The Default Rep Range
I had an hour long conversation with Pavel Tsatsouline on Sunday and per usual his probing questions churned up some things that I had forgotten. One thing that he asked was, "Over the years, was there a single repetition range that you preferred?" What was 'normal' for me? Put another way, what single rep range did I use most often in my weight training and why? Without hesitation I said 5-rep sets. I kind of surprised myself with the quickness of my reply but upon reflection thought it might be worth sharing the whys and wherefores.
As a teen, I wanted usable athletic strength - with the emphasis on explosive power. I was isolated and took my cues from the articles of John McCallum. Mac was the first expert to make the case that high reps built muscle tissue and super low reps peaked power thus finding a rep range that split the difference would provide the balance between high rep muscle size and low rep pure torque. Since 10-reps and above were 'normal' and 1 to 3 reps were 'low rep' than 4 to 9 reps would be mid-range. Split the difference and 5-6 rep seemed the solution. Bill Pearl, another mentor, used 6 to 8 reps to build his incredible mass and Mac suggested Fives. I commenced using five reps, particularly on my squats, overhead presses and power cleans. Being determined and ambitious and having all the training time I needed, over time I developed the ability to take a triple and turn it into a five though sheer willpower and guts.
In retrospect this was physiologically correct and to this day once an individual has gotten passed the beginner stages and wants to take their physique to the next level, 5-rep sets are my continual prescription. Later, when I took up powerlifting and fell under Cassidy's tutelage I found it ironic that he too used 5's as his 'default' rep range. By default I mean that unless the trainee was peaking for a strength competition or athletic event of some type (wherein it was appropriate to use low reps) or in the deep 'off season' and looking to add some size (wherein it was appropriate to use high reps) in normal training times the idea would be to drive the 5-rep threshold upward, ever upward, in all the major lifts.
When I began working with Ed Coan and Doug Furnas I found it more than coincidental that they both used 5-rep sets more than any other rep range. Doug came up under hall-of-famer Dennis Wright who was a big 5-rep man. Doug eventually squatted 900x5 in the old George Zangas supersuit. I passed my love of 5's onto Karwoski and they became the backbone of his training regimen. Typically an athlete in preparation for an event will take 12-weeks to whip themselves into peak condition. The first 2-3 weeks are used for 'conditioning' and the across the board the athlete will use 8-12 rep sets. For the vast middle section of the preparatory cycle, 5's are used. In the final 3-4 weeks low rep sets are used to peak power and strength. It's no coincidence that each of the men I mention developed incredible muscle mass and functional power. Furnas could do a standing back flip weighing 280 and could still run a 4.7 forty.
Does any of this 'inside baseball' exotica have any bearing on the training of normal people? Absolutely: in my experience the average trainee is fixated with 10-rep sets (or higher) for a litany of lame reasons: "Low reps are dangerous," and my favorite, "I don't want to develop big muscles." (As if it were that freaking easy - like within a few weeks of doing 5's they'd build more mass than Arnold in 1975) -- This latter excuse is used universally by women and defies rational thinking and basic biology. We lift weights to build muscle and strength. Period. No other reason. We coordinate cardio and diet to oxidize body fat. The three elements are intertwined to deliver the complete package, i.e. increased muscle size and function combined with low body fat. No matter who you are (assuming you are past the rank beginner stages) a dose of 5-rep sets can blast you out of whatever training rut you find yourself in. Forty-three years down the progressive resistance highway I still believe the 5-rep possesses magical attributes. Perhaps you should consider giving them a test ride.
Marty Gallagher is a former strength and fitness chat columnist for washingtonpost.com. He is also a former national and world champion powerlifter. Marty's articles have been featured in Muscle Media, Muscle & Fitness, and Powerlifting USA magazines. His website, http://www.martygallagher.com, assimilates years of accumulated knowledge from the athletic elite and makes them accessible to the common person. The "Purposeful Primitive" way has been proven effective time after time after time for weight loss, increasing muscle tone, and complete physical transformation.
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