This is going to be the beginning of a "How To" series, as I know…
It’s one of those many topics that we need to get into perspective.
As we already know, it’s virtually impossible to gain muscle in a calorie deficit or even maintenance (trying to re-comp) for longer than about a month.
Calories therefore, are king as always, specifically 64% of your total success in regards to body composition. So you need to be in a small, consistent calorie surplus in order to have any chance of gaining muscle if you are not a beginner.
You also need to have incremental, progressive overload incorporated into your training. Otherwise, it will be difficult to get any stronger if you provide your body with no reason to. Sheer volume can stimulate adaptation, but overload is the key to consistent muscle growth.
Consequently, the rep range you choose is completely irrelevant if the 2 above criteria aren’t met. Assuming you are in a calorie surplus and you have consistent progressive overload in your training (in the form of either sets, reps or weight on the bar), we can now think about optimal rep ranges.
Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to sustainability (again). We need to be thinking about what will allow us to continue to make gains for as long as possible. This is because once past the beginner stage, it takes a loooong time to gain new muscle.
I believe that as long as you are progressing in terms of sets, reps or weight on the bar, it doesn’t really matter what rep scheme you use. If you equate total volume, the results will be virtually the same.
This brings me to another point, volume optimisation. If your volume is too high, you will fail to recover, and consequently regress. This is a similar concept to diet. When you’re in a calorie surplus and gaining muscle, if you push it too far you will start gaining body fat at a faster rate than muscle, essentially regressing from a body composition standpoint.
Some people scream at the tops of their voices “You can’t over-train, you’re just under recovering”. Yes most people could recover better, especially students. So they could increase volume slightly. But then what? Once you’ve optimised your sleeping habits and calorie surplus, how can you keep increasing recovery to match the volume increases?? The only way to keep doing that is drugs. Increase the dosage over time. Even then there are limits!
The point is, you CAN over-train, under-recover or get injured, or any combination of those 3. Therefore, total volume needs to be optimised relative to your recovery capabilities. After that, the rate of progression needs to be tailored according to your level of experience and genetic capabilities.
The very (admittedly) overly simplified (but effective) formula for this is:
Are you making consistent strength gains, with minimal body fat gains?
If the answer is yes, keep doing what you’re doing.
If the answer is no, and you’re showing signs of overtraining or under-recovering, improve your recovery until optimised. Is it already optimised? Take a deload week and then start the training cycle again with lower volume.
If the answer is no and there are no signs of over-training or under-recovering, then it’s time to increase volume in some way.
It’s crucial to remember that the key to all of this is gradual progression, and injury prevention. This is how we keep making gains in the long run.
So the answer to the initial question regarding the best rep ranges for muscle growth is: It doesn’t really matter. But in real life, in order for everything to be time realistic and fun, we need to make sure that total volume is allowing you to progress without regressing, and that you have planned progression in your training cycle. The rate of which depends on your circumstances.
We also need to look at this from a time perspective. Although 3 sets of 8 is probably the exact same as 8 sets of 3 from a muscle growth standpoint, there are another couple of complications to account for.
- 8 sets of 3 will take longer. This may get boring eventually, and therefore become unsustainable.
- There needs to be a minimum stimulus, or a minimum RPE (rate of perceived exertion).
Otherwise, we would become massive from lifting water bottles or pink dumbbells or whatever. But we know that in real life that doesn’t happen. So just remember, if your 8 sets of 3 aren’t hard enough, they won’t make you bigger.
- The answer is that it doesn’t really matter if total volume is equated and your rate of progression is optimal for you.
- However, there needs to be a minimal amount of stimulus per set. This means 8*3*400 (sets*reps*weight) will probably be less effective than 3*8*400. The volume is equated but there may be too low a stimulus per set with the initial example. We are also assuming that the latter doesn’t lead to over-training due to too much exertion per set. As with anything, there needs to be a balance.
- There may be slightly better hypertrophy gains in the 8-15 rep range. This is due to time efficiency, and therefore sustainability. It is also due to slightly better sarcoplasmic hypertrophy gains. But the differences will be minimal.