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October 10, 2022

Best Rep Schemes for Building Strength

Best Rep Schemes for Building Strength with Annie Miller

Posts like these remind me how young the science of strength training truly is. Just in the past five years or so, we’ve learned so much about what is actually required for building strength. Hypertrophy is an even more interesting topic. But that’s for another time.

There are a few things we need to cover about strength before we can talk about rep ranges and why a given rep range even matters for building strength.

Strength is the measure of force output. Period. Speed or velocity are not factors, like with power.  Strength is – how much weight can you move. Think strong man competitions, or ironically…powerlifting.

The body demonstrates strength via the musculoskeletal system – muscles pulling on tendons attached to bones, and joints moving through their ranges. When we exert high levels of strength effort, more muscle fibers are recruited. Type 1, 2a and 2b. That brings us to our last point about strength – muscle mass is the capacity for strength to be expressed. We can gain strength with whatever muscle we have. But to some threshold, more muscle = more capacity for strength.

Now, strength is also a skill. Meaning body builders can build muscle doing largely isolated movements, and then be weaker than someone with LESS muscle mass but more trained at a given compound movement. I repeat, strength is a skill. Skill implying a large neurological piece at play here. It is beneficial to practice a movement at low loads, and progress to challenging loads for the product of strength.

Okayyyyy let’s talk reps.

Coaches and trainees alike hear me out. The word strength is thrown around, I think, when people actually mean to say hypertrophy. The two are used interchangeably when perhaps the should not be.

For instance, 8-12 exercises is not inherently BAD. It just might not be the BEST choice for STRENGTH building. I instead recommend the following:

Because strength is near maximal effort and the goal is high loads to be moved, lower rep ranges are going to favor strength development. And though the reps may be low, the intensity, via load, is high.

  • Generally think reps under 6. But remember program design and even strength is not black and white. And if muscle is the potential for strength, then yes, it might behoove you to also have some higher rep work in there for variation if nothing else.
  • Choose 4-5 *mostly* compound (multi-joint/muscle muscle group) exercises for a given pattern and/or muscle group. Ie: squatting, hinging, upper vertical pushing or pulling, upper horizontal pushing or pulling.
  • Load them all at RPE 8+ (less than 2 reps left in the tank at a given weight) regardless of reps assigned.

I am LESS concerned about specific rep ranges as muscle can be built across a large spectrum of volume. 

But for the sake of STRENGTH, let’s keep it under eight at the highest. When it comes to strength, less just might be more. Less performed well, and pushed hard, for the long haul.

Some of the most well known, tried and true strength focused programs are Wendler 5,3,1, Poliquin waveloading methods, and the Juggernaut method. All three were some of my favorite cycles to go through. And all three feature wave loading of some kind. I won’t definitively say this is a must for strength training, but I will say it’s clearly effective.

There is not a true “best rep range for strength training.” It’s best to really understand and grasp what strength is, and shoot to push this stimulus in the gym – via load and volume management. As well as building skills.

If you’d like to learn more about program design for strength, yes, and hypertrophy training over long term periodization, check out Pure PROgramming.

If you want to get strong, enjoy your workouts and make #educatedgains, then get on the Built by Annie waitlist. 

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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