Can You Build Muscle with High Reps?

What’s the best rep range to build muscle? That’s a question many of you have probably pondered over the years, especially if you’re wanting to know how to get ripped. Most people do 8-12 reps per set for maximum growth. However, heavier weights can build just as much muscle, if there’s enough volume. Three sets of three reps (3×3) won’t add much mass, but 10 sets of three reps (10×3) definitely will.

So what about high rep training? Can it build just as much muscle?

I love heavy lifting as much as the next guy, but there are times when your joints need a break and your muscles need a different type of stimulus to accelerate growth. High rep training can be the path to new muscle, if you adhere to the following four steps:

1. Take each set to failure: I’m not a big fan of training to failure; however, when training with light weights it’s necessary to take each set to the point of exhaustion. With heavier loads (eg, 4-6 rep max) you can get away with avoiding failure because the load is heavy enough to recruit your largest motor units, even if you don’t reach failure.

For muscle growth, the motor units must be fatigued. If you can do 25 push-ups but you stop that set at 19 or 20 reps, there won’t be enough fatigue to stimulate growth through an increase in protein synthesis. Research by Burd, et al (2010) shows that training with light loads (30% of max) can result in the same level of increased protein synthesis as heavy loads (90% of max), provided you take those high rep sets to failure.

Training to “failure” can mean different things to different people. My definition: when you can no longer achieve a full range of motion rep with perfect form you’ve reached failure. Don’t push beyond that point.

2. Choose the right exercises for high rep training: There are certain strength exercises that should never be taken to failure: squat, deadlift, and Olympic lifts. The risk of taking any of those exercises to failure far outweighs the potential benefit, and this is especially true with high rep sets that accumulate a huge amount of fatigue. As a rule, stick to high rep training to failure for upper body lifts and single leg lower body exercises.

A few of my favorite exercises to train to failure with high reps are: push-up, pull-up, handstand push-up, lunge, standing calf raise, and single-leg hip thrust.

3. Don’t go too light: You could curl a soup can all day long and it won’t add muscle to your biceps. When the load is too light it’s impossible to recruit and fatigue the motor units that are large enough to result in visible growth.

As a general rule, stick to loads that allow 20-30 reps for your first set for your high rep workouts. If you can any more than that, the load isn’t ideal for growth. From there, keep cranking out sets of as many reps as you can with that same load until you reach a target number of total reps (eg, 50 reps for that muscle group).

4. Get the most out of each rep: When training with light loads, the speed and tension you develop in each rep becomes paramount. If you purposely slow down the concentric (muscle shortening) phase, you’ll leave the larger motor units untapped. And when the muscle group is maximally shortened, that peak contraction should be squeezed briefly to build extra tension. With that extra tension comes extra muscle growth because you’ll recruit more motor units.

Bottom line for tempo: the shortening (concentric) phase should be fast, followed by a brief but intense squeeze of the muscle, and then do the lengthening (eccentric) phase under control.

When you do high rep training the right way, you can build new muscle and train more frequently because it’s less stressful to the central nervous system (CNS) and joints. That’s why there are many body weight exercises in my new book, High Frequency Training. Coming October 16!

Stay Focused,
CW

25 thoughts on “Can You Build Muscle with High Reps?

  1. Hi Chad
    Great article! A few questions:
    A) If max. strength isn’t that important for someone, then why not train with fairly high reps all the time?
    B) You write that speed is important to activate the larger motor units, but if you take the set to failure aren’t they going to be tapped anyway? Or have I misunderstood something somewhere?

    Thanks!

    Jesper

    CW: A) That’s certainly an option, as I’ll outline in the new book.
    B) You will recruit those larger motor units early on, if you follow that tempo prescription.

  2. Great guidelines! According to some of the rep charts I’ve seen, 20 reps equates to about 60% of 1 Rep Max and being that the increments at this point equal about 1 rep per 1%, that would be about 30 reps @ 50%. Of course other variables would influence these benchmarks such as overall condition, fatigue state, fast/slow twitch muscle fiber ratios etc. but lifting @ 30% of 1 Rep Max as in the study mentioned, would result in upwards of 50 reps give or take.

    CW: Yes, 30% is light. How many reps a person can get will differ for everyone. However, don’t get too hung up on 30% of 1RM because I prefer heavier “light” loads. The take-away message is that lighter loads can result in hypertrophy.

  3. Chad, great article!!-How about putting these exercises in a circuit? i.e.push-ups-kettlebell swings-bw lunges

    CW: Yep, I’ll lay all that out in my new book.

  4. Dear Mr. Waterbury,

    First off, I love your work (HIAH, your advocating for rings training, wish you had a seminar in the Northwest.)

    I’m really fascinated by this study.
    Just a couple questions…

    1.) About the study referenced- Don’t we need to evaluate total protein balance, not just synthesis?
    2.) Have you used the aforementioned bodyweight exercises (pushups, pullups, lunges, standing calf raises, etc) at ~30% 1RM as the cornerstone of a training program? Or has it been used during deload periods, or as part of a heavy training program?

    3.) I’m stoked for the new book. Will it be paperback or e-?
    Thanks!

    fascinating commentary on this study:
    http://www.leangains.com/2010/08/high-reps-vs-low-reps-for-muscle-gain.html

    CW: 1) Yes, but you won’t grow without an increase in protein synthesis.
    2) 30% is too light in my book. The take-away message is that light loads can result in hypertrophy if you do the sets to failure.
    3) It will be an online ebook with tons of instructional videos.

  5. Chad -
    As I’m currently practicing planche and front lever progressions, would polishing off with some high rep pushups and some pullups likely impede my progress on the former?

    CW: I don’t think it will. Keep the high rep stuff at the end, as you mentioned and you’ll be fine since you won’t be fatigued for the strength holds.

  6. Great article, Chad!

    What do you think about Poundstone Curls (100+ reps curl with the empty bar)? I started doing these a couple months ago and found it to be fun and challenging. Also, my arms look considerably bigger now.

    CW: I’m not a fan of any exercise you can do for 100 straight reps when hypertrophy is the goal. But if it’s working, keep it as part of your plan.

  7. great post! i have found by doing the pushups, pull-ups, dips,and other bodyweight exercises have made a huge difference. mostly are done in the high rep range as per your post. thanks!!!!!

  8. Chad, could weighted push-ups or dips be used as a “heavy” press movement for the chest in place of barbell pressing? I am unable to bench due to injury, but I can still do push-ups and dips perfectly well for high reps

    CW: Yes. In fact, I don’t have my clients do any heavy bench presses anymore. Not since 2005.

  9. I have had really good results doing weighted pushups with rings and the perfect pushup handles and going between 15-25 reps a set. To the point of doing pushups (not weighted every day) almost every day. I very the angle with feet on the floor, on a bench and one the end of my couch. Doing the same with pulls/chins with a alternating BW/added weight every other day five to six day days a week.

  10. Chad, i cant wait for this new book. I loved HIAH and BOF, and i’m pumped that you have a new book out. Do you have any more details regarding this new book……..for example will it be an Ebook (like BOF)?

    CW: Yes, it’ll be a downloadable ebook with plenty of instructional videos.

  11. What about booster sets where you recommended a load that you lift ~50 times on your first set?

    CW: Those have a place. I’ll outline it in my new HFT book.

  12. How many total reps should you target when doing high rep training? You mention 20-30 reps per set and as an example total 50 reps, that only allows for 2-2.5 sets per exercise. Is that a sufficient # of sets?

    How much rest time should you allow between sets?

    Should you do the exercise for the same muscle group at once or alternate between push and pull for example?

    CW: Yes it’s sufficient when you’re doing HFT because the frequency is 4+ times per week. Use as much rest as needed. Yes you can alternate between antagonists.

  13. Will the high frequency book have a section relating to high frequency training for fat loss or will it be strictly for muscle growth?

    CW: It will outline guidelines for both.

  14. Sorry for this almost totally unrelated question, What would you recommend to people competing in raw powerlifting to do in order to minimize to risk of shoulder injury? I mean because, for those population it is must to bench press. Thanks in advance

    CW: You can develop a big bench without doing a heavy bench press consistently. But that conversation goes beyond what I want to write in a response. It deserves an entire post.

  15. Looking forward to the new book!
    When doing lat pulldowns with a light weight (20 – 25 RM), does it make sense to control the concentric somewhat, I mean, performing it not too slowly, but not explosively either? I seem to feel my back muscles engage better if I don’t blast through the rep, but is faster always better? Cheers.

    CW: Yes, never compromise tension for speed. Slow it down a little if you feel it more.

  16. Very helpful post. I’m not liking my local gym choices right now where I’m recently relocated to, so I’ve been trying to figure out creative but effective approaches with a pair of dumbbells coupled with 75 lbs. of weight for each (which is much less than I used to train with) and bodyweight exercise variations. Thanks for this info.

  17. Hey Chad, congratulations for finally finishing your new book!!

    I always loved reading your articles about HFT and bodyweight exercises, so now i feel like a kid the night before christmas waiting for his new presents.

    I can’t wait to read it!

    Thank you for all the fantastic work you do.

  18. Hi Chad

    Thanks for clearing that fact up for me, was a tad confused if high frequency with high rep training to failure should be mixed.i do have anouther question.
    Is high frequency a good idea to train for more than one aspect of performance? (such as a mma fighter who needs explosive efforts over a long period of e.g.)
    Congrats on the new book, cant wait to read it

    CW: Yes, HFT can be great for anyone, if you know how to organize the program correctly. I’ll cover those components in my new HFT book.

  19. Following Chad’s writings I have seen a shift toward more calisthenic based training and less use of compressive exercises. I see that change as a good advancement. Powerlifters and even those bodybuilders who train farily intense (in terms of 1RM) tend to get injured frequently. Also with gymnastic bodyweight exercises you tend to work strength and mobility at the same time to the same degree. I think the reason of this to be the co-contration created by closed chain exercise (as most bodyweigth exercises are) that have protective properties for the joints and create a more integration of the whole body during the movements. Thats the reason why almost everyone who’s injured gets rehab by a period of bodyweight training.

  20. Hey Chad, can’t wait for the new book. Will this cover ring exercises and progressions as well?

    CW: I will.

  21. Hi Chad,
    Excited about the new book!

    Could I get some advice on my workout/diet?
    I’m in the final unloading week of Get Big, and I’ve been doing a mix of Ori’s Warrior diet and your Waterbury diet:

    On the days I lift, Monday, Wen, Frid, Waterbury diet for muscle growth.

    When I don’t lift, Tue, Thurs, Sat, Sun, Waterbury diet for fat loss.

    Does that sound right to you and what would you recommend to improve it?

    Also, I’ve been meaning to try total HFT after Get Big, is it compatible with the Waterbury diet?
    I should point out that I’m a beginner, and I don’t know if Get Strong wouldn’t be better suited as you prescribed in HIAH…

    CW: That sounds good. Yes, the Waterbury Diet will match up with any program.

  22. hey chad, great article ! one question regarding your new ebook : will it include some gymnastics exercises (like front lever, back lever …) ? thanks

    CW: Yes.

  23. Hi Chad,
    Will your book talk about strength or just hypertrophy?
    Thanks

    CW: Both, but it’s more geared for hypertrophy and fat loss.

  24. Hi chad

    What is reason you have chosen 20-30 rep range, can 15-20 rep be used

    Regards
    Paul

    CW: Yes, I just gave one of many examples.

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