Demystifying Repetitions in Workouts, Part 1: Rep Scales
How can you perform the best repetitions while working out?
A repetition or “rep” is the act of performing a specific movement that satisfies the completion of a single “unit” of exercise. For example, a bodybuilder performs one repetition of a dumbbell curl when he is able to raise a dumbbell near his chest.
A set, on the other hand, is the pre-determined number of repetitions that a bodybuilder will perform in succession. The number of sets and number of repetitions per set varies depending on the intended movement.
The natural trend is that the number of repetitions per set generally decreases as the weight or resistance progressively increases, until the bodybuilder reaches the 1:1 ratio (1 rep/set).
What is the average rep count and set count?
This is a tricky question because bodybuilders across the country use different formulas to achieve specific ends.
The average number of sets in most heavy workouts is 5-8, while the rep count can be as high as 12 or “to failure” which means the bodybuilder will keep performing the repetitions until he has fully exhausted the target muscle.
The set count and rep count of professional bodybuilders also change depending on the current season.
When it is “off-season,” rep and set counts are often higher with less weight/resistance. As the months roll into competition season, the rep/set count may increase with a marked increase in the total resistance used in every exercise.
Professional bodybuilders rarely follow a single system when it comes to building their muscles. As you continue progressing with your own bodybuilding journey you will also develop your own “muscle sense.”
Muscle sense works this way: when a bodybuilder doesn’t feel very challenged, he may add a completely new movement to his repertoire or he will change the rep count or set count to “shock” his muscles. It’s difficult to explain exactly what bodybuilders feel – you just have to find out for yourself!
What is the purpose of increasing or decreasing reps?
Apart from “shocking” the muscles to ensure continuous development, bodybuilders also follow conventional rep scales depending on what they are trying to accomplish. Note that rep scales don’t apply to everyone and that results will vary from person to person.
If you want to build maximum lifting power and develop your natural strength, increase the resistance so you can only perform a maximum of 5 repetitions.
The minimum rep count is 3 – if you’re brave enough to increase the resistance up to this point. If you can still perform five more reps after 3 to 5 reps, your weights aren’t heavy enough!
The 3 to 5 rep scale is highly recommended for bodybuilders who are not preparing for any major competition in the next few months. Keeping the resistance high and the repetitions few helps maintain muscle mass and continues improving your natural strength without completely exhausting the muscles.
For those who are focused on building maximum muscle mass, either for competition or personal aesthetics, three average rep scales are applicable: 8-12, 6-8 and 15-20.
The 8-12 rep scale is applicable to most bodybuilders and if you are trying out a new movement, there’s no harm in aiming for at least 8 repetitions and a maximum of 12.
Some bodybuilders like keeping things heavy all the time. If this is the case for you, the 6-8 rep scale is reasonable. This rep scale is also reasonable for individuals who have yet to find a way to limit the natural catabolism that occurs in muscle tissue after a period of strenuous activity.
And finally, we have the 15-20 rep scale. If the first two ranges don’t work out for you, it’s time to reduce the total resistance per movement and increase the repetitions. This rep scale is also ideal for individuals who are just starting out and still have a relatively high body fat-lean muscle ratio.
The high rep count ensures a longer workout that can potentially burn more calories. Though many fitness experts now espouse “short and intense” bouts of exercise, not everyone is physically capable of continuous high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Don’t worry: if you can’t handle high intensity workouts with heavy weights yet, just continue improving your physique and endurance.
The majority of bodybuilders eventually reach their goals and milestones after a few months of intense workouts. You can do this, too! You just need to stay on the path no matter how difficult the workouts seem to be.