Should a beginner looking to lose weight perform the same amount of reps as an advanced bodybuilder? What about someone looking to get as strong as possible vs. someone trying to get as big as possible? Figuring out the perfect rep scheme for your workout program can be tricky and will vary based on goals and experience. To properly set up your routine it helps to understand the different muscle fiber types and how they are fueled through the three different energy systems.
The 3 Energy Systems
First, let’s review the three different energy systems used to fuel your workouts. These all work together during any exercise to supply the muscle with ATP, but the amount they are relied upon will vary based on the type of stimulus they are placed under.
The Phosphagen System (ATP-CP)
This energy system is used during the first few seconds of any exercise. Our muscles use stored ATP initially and then stored creatine phosphate jumps in to convert ADP to usable ATP. This energy system is the primary one when using maximal effort for up to 12 seconds.
The Glycolytic System
Unlike the phosphagen system, this one requires the presence of glucose to produce ATP. Glucose circulates through the bloodstream and is also stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle tissues. A process called glycolysis breaks the glucose down into usable ATP. This energy system is heavily called upon for moderate-intense activities lasting 30-120 seconds. When intensity is high and oxygen is unavailable, lactic acid builds up leading to muscular failure. This is called fast glycolysis. If using a work rate that does not exceed oxygen needs the byproduct leading to lactic acid buildup can be converted to additional ATP through the Krebs cycle. This is known as slow glycolysis.
The Oxidative System
This is the system your body goes to for low intensity and long duration activities. It is capable of using either carbs or fat for fuel. The oxidative system supplies the largest amount of ATP but requires the presence of oxygen, so it only occurs during low-intensity exercise.
Muscle Fiber Types
Our muscles are made up of three different fiber types with varying amounts in each one.
So Why Is This Important?
As you can see, the tempo and amount of repetitions you perform during a set will dictate which muscle fibers are recruited as well as which energy systems are called upon to supply those muscle fibers with fuel (ATP). Knowing this you can align the rep range to suit your goals. If your goal is to become as strong and explosive as possible, you are going to want to target the type 2b fast twitch muscles using a high output energy system such as the phosphagen or fast glycolytic system. A bodybuilder looking to increase in size would want to target all three muscle fiber types using carbs for fuel through glycolysis. Let’s look at some specific examples of training goals and their ideal rep schemes.
If you are a powerlifter or working out with the sole goal of becoming stronger, then you need to focus on increasing motor unit synchronization. Reps should be kept in the 1-3 range using maximal weight. The negative should last 1-2 seconds, and the concentric contraction should be as fast as possible. Since this should take under 15 seconds, the primary energy system used is the phosphagen, so no glucose is needed to replenish ATP. Rest 3-5 minutes so that ATP can be restored within the muscle. This is how powerlifters train.
Think of power building as a blend of bodybuilding and powerlifting. You want to be strong, but you also want to have thick, dense muscles. With this goal, start with a compound movement using low volume (>5 reps) similar to a powerlifter. For this portion use a 1-2 second negative coming up as explosive as possible. Rest 3-5 minutes between sets. The rest of the workout should fall within a 6-10 rep range utilizing 2-3 second negative and 1 second concentric. Rest periods should be around 2 minutes. Training this way heavily uses both anaerobic systems, the phosphagen and fast glycolysis, so glucose is required to replenish ATP. Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates were both power builders while Phil Heath and Flex Wheeler were both traditional bodybuilders.
If you have the goal to get as big as possible, you still need to dedicate some training time to gaining strength to have a higher workload capacity at higher reps. Include a few sets within a rep range of 5-8 following the same guidelines for power building. The majority of the workout will focus on reps in the 8-20 range utilizing a 3 second negative and a 2 second concentric. Rest periods should be 45-90 seconds. Due to the large amount of time spent in glycolysis during the workout, it is imperative to have carbs pre or intra workout.
The advanced bodybuilder would also benefit from targeting their type 1 muscle fibers. Although they contribute less to overall size, they should not be overlooked if getting as big as possible is your goal. Target these fibers by performing 2 minutes of continuous work for a muscle using 4 seconds on both the eccentric and concentric portion of the lifts. Rest 30 seconds in between before performing another set.
If you are an endurance athlete or just looking to focus on increasing your muscular endurance and cardio capacity, then you need to train the oxidative energy system to operate as efficiently as possible. Reps should be in the 20-40 range with rest periods of no more than 30 seconds. The eccentric and concentric portion of the lift should take 4-10 seconds. When training for endurance, you progress by slowing the tempo or adding reps instead of adding weight. You could also implement the continuous 2-minute set described above.
When training for fat loss it’s important to keep in mind that even if you consume carbs pre workout you are going to be in a somewhat depleted state and lack stored glucose. Therefore if using only reps in the 5-20 range the body will rapidly deplete your glucose stores. Remember the energy system called upon to replenish ATP when doing moderate intensity work for 30 seconds-2 minutes is the glycolytic, requiring glucose. If you don’t have enough stores available for use in the blood and muscles the body starts the process of gluconeogenesis to convert protein into usable glucose to produce ATP. Where does that protein come from? Your muscle tissues! Obviously, you don’t want to lose hard earned muscle so spend most of your time training in a way that utilizes the other two energy systems not requiring glucose.
If fat loss is your goal, you need to spend the majority of the time training like a powerlifter/power builder utilizing reps <5 with high intensity and ample rest periods. This helps preserve your lean muscle during a cut. You should also use the oxidative system because if you do not have carbs in your system, your body will turn to fat for fuel. Try doing a few sets of the 2 minutes continuous reps to finish off the workout.
Remember, the best programming means nothing if your diet is not in check and you do not approach your workouts with intensity. Consider supplementing with a pre-workout proven to boost aggression in the gym while providing skin splitting pumps, Sheer Platinum Pre-X. No matter what your goals are, it’s important to spend some time training in all rep ranges. This ensures you can use each of the three energy systems efficiently and won’t have any weak links holding you back from reaching your goals.