. At the same time if we rest too much between sets the achieved depletion will be lost because the muscle will have enough time to refill the losses.

Note: I got this explanation from a very old blog comment made by Pavel Tsatouline and to this day I couldn't find a better way to explain it to me or to anybody.

"Ok...bro so you don't like 3x10 what do you recommend ?"

I prefer to do 2-3 warm-up sets (you may need more warm-up for exercise where you lift a lot of weight. If you squat 500 pounds two warm-up sets won't be enough.) depending on how much weight I can lift on a certain exercises and than 1 work set to form failure. There is a big difference between form failure and total failure. You always want to keep your form as good as you can in order to hit the target muscle. When your technique is starting to go to hell it's time to let go. However I think a small form deviation is fine and you shouldn't be a complete form maniac.

I find that one work set between 6 and 15 reps works best for me because I'm what you would call average and don't have remarkable recovery qualities and usually some joint will start calling if I do a lot of volume too frequently.

This is also what people would call H.I.T./high-intensity training. I started training this way after seeing some training tips from Dorian Yates some time ago and like it because like I already said I can't tolerate frequent volume. However I'm not a fan of the “classic” H.I.T. training where you do everything on machines. I do like using machines and I think they can be effective but they should be used in moderation like everything else. So, back to your question I like doing 2 warm up sets and 1 work set to form failure per exercise.

"Hmmm....you suck big time bro. Only one set? And you call that hard? "

Ok. Let me clarify - I do 1 x 10-12, 1 x 8-10 and 1 x F. In other words one set of 10-12 and one set of 8-10 for warm-up and than a heavy set to failure. It's not less work than the classic 3x10 and you are lifting more weight on your work set. Also there are a lot of H.I.T. techniques that I use.

My favorite is the rest - pause type of training. For example you've done 6 reps on your work set. That's not that much reps and is more similar to a strength routine so you rest 10-15 seconds only and than you do maybe 1-2 reps. Than you rest another 10-15 seconds and you do another  rep. That way you actually go to failure almost three times in the same set.

Also you have to keep the rest between sets short - 30-90 seconds - sounds about right. You won't lift as much weight but the muscle does not know how much is on the bar. If you are struggling you are struggling and that's what counts in this case. This is not a competition.

"Ok. But isn't going to failure a mistake?"

Notice that I said you go to form failure not complete body failure where you fall on the ground and start crying. Slight form deviation is allowed and sometimes unavoidable but anything that puts you in risk should be avoided. In order for a muscle to grow it has to go into a state of shock. It's the stress that causes the adaptation whether it's endurance or muscle growth. If you always stop 5 reps short of failure nothing will ever happen because you are not working hard enough.

"What about the 10x3 approach? You do 10 sets of 3 reps with heavy weight - 80-85% of 1RM. Isn't it better than your bullshit 1 working set? U sad now?"

The 10x3 sounds like a good approach. You are doing plenty of reps with heavy weights and if you keep the rest short I don't see why it wouldn't work although I've never done it. All the requirements are matched - high intensity, enough reps, short rest. You will grow. Also according to another article I've read there are more fast muscle fibers recruited when the load is above 80% of 1 RM (one repetition maximum). However if you are going to do it this way keep it only for compound exercise like squats, bench press, deadlifts (this may be an overkill because deadlifts take too much out of you)...etc. I don't see what's the point of doing 10x3 for lateral raises for example. It's not practical.

"Ok..bro. I see you are stupid but I will ask you one more question however. What about Vince Gironda 8x8?"

Gironda's 8x8 sounds brutal. Of course it will work and I would be an idiot to ignore the fact that Gironda used it successfully with many bodybuilders when steroids were not as popular. Not to mention the fact that Gironda hates them. However as far as I know he recommends super short rest between sets. Sometimes even as short as 15 secs. So, if you are going to do 8x8 don't do it for all the exercises , at least at the beginning. Unless you are a mutant 8x8 squats, followed by 8x8 leg presses, followed by 8x8 hack squats, followed by 8x8 Romanian deadlifts will kill you. Add it for one exercise at a time.

"Ok....what about upper body and lower body rep ranges. Any differences?"

I think that the lower body can tolerate high-rep work like sets of 15 reps a lot better than your upper body. Smaller muscle just need less volume. I think that 6-10 reps is enough for upper body while on legs you can go up to 15 reps.  Bigger muscles and especially legs respond better to high reps. Not to mention that many coaches such as Bill Starr and Vince Gironda recommend doings sets between 20 and 30 reps for calves because of the muscle composition - the calve has 1, 200, 000 muscle fibers. This is more than any other muscle. It's an extremely dense structure. The upper arm has 40, 000 fibers. So, they need more work.

"Hmm...you are still full of shit. Ronnie Coleman does 5 sets of 25 reps for his triceps. He BIG You NO. U mad?"

Yes, I've seen the video of R. Coleman where he does something like 5 exercises for 5x25 for his triceps. However  R. Coleman is R. Coleman and if this works for him that's what he has to do. However do you really think you can tolerate 25 sets per 25 reps for one muscle group. I don't think so. You will over-train. And what's the point? What causes the muscle to grow is the muscle damage if you go beyond that and don't give it enough time to recover it will actually shrink.

Also 25 reps is pumping. Pumping with light weights will not help you grow muscles. It just doesn't happen. It's low-intensity cardio training which will never build muscle mass because the requirements on the body are closer to endurance rather than strength.

Conclusion: There are a lot of effective hypertrophy rep ranges. However they all follow similar guidelines which are:

high-intensity ;
-heavy weight;
-short rest between sets and exercises;

at least 6 reps per set for upper body and up to 15 reps for lower body (calves need sets of 20-30 reps)
avoid going into a state of over-training;
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