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Can you alter rep ranges to sculpt your ideal look?

  • April 9, 2024
  • 5 min read
Can you alter rep ranges to sculpt your ideal look?

Sculpting our bodies to achieve the ideal look is possible with the right training. With the last of the Easter Eggs eaten and summer fast approaching, many people are hitting the gyms to achieve the body of their dreams. Everyone’s tastes vary and sculpting our bodies, and the ‘ideal look’ can mean very different things to different people. Some wanting to gain as much muscle as possible while others may prefer a leaner look. Whatever your style, prioritise your health throughout the process. Eating enough to fuel your training and recovery is essential. To increase muscle size you must be eating more calories than you are using. For any fitness goal you must include adequate protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Sleep is another key factor, without which you will not adapt to the training no matter how hard your work in the gym.

London based personal trainer and strength coach, Richard Lee explains

“Resistance training is an incredibly efficient way to sculpt your body to suit your personal preference. More importantly, it will increase your fitness, brain health, vitality and longevity. A win win!”

The standard advice for any beginner embarking on a new weight training regime is to perform 3 sets of 10 reps on exercises that work the entire body. Compound exercise, such as squats, rows and bench press, work more than one muscle group, therefore a perfect way to do this in minimal time.

By changing the number of repetitions you perform, you can achieve different outcomes. When the muscle cells fatigue they adapt on a physiological level. These adaptations are different when the muscle fatigues at different reps. Although beginners will experience all the adaptations at all rep ranges to start with. This exponential explosion of results is known as “beginner gains”. Once this plateaux has been reached, it is time for a change. Increasing volume (more sets) or frequency (training sessions per week) will stimulate further progress.

Lower rep ranges (1-5 reps per set) with heavier weights primarily target high-threshold motor units (HTMU’s). These are the strongest groups of muscle fibers in your body. Training in this rep range primarily targets neural adaptation that will increase your power and strength but not necessarily build bulk.

If you are after muscle size then training 6-12 reps per set typically leads to hypertrophy (muscle growth) of type I and type II muscle fibers. This results in increased muscle cross-sectional area and therefore overall muscle size. Maximise this effect by including dropsets, supersets or change the tempo of each rep. Studies have found that the amount of time that the muscle is under tension can cause the same cellular adaptations as heavier weights. This is a great tool for increasing muscle size and strength by loading the muscle without stressing the joints.

These rep ranges can enhance mitochondrial density within muscle cells. Mitochondria are important for energy production (ATP synthesis) and oxidative metabolism. This will increase your strength and help you burn more calories at rest. This can lower body fat for a leaner more toned look. If you are not keen on muscle size but want the strength and metabolic gains then spend more time performing 6-8 reps and make sure you are eating enough to fuel training, recovery and repair and not any more. A sports nutritionist can help you work this out.

While repetitions above 12 are not typically associated with maximal muscle growth (hypertrophy) compared to lower-repetition, higher-intensity resistance training, they can still contribute to muscle protein synthesis, especially in untrained individuals. Training with higher repetitions generally induces cellular adaptations that support endurance performance, metabolic efficiency, capillary development, and lactic acid tolerance. These rep ranges are great to practise technique and increase mobility on more complex exercises. Once perfected it is then safer to increase weight and reduce the reps.

For best results for sculpting our bodies means working out using all these rep ranges, progressively adding more reps to the exercise each week or month. If you’re goal is size then spend a few more weeks performing 8-12 reps. A 2019 systematic review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health advises that anyone who wants to maximise muscle growth should do 3-6 sets of an exercise, with each set consisting of 6-12 repetitions. Take 60 second rest between sets. Aim to fatigue that muscle within that rep range, which means you cannot possibly do more that 12 reps. If you can, go heavier on the next set.

Everyone is different and individual responses to different rep ranges can vary based on factors such as genetics, training experience, nutrition, recovery, and overall programming.

Therefore, consult a personal trainer or exercise professional who can design a well-structured personalised resistance training program, integrating varying rep ranges and training intensities to help you achieve your goals.

About Author

Natalie Shanahan

Natalie Shanahan has a BSc in Genetics and a MSc in Bioinformatics. She worked as a lecturer, teaching genetics and biochemistry, before moving to Australia to work for their first Bioinformatics company. Here she managed their marketing as well as working on their numerous educational resources. Natalie left her career in science to follow her passion and now works as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant, helping individuals and employees of large organisations, better understand their health and wellbeing.

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