It’s a common question: which is better, high reps or low reps? I get asked it often in the gym.
The answer, like almost always, is: it depends.
But, there is most certainly an order in terms of which should be prioritized for a beginner to training. Let’s address this:
Firstly, what is considered a low rep range is anywhere between 1-5 reps. The low volume means heavier weight can be handled and this is generally considered the best rep range to work in to build strength.
A high rep range is considered 15 and above reps in a set, and this is termed best for muscular endurance.
In between these 2 ranges we have the moderate rep range or 6-14, or more commonly 6-12, as it’s rare to find someone doing a 13 or 14 rep set. This is known as the hypertrophy rep range and is deemed best for increasing muscle size.
So, it would seem pretty straight forward that you simply choose your rep range based on what outcome you want, right?
Possibly. But I’m going to make a case here for why everyone, regardless of goal, should begin their training by straddling 2 ranges with low-to-moderate reps, say between 5-10 reps in a set.
See, although these rep ranges have titles indicating the primary result of working in the confines of that range, none of these things: strength, hypertrophy, or endurance, are exclusive to the ranges that bear their names.
If you go from lifting nothing to lifting something you will get stronger, regardless of whether you’re lifting a relatively light weight a bunch of times; if you’ve never lifted before, you will get stronger. That’s not the ideal way though. Imagine you begin bench pressing 40kg for sets of 15. In order to progress to 45kg you have to be able to lift that extra 5kg 15 times, totalling an extra 75kg over the course of a set. Now, if you can bench 60kg for 5 reps and want to increase to 65kg for 5, you have a much greater likelihood of doing so saying as you’re lifting “only” an extra 25kg over the course of the set. This is one of the reasons why lower reps are better for getting stronger.
But, are higher reps the best place to start if you want to build muscular endurance? Maybe not.
Maybe the focus should be on getting strong first. See, jumping straight into sets of 20 as a beginner is a recipe for disaster. Firstly, chances are your form isn’t nailed on yet, so if you’re doing something wrong, even just slightly, that will accumulate over the course of multiple high rep sets and the repetition of poor movement could (and almost certainly will) over time cause injury.
Beginners rarely have the mental focus or the bodily awareness to tell if something is going wrong in a movement, so even if you start out correctly chances are that over the course of the set as fatigue builds and the mind starts to wander that your technique will break down somewhere along the line.
It’s also generally not a good idea to focus on sets with too high of a weight and too low of a rep range in the beginning. Trying to grind out a heavy single with piss poor form is even more risky than shitty high reps. Your connective tissue simply won’t be prepared to handle it either = joint pain.
This is the reason I recommend a low-to-moderate rep range for beginners, and that you stick in this range until you can be considered an intermediate lifter. There’s no official pass mark to tell you you’ve reached intermediate status, but mastering the equivalent of your bodyweight in the big 3 is a good start (think bodyweight squat x10, bw bench press x5, 1.5 bw deadlift x5). If you can achieve these with good form, you’re probably there.
Build up a good level of strength in the 5-10 rep range, and only then think about going higher or lower. High rep sets are only beneficial if you are lifting appreciable weight. Getting stronger will certainly build your muscular endurance while simultaneously having the benefit of getting you jacked and feeling like a bad ass.
Put it this way: someone who can squat 120kg for 5 or 6 reps can quite easily squat 60kg for 15 reps. Someone who solely works at squatting 60kg for 15 reps will have no hope of squatting 120kg. It’s more efficient to do both.
There is simply a greater benefit for everyone in beginning by getting stronger in the low-to-moderate rep range first, then shifting your focus higher or lower, whichever way you be inclined.
Basic strength is your foundation. Hypertrophy, max strength, power, and endurance can, and should, be built on top.