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Research Review: Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding Rep Ranges for Size

Posted by Derek Charlebois on

What is the best rep range to gain size? What is the best rep range to gain strength? If you have ever asked these questions keep reading to find out!

Featured Study

Schoenfeld, B. J., et al. (2014). "Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men." J Strength Cond Res 28(10): 2909-2918. 

Regimented resistance training has been shown to promote marked increases in skeletal muscle mass. Although muscle hypertrophy can be attained through a wide range of resistance training programs, the principle of specificity, which states that adaptations are specific to the nature of the applied stimulus, dictates that some programs will promote greater hypertrophy than others. Research is lacking, however, as to the best combination of variables required to maximize hypertophic gains. The purpose of this study was to investigate muscular adaptations to a volume-equated bodybuilding-type training program vs. a powerlifting-type routine in well-trained subjects. Seventeen young men were randomly assigned to either a hypertrophy-type resistance training group that performed 3 sets of 10 repetition maximum (RM) with 90 seconds rest or a strength-type resistance training (ST) group that performed 7 sets of 3RM with a 3-minute rest interval. After 8 weeks, no significant differences were noted in muscle thickness of the biceps brachii. Significant strength differences were found in favor of ST for the 1RM bench press, and a trend was found for greater increases in the 1RM squat. In conclusion, this study showed that both bodybuilding- and powerlifting-type training promote similar increases in muscular size, but powerlifting-type training is superior for enhancing maximal strength.

 

Derek's Research Review

Before we dive into the above study and discuss what rep range is best for size and strength we need to go over training volume and intensity.

Muscle hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size) is primarily driven by training volume while gaining strength is primarily governed by training intensity.

Volume is a measure of the workload of a given workout and calculated by multiplying the number of sets performed by the number of reps performed by the load lifted:

Volume = Sets X Reps X Load

Training intensity is a measure of the physical demands of a set with specific reference to the load used (the “load” in the above volume equation references intensity). Training intensity specifically refers to percentage of the 1-RM lifted. Gaining maximal strength requires neurological adaptations specific to lifting heavy loads (i.e. lifting a weight you can complete for 30 reps is not ideal to increase maximal strength).

Intensity = % 1-RM

While taking a set to failure or “beyond” failure with the use of forced reps, drop-sets, etc. do indeed increase the demands of a set, they are not true measures of intensity based on the definition of the term. Using a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) or repetitions in reserve (RIR) are better ways to measure intensity with reference to training to concentric failure.   

A set using ones 3RM to complete 3 reps is more intense then a set using ones 10RM for 10 reps but the 10RM set has a higher volume. Let’s put this into an example using numbers.

Bench Press 1-RM = 225 lbs

Bench Press 3-RM = 205 lbs (~90% 1-RM)

Bench Press 10-RM = 155 lbs (~70% 1-RM)

 

3RM: sets (3) X reps (3) X load (205) = 1845

10RM: sets (3) X reps (10) X load (165) = 4650

 

As you can see the 10RM sets equated to a much higher volume than the 3RM set. One would have to complete 7 sets with their 3RM to complete the same amount of volume as 3 sets with their 10RM.

3RM: sets (7) X reps (3) X load (205) = 4305

And with that groundwork laid, let’s get into the study.

 

The featured study consisted of two groups that trained the pecs, back, and quads with volume equated between the groups:

 

Group A

  • 3 workouts per week
  • Each muscle was trained 1X per week
  • Each workout consisted of 3 exercises of 3 sets of 10 reps (3 X 10)

Group B

  • 3 workouts per week
  • Each muscle was trained 3X per week (3 full body workouts)
  • 1 exercise per muscle group per workout, consisting of 7 sets of 3 reps (7 X 3)

The researchers found no difference in muscle hypertrophy between the groups, but Group B gained more maximum strength than Group A. Two things to note though, (1) Group A completed their workouts in 17 minutes while Group B took 70 minutes to complete their workouts and (2) subjects in Group B reported fatigue and joint soreness while Group A did not. So what do these findings mean to you and your training routine? Well that depends on your primary goal.

 

Rep ranges are often classified into the following three groups:

1-5 reps = Strength

6-12 reps = Hypertrophy

12+ reps = Endurance

 

Going back to our 3RM vs. 10RM bench press example, we know that on a set per set basis, higher reps lead to more volume than lower reps. Assuming adequate volume, any rep range (up to 30 reps based on one study) can produce muscle hypertrophy. The 6-12 rep range maximizes volume while using a heavy enough load to create sufficient overload (mechanical tension).   

If your primary goal is muscle hypertrophy, then it is more time-efficient and less demanding on the joints to perform most of your sets in the “hypertrophy” rep range of 6-12 reps. If your primary goal is to gain strength, then performing sets in the 1-5 rep range is ideal due to neurological adaptations required to gain maximal strength.

With that said, whatever your goal is, you should include a variety of rep ranges in your program to maximize overall results. Research suggests that lower rep/heavy loads are needed to maximize hypertrophy in the fast twitch muscle fibers while higher rep training is needed to maximize hypertrophy in the slow twitch muscle fibers. In addition, increasing your strength leads to greater volume over time. Remember volume = sets X reps X LOAD; increasing your strength increases the load you can lift.

 

Knowing this, let’s create two example workouts based on ones primary goal:

STRENGTH

Bench Press 3-5 X 1-5

Close Grip Bench Press 3-5 X 3-5

Flat DB Press 3 X 8-12

 

HYPERTROPHY

Bench Press 3 X 3-5

Incline DB Press 3-5 X 6-12

Dips 3-5 X 6-12

Cable Crossover is 2-3 X 12-15

 

The “strength” workout focuses primarily on lower rep training, which is more specific to the adaptations involved in increasing maximal strength, with additional higher rep training added in to increase volume and hypertrophy. 

The “hypertrophy” workout focuses primarily on higher reps to maximize hypertrophy but starts with strength based training to target fast twitch muscle fibers.

If you take one thing away from this article let it be this, progressive overload is the primary stimulus for MUSCLE GROWTH. Gaining strength over time will lead to more muscle growth than any “magical” combination of sets and reps. Whatever exercises and rep ranges you decide to use, focus on getting stronger on those exercises and you will gain size.

 

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