Updated: Dec 30, 2022
What is a rep range?
To start, we should probably establish what a rep range is. A rep range is simply a range of reps that you would like a set of an exercise to fall into. For example, I may specify that my target rep range is 12-15. This would mean that I would like to perform between 12 and 15 reps during this set. I will select a load that puts me in this rep range with a target number of reps from failure, also known as reps in reserve (RIR). Rep ranges are fairly arbitrary so they can be set to include any number of reps you would like. That said, you don’t want your rep range to be too wide so the stimulus/stress provided by the top and bottom of the range is fairly similar. The most commonly used rep ranges are 1-5, 6-8, 8-12, 12-15, 15-20, and 20-30.
Why use a rep range?
A rep range is usually preferable to a rep target (for muscle growth specifically, as strength training differs slightly), because provides it flexibility in training and it allows the lifter to add reps week-to-week as a form of progression. We set rep targets to elicit a certain response from our body, but it is unlikely that 12 reps are substantially different from 13 reps, or even 15 reps. These are all moderately high rep targets and are all similarly taxing on the body. Because of the similarity between these rep counts, we can simply group them together into a range that we are trying to fall into. A lifter can then pick a load that puts them into this rep range and doesn’t have to worry about hitting a number on the dot. Progressing both load and reps is known as the double form of progression and is especially helpful when performing a lift that can’t be easily progressed through load. For example, instead of adding 5 lbs to my DB curl every week, I can add a rep instead. I may start by curling 30 lbs for 12 reps and over the course of the next few weeks I may progress up to 30 lbs for 15 reps. At this point I may increase the weight to 35 lbs and perform 12 reps again.
Which rep range is best for hypertrophy?
You may have heard that there is an optimal range for hypotrophy, probably 8-12, but is this really true? Well, yes and no. Yes, there is probably an optimal range for hypertrophy. No, it is not as small as 8-12 reps. Based on the current scientific literature, a set that is anywhere between 5 and 30 reps, taken close to failure, will elicit similar muscle growth (Schoenfeld et al, 2016). That’s pretty cool because it provides us with a lot of possible rep ranges to utilize in our programming.
Using a single rep range for every workout for months on end has a couple of large flaws. By performing the same rep range and exercises for long periods of time, we may be increasing our risk of overuse injuries, and our exercises are likely to become stale. The main purpose of using various rep ranges is to allow for periodization (variation in stimulus/goals over time) that keeps stimulus levels high and cycles the stresses to our joints or connective tissue.
Additionally, using a single rep range for all exercises within a workout probably doesn’t make sense either. Some exercises have a better stimulus-to-fatigue ratio in certain rep ranges while others may have better stimulus-to-fatigue ratios in other rep ranges. For example, a set of 6-8 on RDLs may be great exercise for my hamstrings but a set of 6-8 on triceps extensions will probably just destroy my elbow joint. A set of 20-30 on bicep curls may be a great exercise for me but a set of 20-30 on back squats is likely to make me pass out from exhaustion. Make sure you are picking rep ranges that work well, and make sense, for the exercise and muscle group you are working.
Connor Crouse, PN1, PTS
Head Nutrition Coach
Schoenfeld, B. J., Wilson, J. M., Lowery, R. P., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2014.989922