Virtually every exercise and training routine relies on an understanding of this simple word. The word “rep” is an abbreviation of the word “repetition” and refers to one complete movement of an exercise. For example, curling a barbell up and then back down is one rep. With the exception of a few test lifts, bodybuilders rarely perform just one rep of an exercise. Instead, they perform a series of consecutive reps in a group or bunch, called a “set.” The average number of reps in a set is 8 to 12, but this depends on such factors as the exercise itself, the goals of the trainer, the muscle group being worked, and the time of the year (i.e. off-season or pre-contest).
Probably the most common question pro bodybuilders receive at seminars is: “How many reps should I perform?” Everyone wonders if there is some magical rep range that will produce the biggest and fastest gains in muscle size. It would be nice if you could plug your vital statistics into a computer and calculate that magical reprange, but it just doesn’t work that way! For this reason, most bodybuilders will vary their rep ranges throughout the years. In fact many will alternate rep ranges during the same workout.
The Big Three
Generally speaking, there are three broad rep ranges that bodybuilders follow throughout the year: ranges for building maximum strength, maximum size, and maintenance and conditioning. If maximum strength is the goal, we recommend reps in the 3-to-5 range. This does not mean simply stopping at 3 to 5 reps, no matter how many you could have done, but rather using a weight that prevents you from achieving a higher number. Many bodybuilders follow this type of training for a few months during the off-season to maximize strength gains.
Powerlifters tend to follow this pattern of reps for most of the year – even though they perform only single reps during competition. If maximum muscle mass is the goal, then the accepted rep range is 8 to 12. Some bodybuilders find slightly lower ranges of 6 to 8 more productive. Others experience the best results by performing higher reps in the 15 to 20 range. For the most part, however, you probably can’t go wrong keeping most of your exercises in the 8-to-12 zone.
Unless otherwise stated, most of the exercise routines in this book are meant to be performed in the 8- to 12-rep range. If general conditioning is the desired goal, then the 12–15 or sometimes 15–20 range is recommended. Many athletes and bodybuilders follow this range during their pre-contest phase of training as it burns slightly more calories, preserves muscle size and strength and reduces the risk of injury. (Higher reps require the use of lighter weights.)
Strict Style Is King
Back in the 1980s, an article titled “Strict Style is King” appeared in Joe Weider’s magazine Muscle and Fitness. No truer words have been spoken in regard to bodybuilding training. With the possible exception of a few advanced training techniques, all reps should be performed in strict style. The two primary reasons for this are safety and effectiveness. The safety aspect cannot be emphasized enough.
Despite what most of the general pubic assumes, weight rarely causes injuries – bad technique does! An exercise using 10 pounds in poor style can do far more damage than one using 200 pounds in strict style. The body’s joints, ligaments, tendons, etc., are not designed to be subjected to bouncing and jerking movements. Yet walk into any gym and you’ll see guys bouncing bars off their chest, squatting up and down as fast as their legs can move them and jerking hundreds of pounds up with their lower backs.
They may be able to lift more weight in this manner, but only because they are using their joints as elastic bands. Sooner or later something will give, and it’s usually a ligament or tendon! While physiotherapists and orthopaedic surgeons may appreciate the business, body-building is meant to be safe. Always, and I repeat, always lift the weight in strict style.
Effectiveness is the second reason for using strict style on all your exercises. While it’s not possible to completely isolate any given muscle group, you should always attempt to minimize the involvement of totally unrelated muscle groups. For example, working the triceps and front shoulders on the barbell bench press is acceptable, but arching your lower back and pushing with your thighs is not. Likewise, don’t use your thighs and lower back to thrust the weight up during barbell curls.
Remember that it’s your muscles you want to pump up, not your ego! During his Pumping Iron years, Arnold used 60- to 70-pound dumbells to train his biceps. While others were lobbing up 100-pounders by cheating with their other muscles and with momentum, Arnold was building two of the greatest arms of all time. Many people assumed that Arnold simply had better genetics or used a lot of drugs. However, the truth was that Arnold would perform each rep in a slow and controlled manner.
He felt every rep in his biceps – not his lower back or thighs, like the guys who used to “swing.” Most of today’s champions follow Arnold’s lead. You won’t see Jay Cutler, Dexter Jackson or Melvin Anthony swinging and contorting their bodies just to lift the weight up. Each rep is performed in a deliberate and controlled fashion.
Less and Less
As surprising as this may seem, most of today’s bodybuilding superstars are using less weight than they once did. Instead of 600-pound squats and 500-pound bench presses, most are using 405 to 500 on the squat and 315 to 405 on the bench press. A combination of injuries and learning how to use better technique led to a change in bodybuilding-training philosophy. Although most bodybuilders can still use huge poundage on their exercises, the majority opt for ultra-strict reps using a moderate amount of weight. Most bodybuilders find they get much better stimulation this way.
It Is All Relative
You’ll eventually realize that “light” and “heavy” are relative terms and that you can make a weight feel light or heavy depending on technique and speed. A 30-pound dumbell can be made to feel like 50 or 60 pounds if lifted in a slow and controlled manner. Before moving on to the next topic, let us ask you this: If the vast majority of top bodybuilders use moderate weight on their exercises despite being strong enough to lift far more, why should you be any different?
One of the first advanced training techniques you will learn is called forced reps. Many bodybuilders discover this great muscle builder by accident. Forced reps are performed when, instead of stopping the set at the last possible rep, you have a partner or spotter assist you by providing just enough upward assistance to keep the bar or dumbells moving.
The theory behind forced reps is fairly simple. Let’s say you fail on the 10th rep of an exercise. Now you could terminate the set and take your normal rest period, or you could have someone help you, enabling you to squeeze out a few additional reps. Forced reps stimulate muscle fibers more intensely than if you stopped at failure. Most regular gym members know how to give a correct spot, so if you don’t have a regular training partner, don’t be shy about asking a stranger.
Reps are without a doubt the most important aspect of your bodybuilding training. To maximize your muscle and strength gains, you should experiment with various rep ranges to determine the range that works best for you, and remember to switch it up quite often. No two people respond the same and the best bodybuilders are those who frequently try different rep and weight combinations.
Robert Kennedy: Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, The Complete A-Z Book On Muscle Building. 2008
Nick Evans: Bodybuilding Anatomy. 2012
Arnold Schwarzenegger: The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, 2013