It's a fairly common practice when following a workout program to perform each exercise for a specific, predetermined number or range of reps. But as strength coach Jeff Cavaliere explains in a new Athlean-X video, this approach could actually be holding back your progress.
"There's no one single magic number," he says. "What you really need to do is stop focusing on where you're going to end up, and start focusing on two different things: a broader range, and also the journey to get to where you're going to end up, if you really want to see your most substantial gains."
Rather than fixating on specific numbers, Cavaliere recommends adopting a "weight class" mentality where the number of reps performed in a set relates to what you are lifting. Anything from 1 to 7 reps counts as the heavyweight range, while 8 to 12 is moderate, 15 reps all the way up to 30 is for light weights only, and then anything above that is for very light weights.
"If I were to focus on the heavy category here, I'm not necessarily focusing on failure," he explains. "I don't have to take a squat to failure, many times we don't... You're just trying to drive high levels of tension through the weights you would use normally to perform those exercises, and that in itself is a driver of hypertrophy."
"It becomes much more imperative that you reach failure as you get higher and higher up, especially as you get into the 20s, because we don't have adequate levels of tension," he continues. "We have to have high levels of effort and intensity in pushing ourselves to failure here."
When you are doing upwards of 30 reps using very light weights, there is even less tension and intensity involved, so it's more important to accrue volume instead.
That doesn't mean sticking to sets of 7, or 12, etc. If you perform 7 heavy reps and still have something left in the tank, lighten the load and continue upwards into your lighter range, ensuring that each repetition has the maximum benefit. That way, it's not about where you end up, it's about where you land on the rep scale.
"We're not counting them," says Cavaliere. "We're making them count."
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