Types of Reps in a Workout - What is a Repetition in Weight Training

Types of Reps

How to Rep Out for Real Gains

As just about everybody knows, the word reps refers to the number of times you lift a weight. Each individual lift is a repetition; several reps done together make up a set. As Bob Kennedy wrote in his book Beef It!, "the rep is the heart of a workout." It is the basis of growth. You often hear guys say, "I got my reps" or "I repped out." If you don't do your reps, you can't do any sets and you'll never overload a muscle to create growth potential.

Unlike the saying "a rose is a rose is a rose," not all reps are equal. There are different ways of doing reps and all kinds of reps to do. There are strict reps, cheat reps, fast reps, slow reps, heavy reps, light reps and everything in between. There are full reps, half-reps and partial reps. There are constant-tension reps, peak-contraction reps, forced reps and negative-only reps. There' are straight-set reps, pyramided reps, and all the different extended set/rep kinds: superset reps, triset reps, giant-set reps, pre-exhaust reps and triple-drop reps. AH have different applications and uses, and all can be effective for building muscle.

While many bodybuilders think only about changing their exercises when they seek to alter their workouts to alleviate boredom or shock their muscles, doing a different style of rep is just as effective. If you've been getting great results from a particular exercise - say, preacher curls -but you've been going a little stale and you want to shock the biceps muscle in a new way, why change to a totally different exercise that may not be as effective for you as the preacher curl? Why not just change the number of reps, the speed of the reps (faster or slower than what you've been doing), or the style of reps, and stick with the preachers?

If you have been doing slow, full, peak contraction-style preacher curls with a definite pause at the top of the movement for 6 to 8 reps, you can change to a faster, constant-tension style preacher curl with no pause at either the top or bottom of the exercise for 10 to 12 reps. That way you can stay with an exercise you enjoy doing and continue to experience great results.

From what I observe regularly in the gym, most bodybuilders do their reps incorrectly. There seem to be two main reasons for this faulty execution. The biggest problem with the way most bodybuilders do their basic reps is that they get caught up in performing - doing a lot of reps any way they can -instead of trying to work their muscles hard. They do their reps sloppily and too fast so that momentum and inertia take over. They use weights that are too heavy for proper form (ego training or showing off) and swing or heave the weights up and down. They grab a heavy weight and think as long as they perform well - do x-amount of weight for y-number of reps - their muscles will grow. They forget the reason why they do reps: To make their muscles work and overload them with resistance. They make the mistake of moving the weight in any old way just to get their reps done. Their minds are focused on how much weight they can lift, not on their muscles.

The second reason why most bodybuilders do their reps wrong-me included at times - is that people always try to avoid pain whenever possible. In order to avoid or lessen pain we tend to seek the easiest way to lift a weight. We find means to make our exercises easier, not harder. This approach inevitably leads to excessive cheating, especially as the pain increases throughout a set. The problem is made worse by lapses in concentration and preoccupation with performing. The more we cheat, the more reps we can do, but the less our muscles actually work.

Have you noticed that for some reason bodybuilders often seem to think the first few reps of a set are worthless for promoting growth? They rush to get those initial reps over with as if they were just a necessary evil to overcome en route to the more important reps at the end. Inevitably they do the first 4 or 5 reps of a set of 10 faster and with less concentration than the last reps.

To me this practice is all wrong. To create training intensity - and muscular growth -you should strive to get the most out of each rep of a set. The first rep should be as hard and intense as the final ones. You achieve this intensity from the mind, by using your powers of concentration. As well, you should do the first few reps of a set extra slowly, strictly and under muscular tension throughout the full range of motion, making sure not a bit of cheating is involved. As you progress through the set, the speed of your reps should increase slightly, until by the final reps you should be trying to move the weight absolutely as fast as you can while still staying in muscular control. Ironically, though, because of muscular fatigue, by the last rep the bar will be moving very slowly, if at all.

That's how to get the most out of each rep and each set. Observers of Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, used to say his first reps were as hard as most bodybuilders' last ones. Larry preferred to do very heavy sets of 6 reps and he liked to think of each individual rep as a mini set. His philosophy was that if he tried to get the most out of each rep, the set would take care of itself. That's a good attitude to have. If you just rush through your set to get it over with, you will probably achieve little good in the way of training intensity or muscle growth.

To reiterate, start the set with extra slow reps and increase the tempo as you start to fatigue. By the end of the set you should be trying to move the weight as fast as you can, at which point it will probably hardly move at all.


People always ask, "What's better, high reps or low reps?" My answer is always both. There is no magical number of reps for maximizing muscle growth. Many .great physiques have been built with sets of 6 reps as with sets of 10 reps. Generally, though, you want to do most upper-body exercises for 6 to 12 reps. The calves and forearms seem to respond best to reps in the 15 to 25 range, while thigh muscles apparently require 12 to 20. The range of 15 to 50 seems to work best for abdominals.

Sometimes changing the number of reps is enough to shock a muscle that has reached a growth plateau. If you've been doing all your sets for 6 reps, for example, and you suddenly change to sets of 12, you may stimulate new growth. That's not because 12 reps are better than 6. Changing from sets of 12 to sets of 6 would bring about just as much new growth. The important point is not the number of reps you do as much as how you do them and the intensity you apply.

Most people do both high and low reps for the same muscle in a workout. This method is called pyramiding. A pyramided group of sets might look like this: 135 pounds x 20 reps 155 pounds x 15 reps 175 pounds x 12 reps 185 pounds x 10 reps 190 pounds x 8 reps 200 pounds x 6 reps 160 pounds x 15 reps

Pyramiding allows the muscles to warm up as you increase resistance, reducing the risk of injury. It also permits the use of both heavy and light weights to train different types of muscle fiber. The myofibrils are the muscle fibers that are best trained with heavy weights and low reps (1 to 6). The mitochondria and sarcoplasm respond best to higher reps in the 12 to 20 range. Medium reps - 6 to 10 - train both fiber types to a lesser degree. Lower reps also thicken and strengthen ligaments, tendons and muscle fibers, while higher reps build capillaries and increase the ability of a muscle to pump. For best results use both high and low reps to train a muscle.


Let's now go over some of the different types of reps and their various applications.

Strict Reps - Doing strict reps means no cheating, heaving, jerking, bouncing or swinging of the weight. You move the weight through pure muscular action. At the same time you achieve some muscle isolation so that the working muscle does most of the lifting, keeping the involvement of other muscles to a minimum. Strict-rep training forms the basis for all bodybuilding. One must first learn how to do exercises strictly and in good form before one can hope to experiment with cheating and different rep schemes. Strict lifting allows you to "feel" your muscles better too.

Of course, because we all have different physical types and structural differences, no two people will do their reps identically. Even though both may do their reps in strict style, the way they move the weight, because of the shapes of their bodies, prevents the exercise from being precisely the same in the two executions. As you gain experience and expertise, you can adapt an exercise to your physique type and individualize it so that you get the most out of each movement.

Cheating Reps - Cheating properly allows one to extend a set and do more reps, thus creating greater intensity and, hopefully, increased growth. Also you can use heavier weights when cheating because cheating allows you to "drive" through the sticking point of each exercise. Always keep cheating to a minimum-that is, cheat only enough to make a rep possible, not easy. Remember that the purpose of cheating is to allow you to work a muscle harder, not just to lift more weight or do more reps.

When cheating, use just enough heave or body English to get the weight through the sticking point and then rely on muscle action to lock it out. Hold and squeeze the muscle in the contracted position to get a peak contraction and then lower the weight very slowly, taking full advantage of negative resistance. Never just drop the weight. Lower it under tension, pulling with the antagonistic or opposite muscle. For example, think of pulling the weight down with the triceps when doing biceps curls.

You can use cheating in nearly every set of every workout, but only after you have done all the strict reps you can manage. Try 4 to 8 strict reps, and only when no more strict reps are possible cheat to get out another 4 to 6. Remember, though, to cheat only enough to make a rep possible, not easy. Only on the final rep should you really swing or heave the weight up.

Full Reps - This style means moving the weight over a full range of motion from complete extension to full contraction for fuller development. Full reps work well with peak-contraction reps.

Peak-Contraction Reps - Peak contraction takes place when you tense or squeeze a muscle in the contracted position. It usually occurs at the end of a repetition-e.g. the top of a leg extension or the top of a curl. When doing peak-contraction reps, squeeze and hold the muscle for a count of two in the fully contracted position.

Partial Reps - Most of the time bodybuilders do full reps, but there are times when partial reps really shine. The best time to do partial reps is at the end of a set of full reps when no more full reps are possible, through either strict or cheat lifting. These partial reps are called burns because they make a muscle burn like hell and greatly increase the intensity of a set.

Partial reps are also useful when you're employing the 21-rep principle. You do 7 half-reps from the bottom followed by 7 half-reps from the top, and then 7 full reps to complete the set. This is a real killer technique, especially on calf raises or curls.

Another application of partial reps is through the use of constant-tension reps. Instead of moving the weight through the full range of motion, you restrict it to a small arc to keep tension on one specific part of a muscle. For example, doing only the bottom half of a preacher curl would keep tension on the lower biceps. By doing different exercises for different parts of the biceps muscle-seated barbell curls for the belly and concentration curls for the peak - full development is possible. The legendary Sergio Oliva, for one, trained this way.

The last application of partial reps would be heavy partials in a power rack. You might do half- or quarter-squats with a very heavy weight. Because the range of motion is so limited, you can use much heavier than normal weight, up to double what you could use for full reps. This method places a tremendous overload on some parts of the muscle and brings about great increases in strength and power.

Constant-Tension Reps - When employing constant-tension reps, in order to keep tension always on the muscle, you do not lock out the weight. Take no rest between reps. On leg presses, behind-the-neck presses, incline presses and bench presses, for instance, you'd stop 2 or 3 inches from lockout.

With constant-tension reps one normally moves the weight slightly faster than with full reps, making no definite pauses at either the top or bottom of the movement. The weight moves constantly until muscular fatigue forces the end of the set.

Negative-Only Reps - Negative training occurs whenever you lower a weight. The lowering should be slow and under muscular control. During negative-only training, a training partner lifts the weight up for you, doing the positive work, and then you move it slowly down. Each rep should take about six seconds. End the set when you can no longer control the descent of the weight. When it drops like a rock, that's the time to quit. You should be able to lower about 30 percent more weight than you can lift. When combined with heavy partials in a power rack, negative-only training is one of the best ways to increase strength quickly.

Fast Reps - Superfast tempo allows you to do more reps with a heavy weight but I discourage the technique because invariably too much cheating takes place with superfast reps. Don't try to use fast reps until your muscles are fatigued near the end of a set. Then rep as fast as you can because the bar will move slowly anyway.

Slow Reps - Always do your first reps slowly, feeling your muscles work. To shock them, try superslow reps, taking 30 seconds to lift a weight and another 30 seconds to lower it. This procedure is very intense and effective, but you should employ it only as a shocking technique, not as your regular method.

Forced Reps - A very effective way of extending a set and increasing training intensity, forced reps will require you to have a training partner. When you are unable to do another rep on your own, your training partner places a finger or two under the bar and assists you just enough to make another rep or two possible. Forced reps work best with cheating and burns, but restrict them to 1 or 2 sets for each muscle group per workout. This technique can lead to overtraining if used too often.

Extended Set / Rep Schemes

Those schemes include supersets, pre-exhausts, trisets, giant sets and triple-drop sets, and are specialized methods to increase training intensity and force a muscle to work harder.

Supersets involve doing two exercises consecutively with no rest. There are two kinds of supersets - those done with two exercises for the same muscle group and those done for antagonistic or opposite muscle groups. An example of the former kind would be two biceps exercises, such as preacher curls and barbell curls, while an example of the latter would be barbell curls for the biceps supersetted with triceps extensions.

Trisets are three exercises done consecutively without interruption. Giant sets comprise four or more exercises with no rest between them. Triple drops are break-down sets. A helper removes weight when muscular failure occurs after a certain number of reps to let you extend the set. The term triple drops implies, of course, that the weight is reduced three times during a single set so that you can do many extra reps. Usually you reduce the weight by 10 percent each "drop." On a triple-drop set of bench presses beginning with 200 pounds the reductions, rounded off would go from 200 pounds to 180 to 160 to 140.

Pre-Exhaust Reps - Pre-exhaust reps are a special type of superset. You do an isolation exercise for a muscle group before a compound exercise to fatigue the muscle and to remove the "weakest link" of that muscle group. For example, when you train delts with presses, the triceps (which are the weak link) tire and give out before you have trained the delts hard enough. By doing strict laterals before the presses you fatigue or exhaust the delts so that when you begin the presses you can train the delts harder than normally because momentarily the triceps will be stronger than the delts.

I hope you now realize there's more to doing reps than just moving a weight up and down. Pay attention to how you are performing your reps, and your sets will take on a whole new concept of intensity, which can only lead to better gains with more size and strength. Rep on.

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