Why High Rep Training Is The Secret Sauce You’ve Been Missing
I’ve never thrown up during a workout. During high school our coaches always tried to get us to throw up during football, basketball, or track practice. And especially during summer workouts, when you’re training in the 100 degree Texas heat.
But I never threw up. I never even got close.
The closest I’ve ever gotten was about 5 years after I graduated high school. I was at the gym with a buddy. We were squatting and had 225lbs on the bar. One of us got the bright idea to see how many we could knock out.
My buddy went and topped out at 15. Which is a respectable number of reps to hit with 225lbs sitting on your back. I’m a competitive bastard, and I thoroughly enjoy winning. It’s part of the reason I like working out with people.
So I went. I hit 13 reps pretty quickly. Just fucking cruising. One of those days where it’s like you’ve got springs in your legs.
But I wanted more. I was starting to get dark spots in my field of vision, but you couldn’t have paid me to give a fuck about that at this moment in time. So I kept going.
When I got into the neighborhood of 15 I knew I was close enough to 20 that I would hate myself if I didn’t try to make it there. A widowmaker, or set of 20 on squats, with 225lbs, had been a big goal of mine. And to be within arms reach on a completely unexpected training day only to give up a few reps short was out of the question.
I hit it, and immediately hugged a trashcan for about 10 minutes afterward. I was sure this was the day I was going to vomit. Luckily it never happened.
After that day I got away training that way. The high rep, balls to the wall, make you question your existence type training. I had other goals. Some in the gym, some outside of the gym. But lately I’ve been getting back to that, and I’m here to tell you that if you want to look and feel better, you should as well.
Why getting strong doesn’t change how you look.
The obvious truth: The vast majority of the people in the gym are there because they want to look better.
Now for the not so obvious part: In order to look better, training for strength doesn’t really matter at all.
To understand this on a deeper level, we need to put training for strength in context. Typical strength training takes place in the 1-5 rep range and involves most of the traditional compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench press.
Most of the time you’re lifting anywhere in the neighborhood of 70% – 90% of your one rep max, and your overall work is extremely low. A workout might consist of something like 10 total reps on a given lift.
And for people who compete in powerlifting, weightlifting, or competitive sports this is obviously important. The entire goal of those sports is to be as strong and powerful as possible, so training for that is necessary.
But does the average person care about being as strong as a powerlifter? Doubtful. Most people in the gym are there to look better above all else. And the fact of the matter is that to look great, you don’t need to try and achieve superhuman strength levels.
Does strength matter?
Of course, it does. I’m not saying that we should all give up the pursuit of being strong like bull. Strength will always matter, up to a point. When someone first steps into a gym, they’re going to start getting stronger no matter what. And for a while, things will continue that way.
For training longevity, it always helps to have a decent base of strength. If you’re stronger, you’re going to have an easier time putting on muscle mass and looking good when you drop fat.
But anyone who has done their fair share of training for pure strength also knows that while nothing compares to the rush that comes with ripping hundreds of pounds off the floor, it’s also hell on the body.
You feel beat up all the damn time, you’re always exhausted, and training sessions can feel like they take years.
Along with that, and this is something very few people actually talk about, training for strength actually does very little for helping you look better.
When you’re training to lift a house, most of the adaptations that take place are neurological. We all have a certain number of motor units that cause muscle fibers to contract. By lifting as heavy as possible, you’re doing is training as many motor units as possible to fire at once.
Doing this requires a ton of energy from the central nervous system, which is part of the reason that you want to go take a nap after doing heavy deadlifts. And while it exhausts the CNS, it doesn’t tax you near as much from a metabolic perspective, or pack on muscle mass.
Most of the adaptations that take place aren’t ones that you’ll notice when you throw on a deep V-neck that shows off your upper chest development, unfortunately. To show off your well developed pec cleavage you need to make more physiological adaptations, and less neurological ones.
You know what does cause physiological adaptations you can see in the mirror? High reps. Along with that, from a health, longevity, and vanity perspective high rep training could be the secret sauce you’ve been missing.
3 big reasons you should use higher reps.
1. Easier on your joints.
One of the biggest reasons that training extremely heavy in the low rep range can be such a pain in the ass is that it makes your joints hate you. This is something competitive power lifters are all too familiar with.
Spend any amount of time squatting with hundreds of pounds on your back, or deadlifting 2-3x your bodyweight, and you’ll soon start to notice that your hips, knees, back, shoulders, and damn near every other joint begins to start talking to you.
Higher rep training is inherently safer in this regard because you’re not using near as much weight, which can help keep the joints safer.
2. Increased work capacity.
Your ability to do more overall work and recover from that work increases, which is a massive factor for overall growth. If you can handle more work, then you can, therefore, put in more work. This is the same exact reason why steady state cardio is useful.
Using higher reps in your training helps to train the muscular endurance aspect of the given muscle(s) you’re using at that time.
3. Getting jacked.
Contrary to popular belief, you can catch a mean case of swoliosis by using lighter weights and higher reps. This has been one of the most misunderstood aspects of training for a long time, and even though I’m no idiot, it took Bryan Krahn preaching incessantly about this very thing for me to see the light.
We already know about the CNS and motor units. What you may not know is stimulating muscle growth requires the exhaustion of the motor units within the muscle. Using extremely high reps works well for fatiguing these motor units because typically high rep sets are taken close to failure.
On top of that, thanks to the build up of metabolites and fatigue by-products, along with the increased blood flow, the pump you’re going to get from higher rep training is very real. And if we’ve learned anything from Arnold and the bro’s of the golden era, it’s that chasing a pump is a good idea if you’re trying to grow.
All of this means that within the right context high rep training can blow you the fuck up. Especially when doing compound movements like squats, or even deadlifts from time to time.
Hell, the past few times I’ve deadlifted with friends we’ve wound up going for 20 reps just because it sounded fun in a weird masochistic way. It’s also worth mentioning that I, and everyone I’ve done that with, is an advanced lifter who knows how to lift correctly.
If you’re just now starting out going for 20 reps on the deadlift with anywhere from 225 – 275lbs isn’t smart unless you’re good friends with a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist.
So how high, and how light, can you go?
For clarity, when I talk about higher rep training I’m talking about a minimum of 15 reps. Which means that to use this style training you’re going to be doing 15+ reps. Most of the time when putting yourself through a grueling high rep workout you’re probably going to be using anywhere from 15-25 reps per set. Most of the time.
You can get crazy every now and then and go for 40, 50, or 100 total reps, but don’t spend all of your time there. Look at those as challenge workouts that you do with a training partner, or when you walk into the gym and have that gut feeling that you want to put yourself through absolute hell.
As far as weight is concerned, research has actually shown that you can go as light as 30% of your one rep max and still pack on muscle mass. There is one important caveat, though those sets have to be taken to failure.
In order to build muscle mass you’ve got to completely exhaust the motor units and muscle fibers. If you’re doing curls and you’ve got 30 of them in you, but stop at 20, you’re selling your guns short.
The mental side of high rep training.
So, you want to walk into the gym and knock out 20 rep sets on squat all day every day? More power to you, bro. But a word to the wise; this fucking sucks. It’s hard, it’s taxing, and it makes you question your sanity.
You will want to quit. You’re going to find that even simple tasks like counting reps requires herculean mental effort. There’s nothing that will challenge your mental fortitude quite like this.
It’s important to note that high rep training is just one of the many training tools in your toolbox. It’s not something that you should probably depend on for every set of every workout.
Spend a few months putting yourself through the ringer, and then switch gears. Get back to pure strength training for a short period of time. Then go to a more moderate rep range.
Continually cycling through rep ranges and shifting your training focus isn’t only good for keeping you motivated, it’ll help you bust through plateaus and continually improve your physique.