Coach Nick Leyden breaks down the science behind how the number of reps per set you do impacts your training and results.
Hit the gym, knock out a few reps, gain some muscle – how much more complicated can it be than that? Well, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, but according to Strength & Conditioning Coach Nick Leyden, the number of reps you do actually makes a pretty big difference if you want to see significant improvements in your strength and power.
While you absolutely can go to the gym and perform a random number of reps, if your goal is to build power and strength, there’s a much more scientific approach, Leyden says. The coach, who advocates for lower rep ranges around 3-5 for building strength says, “It’s not to say that you can’t get any benefits from doing [higher] rep ranges. We have our first phase, which is a foundational phase where we’re building a little strength and a little muscle. We’ll do some higher rep ranges, but we’ll work them down into lower rep ranges for strength and power.”
“Strength is just maximal force production. Essentially, how much force can you produce?” he explains.
“Typically, we need to load the body up a lot heavier and push the weight, and in turn, you’re not going to be able to do as many reps if you’re truly putting out the intensity you want. The intensity has to be there,” Leyden stresses.
He recommends doing anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of your one-rep max to ensure you’re combining the correct amount of load and intensity to get your body to respond properly. “You’re never going to get the stimulus that you need on your body if you’re just doing 60%,” he says.
Leyden says that instead, you need your reps to essentially tell your body “Hey, we need to produce more force. We need to improve our central nervous system at the rate at which our muscles can contract and produce that force.” He also says that you may be able to push your rep range up a “little bit” to five, six, or slightly above, but emphasizes that the 3-5 rep range is going to be the sweet spot for “seeing a lot of the necessary intensity to improve strength metrics and strength numbers.”
While 3-5 reps are the go-to for building strength, Leyden says that “in terms of power, it’s a completely different ball game. This is where I think a lot of people get confused because you’ll see research about this as 30 to 80 percent of a one-rep max. And then you’re like, how do I know what percentage to do it at? It depends on exercise selection.”
“Typically with more advanced athletes and the people who have a greater experience doing a certain exercise, they can typically push that percentage in the weight they can do on the bar heavier and heavier and heavier compared to someone a little bit newer. To get maximum power production or peak power, it’s just the weight on the bar or mass times acceleration, and then velocity is going to be distance divided by time. So when we can get someone to achieve peak power, we want to equal those out.”
Lost yet? No? Good. While this all sounds fairly complicated, it’s simpler than it might seem once Leyden breaks it down into what this all means for your rep range when it comes to power production.
He explains that three to five reps are the ideal rep range for power output because when you start to exceed that range, “the bar velocity starts to dip. You start to drop off, so that’s typically why we do three to five reps because you can get good quality there at very high speeds hitting peak power output without it diminishing off where we’re no longer in that threshold.”
While rep ranges are important, Leyden adds that “another thing is with power, we’re resting long periods. You want to be fresh, you want to be ready to go, or else it’s just going to kind of turn into some sort of conditioning work where we’re just not hitting that threshold. Which, you’re not wasting time, but you’re just not getting the most out of it if peak power is the goal you’re looking for,” he explains.
While the amount of recovery time you need depends on the type of workout you’re doing, Leyden says “For me, it’s really three to five minutes of rest. I want to still make sure that [my clients] can get the workout done, but that they’re feeling recovered enough that they’re not diminishing what they’re able to produce in the actual set.”
If power isn’t your goal and you’re looking to accomplish something more along the lines of conditioning, Leyden will typically program something like 45 seconds of rest. And if all of this still sounds like it’s too much to figure out, Leyden offers a Peak Performance Program, 30-minute strategy sessions, and a free week of workouts to help guide you through your workouts to reach your customized goals.