Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth

I’m going to throw out a weird hypothetical question that I want readers to consider before continuing with this article.

If you had to pick a single repetition range to train in for growth, what would it be?

That is, imagine some very strange situation where you could only train within a certain range (and let’s make that range something a little less vague then ‘Between 1-20 reps’ by limiting it to a 3 rep range) for the rest of your lifting career, what would it be?

I used to ask this of friends of mine in the field and, almost with exception, the answer was pretty much the same.  This was true regardless of whether or not they had arrived at that value from experimentation and experience or just looking at the research.

I’m going to take a quick look at the research (including a bunch of seemingly disparate topics) to tell you what I’d pick.


What Makes Muscle Grow?

I asked a job supervisor that question once once; he was a smart-ass like me and told me “It needs lots of sunlight and water.”  Close but not quite.

The mechanism of muscle growth has been under heavy scrutiny for years and a lot of theories and ideas have come and gone in terms of both the mechanism of growth as well as what stimulates it.  Semi-amusingly, about 98% of the actual answer was known back in the 70’s.


Warming Up For the Weight Room Part 1

Warming up is a critical aspect of training that, because it’s really not very sexy, often isn’t discussed nearly enough.  Watching people in the weight room, people seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to warm ups, either they warm up for ever and ever (exhausting themselves in the process) or come in and try to lift near maximum weights without any warm up at all.  Neither is ideal.

In this article, I want to look at warm ups, specifically focusing on weight room performance, I want to look briefly at the goals of the warm up along with how to practically program a warm up for optimal performance and results.


Purposes of Warming Up

As with most aspects of training, warming up is done to achieve a certain set of goals and looking at them is a good first step to determining what an optimal warmup should be.

The first purpose of warming up is exactly what the name suggests: warming the body and/or tissues that are going to be trained. There are a number of reasons that this is important.

One is that warmer tissues tend to be less likely to injure as they tend to be more pliable when warm. A second is that warmer tissues generally perform better than colder ones.  Related to this is establishing sufficient ranges of motion such that the movements being trained can be done safely and effectively.

An additional aspect of warming up is to practice and reinforce good technique and ‘groove’ movement patterns. This tends to be relatively more important for beginners and intermediates but it’s interesting to note that you’ll usually find top level athletes going through basic drills daily as part of their warm up.


Muscle Gain Mistakes

Although it may seem strange to talk about how to gain weight as we approach the holidays (where people typically gain weight without trying very hard), the simple fact is that, for athletes and bodybuilders, the winter (when it’s cold outside and you’re covered up) has always been one of the primary times that trainees focus on muscle gain.

You can worry about being lean and having a six pack when it’s warm and you don’t look stupid being mostly nude. The winter is a good time to pack on some muscle mass and justify all that Halloween candy (“I’m bulking, bro”).

But in the same way that many diets fail for a lot of reasons, there are equally common reasons that trainees fail to make the muscular gains that they desire. I want to look at several of them, addressing potential solutions along the way

Not eating enough

Outside of poor training (which can be either too much or too little), not eating enough is the number one mistake I see most trainees making who can’t gain muscle. This is true even of individuals who swear up, down and sideways that they eat a ton but no matter what they can’t gain weight. It’s been said that ‘hardgainers’ tend to be overtrainers and undereaters and there is much truth to that.

Almost invariably, when you track these big eaters, they really aren’t eating that much. Research has routinely shown that overweight individuals tend to under-estimate food intake (e.g. they think they are eating much less than they actually are) but in my experience ‘hardgainers’ are doing the opposite: vastly overestimating how much they are actually eating in a given day, or over the span of a week.

Similarly, although such trainees may get in a lot of food acutely, invariably they often compensate for those high-caloric intakes by lowering calories on the following day (or even in the same day). So while they might remember that one big-assed lunch meal, they won’t remember how they ate almost nothing later in the day because they got full.

Some people simply lack the appetite to eat sufficient amounts to gain muscle (or any weight at all). While they may be able to force feed calories for a little bit, their appetite regulatory mechanisms kick in and they unconsciously reduce calories. Their bodies also tend to upregulate metabolic rate better than others, so they burn off more calories (a phenomenon called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT).


A Quick Look at Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs

Although I tend to get shoe-horned into ‘nutritionist’ (or worse-yet, ‘the keto guy’), I actually started life with a passion for exercise physiology. Still have it and looking at the physiology of muscle growth, along with real-world programs that ‘work’ has long-been an interest in mine.

In this article, I want to look at three of the more popular hypertrophy programs that are out there on the internet. The first is Doggcrapp (or DC) training which is the brainchild of Dante Trudeau (he also runs The second is Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training or HST. Finally, of course, I have my own approach to muscle mass gains which I’ll talk about a bit too.

As you’ll see, while each program shares certain commonalities (as all programs that ‘work’ will), they also have a lot of differences. This simply reflects the realities of training, every program out there has to make some concession depending on the overall philosophy and approach of the designer. The variables of interest here are intensity, frequency and volume and, as you’ll see, each program has to concede one aspect in order to emphasize another.

If this reads a little bit roughly, it’s because I originally made it as a post to a forum, basically pointing out that they simply approach the main issues of training (frequency, intensity, volume) from slightly different places. Here’s what I wrote:

IMO, a lot of it depend on where you fall philosophically in terms of training, physiologically you can argue for various approaches a lot of different ways. Looking at three approaches to hypertrophy training, for example: a lot of it comes down to the interactions between frequency, intensity and volume.

1. Bryan’s Hypertrophy Specific training: looking mainly at gene expression, Bryan trades intensity and volume for a higher frequency. You train 3X/week but only max out about once every 2 weeks or so. This would be similar to Pavel’s Grease the Groove approach approach.

2. Doggcrapp trades intensity for volume and frequency and focuses primarily on progressive overload (the goal is to beat your previous workout poundages at every workout) in addition to trying to stimulate that maximum amount of growth with the minimum volume (DC uses rest pause training to accomplish this). Volume is lower, frequency is cut to about once/fifth day but the intensity is very very high with the rest pause and loaded stretches. Many people burn out badly on DC but the guys who thrive on it grow very well.

3. My generic bulking program is stock in the middle because I’m a middle of the road kind of guy. I generically like to see a bodypart hit about 2X/week with slightly lowered intensity (relative to DC) although higher than Bryan’s HST. I recommend about a rep short of failure so that the volume (which is higher per workout than either DC or HST) can be accomplished. I’m trying to strike a volume between the issues of frequency (for gene expression and protein synthesis), recovery (failure training can burn people out) and progression (I want to see the poundages going up consistently over the cycle).

Is one ‘better’ than the other? In the long run, I doubt it. If, at the end of 2 years of training, each trainee has hit roughly the same place in terms of absolute strength (weight on the bar), I bet size will be the same.

So a lot of the choice then becomes which approach to hypertrophy training:

a. Fits the trainee’s psychologically. Fore example, someone who ONLY feels good about training if they blow themselves out will hate HST and absolutely LOVE DC. Someone who hates training a given lift as infrequency as DC might prefer HST (you train a lift 3X/week) or my approach. etc. Someone who wants to be in the gym more often than 3x/week might prefer mine (or one of Bryan’s HST modifications that lets you train very distributed volume 6X/week, very much like Pavel’s GTG stuff)

b. Fits their individual recovery pattern . I’ve seen a lot of people say that DC just blew them out. And I’m NOT saying this is a drug thing. A lot of DC’s guys are juiced and a lot are not. But no everyone seems able to train that intensely and recover. In which case, HST or my approach might be a better ‘fit’ physiologically.

And I’m sure there are other considerations. If you’re a cellar dwellar (someone who trains in the basement), you might not be able to rotate exercises like DC recommends (he usually says pick 3 movements per bodypart and rotate them, switching out whole exercises wen they stall). If you train at home and have limited equipment, that’s not workable and a program centered around the same lift for any given cycle might work better.

I’m sure I’ve left out many many other considerations (injuries, individual biomechanics) but that’s just a quick look at some of the things that might go into deciding which approach to hypertrophy is best.