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Rep Out: The Truth About Rep Ranges And Muscle Growth

Average: 4.5 (36 votes)
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Do low rep strength sets have value? How about high rep sets? Does the pump play a role in muscle building? All your rep range questions answered.

Dumbbell CurlsI remember the first time I ever picked up bodybuilding magazine with the intention of learning how to train and grow. I knew nothing at the time but was ready to soak up all the information that this magazine was ready to give. I found the workout of the biggest guy in the magazine (an IFBB pro who shall remain nameless). This magazine listed his favorite workout plan and his reasons why it was his favorite.

One statement gave me an answer I was looking for. This bodybuilder stated, "When I am trying to get big, I lift heavy for low reps, but when it is time to get lean for a show I lift light weight for high reps. This is what really burns the fat." I figured this had to be true since he was huge and lean.

As I became more embedded into the bodybuilding world, I would hear this same bit of "knowledge" over and over again. In my never-ending search for knowledge it did not take me long to discover that this common mantra of, low reps for mass and high reps for cuts, was just plain wrong. The truth about rep ranges is something that is largely unknown within the bodybuilding community.

I work with clients of all different experience levels. Some have been competing for years and have reached top levels of competition, while others are just starting out on their bodybuilding journey. It doesn’t matter the level of the trainee, I am always shocked to find that this is a rather simple topic that is largely misunderstood.

Well, no more! I want to clear the air. This may not be groundbreaking new information to the bodybuilding world, but it is something that every bodybuilder should know.

Low Reps

Low reps are usually categorized as reps in the 1-5 range. It is often said that low reps will stimulate fast twitch muscle fibers while high reps stimulate the slow twitch muscle fibers. This is yet another false fact about rep ranges. The truth is that low reps will stimulate ALL muscle fibers from slow to intermediate to fast and everything in between.

The body calls fibers into play on an as needed basis in order from slow to intermediate to fast. When a load is placed on a muscle, the slow twitch fibers will be recruited first. If the slow twitch fibers cannot generate enough force to lift the weight then the body will call the intermediate fibers into action.

If the slow and intermediate fibers cannot handle the weight or tire out then the fast twitch fibers will finally be recruited. When fibers are recruited they are never recruited half way or partially. When a fiber contracts, it will contract maximally (Saladin, 2007), so this means when you lift a heavy load you will fully stimulate slow and intermediate muscle fibers.

Dumbbell Rows

Low reps are also effective for stimulating myofibrillar hypertrophy. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the number and size of the actin and myosin filaments within muscle tissue. This type of hypertrophy is accompanied by strength gains since it involves an increase in the contractile tissue (Zatsiorsky, 2006). This is important because progressive overload is one of the primary necessities for continued long term growth. So you can see that very heavy weight for low reps is vitally important for maximum growth.

Moderate Reps

This rep range is typically defined as the 6-12 rep range. Moderate rep ranges have consistently been proven in study after study to lead to the greatest amount of growth. The reason that this rep range is so effective for building muscle is because it does a little bit a everything.

This means that it provides many of the benefits of low rep training combined with the benefits high rep training by allowing for relatively heavy loads to be used while increasing time under tension. The heavy loads allow for myofibrillar protein synthesis to take place which, as discussed, will increase the size of the contractile proteins. The increased time under tension will stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase of the sarcoplasm and other non-contractile proteins within muscle cells and is primarily induced by lifting light loads for higher reps. This type of growth, although not typically accompanied by any strength gains, is the primary reason why bodybuilders tend to be more muscular than strength and power athletes.

Dumbbell Bench PressModerate rep training also induces an excellent muscle pump. While the pump is often thought of as a short-term training effect, it may possibly result in greater growth. Studies show that cellular swelling causes both an increase in protein synthesis and a decrease in protein breakdown (Grant et al., 2000; Stoll et al., 1992; Millar et al., 1997).

So while low reps with heavy weight is best at stimulating myofibrillar hypertrophy, and high reps with light weight is best at stimulating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, moderate reps seem to strike a balance between inducing significant amounts of both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The proven track record of the moderate rep range makes it so that it cannot be ignored in your training routine.

High Reps

High reps are usually considered to be any set that contains 15 reps or more. There are many that argue, since low reps stimulate all the muscle fibers and moderate reps induce sarcoplasmic protein synthesis, that there is really no need to do high rep sets. At first this sounds like sound reasoning, but it leaves out one very important factor. This important factor is the effect of glycogen on protein synthesis.

Glycogen is essentially stored carbohydrate within muscle tissue. Glycogen is hydrophillic, it causes muscles to swell since every gram of glycogen stores 2.7 grams of water along with it (Chan et al. 1982). I know many of your are thinking, "why would I want my muscles packed with water?" Besides the fact that this added water will increase the size of your muscles, it will also increase protein synthesis.

Many people do not realize that cellular hydration is an extremely strong anabolic trigger. Protein synthesis is often directly related to a muscles cells state of hydration. In response to increased cellular hydration, the cell initiates a signaling cascade that causes the muscle to grow larger to protect itself.

So what does this all have to do with high rep training? High rep training will drastically deplete glycogen stores. At first this may sound counterproductive but the body will react to this depletion by increasing muscular glycogen stores. In the long run this will allow cells to stretch and lead to greater overall muscle growth and release of anabolic hormones.

In addition to all of the above benefits, greater occlusion is associated with higher rep training. This prevents blood from leaving the area being trained, which can induce growth through increases in growth factor production and possibly satellite cell fusion (Vierck et al., 2000).

Comparing the Ranges

So you now know what function each rep range serves, but that is not the whole story. To really be able to put this knowledge to good use you really need to be able to interpret this info. Let's take a closer look.

Even knowing all of this info there are still those that say high rep training is not necessary and it is best to train only with low to moderate rep ranges and focus solely on progressive overload. A fairly recent study recently proved that this is just not true.

This study took 15 young men and compared two protocols in the leg extension. The researchers compared the protein synthesis response from 4 sets with 90% (RM) taken to failure, with 4 sets with 30% (RM) taken to failure. This study found significantly higher protein synthesis rates after the high rep protocol (Burd et al. 2010). This means that the old saying, low reps are for size and high reps are only for fat loss is way, way off.

There is still one problem with high rep training that cannot be ignored. As stated earlier, high reps do very little for increasing strength gains. Progressive overload is essential for growth to continue and this should lead us to one conclusion. While a high rep protocol will work well in the short term, the lack of continually increasing the resistance will eventually lead to a stall in growth.

There is actually a way around this stall though. By training with low to moderate reps and loads you can increase strength over time. These strength gains in the 1-5 rep range will have sort of a "trickle down” effect. This means that strength gains in the 1-5 rep range will transfer and lead to more strength in the other rep ranges. If a bodybuilder increases his one rep max from 250 lbs. to 350 lbs. on the deadlift, you had better believe that his 20 rep max will increase as well. This is what I mean when I say the strength will trickle down.

So using a variety of reps and loads will have a synergistic effect. Rep ranges are not independent of one another. Improvements in one area will lead to improvements in other areas. This exchange is important to understand when putting the whole picture together.

The Takeaways

There are actually two main takeaways from all of this information.

  1. All rep ranges will increase muscle growth but through different pathways. Therefore all ranges should be utilized, no matter if you are gaining or cutting.
  2. Do not use high reps to stimulate fat loss. All weight training will stimulate the metabolism and cause a calories burn. No one rep range will cause significant fat loss over another. Diet and cardio should be the primary tools you use to shed fat and get lean. Let the weight build muscle, let your diet cut the fat.

As you can see, there are no rep ranges that are magically going to make you lose fat or get shredded more than other rep ranges. There is also no merit to the idea that high reps will not allow you to gain lean mass. If you are dieting for a show, just trying to drop a few pounds, or trying to gain as much muscle as possible you must use every single rep range to maximize growth to your fullest potential. So how do you apply this to your own workout? It depends if you are training a muscle group once or twice per week.

If training a muscle group only once per week the best way to work in all rep ranges are as follows:

  • First 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with heavy loads in the 1-5 rep range with compound movements.
  • Next 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with moderate loads in the 8-12 rep range with mostly compound movements.
  • Last 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with light loads in the 15-30 rep range usually with an isolation movement.

When training a muscle group twice per week this really allows you to specialize and focus on one type of training at a time. This is why I most often recommend more frequent training to my clients. Here is a good way to split it up:

Session 1

  • First 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with heavy loads in the 2-4 rep range with compound movements.
  • Next 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with moderate loads in the 4-6 rep range with mostly compound movements.
  • Last 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with light loads in the 6-8 rep range usually with an isolation movement.

Session 2

  • First 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with heavy loads in the 12-15 rep range with compound movements.
  • Next 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with moderate loads in the 15-20 rep range with mostly compound movements.
  • Last 1-2 Exercises - 3-4 sets with light loads in the 25-30 rep range usually with an isolation movement.

The bodybuilding world is filled with misinformation. It is important to constantly question everything. The guy at the gym that is a legend in his own mind is not the only one spouting nonsense. Even top level pro bodybuilders are often misinformed themselves.

I say it all the time, for every method you use in your training and diet it is important to ask, “Why I am I doing this?” If you don’t have a good, scientifically sound answer, then it’s time to reevaluate your methods. The outdated ideas about rep ranges are now a thing of the past.

So get out there, lift brutally heavy weight, achieve skin tearing pumps, and burn it out with high reps. Do this and you’ll be good to grow!

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  • About The Author
    Cliff found a passion for weight training and bodybuilding. Now a competitive bodybuilder himself, Cliff trains other bodybuilders through his training business Team Wilson.
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Comments (41)

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joe
Posted Sun, 04/15/2012 - 13:06

Thanks m&s. This is acTually great information. HElps my focus. Cqn you advise me on super creatine intake and reloads?

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zach stubbs
Posted Mon, 04/16/2012 - 06:40

Keep up the great work Cliff, superb article!

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amit
Posted Thu, 04/19/2012 - 14:52

wow great article !

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Cliff Wilson
Posted Mon, 04/23/2012 - 14:38

Thanks guys! I am glad you liked it.

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Matt
Posted Thu, 05/10/2012 - 10:20

This is pretty much what the power, muscle, burn workout is on this website.

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jeffrey
Posted Tue, 05/15/2012 - 04:03

hey how do i utilize this if im doing a four day spilt?
so chest/tri, back/bi, leg/shoulder, back/bi?
im pretty skinny ectomorph, done strength training for a while though :)

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adam
Posted Thu, 07/26/2012 - 14:04

Great article although im not sure about the rep ranges going above 20, don't you have to use your white fast twitch fibres to be able to stimulate growth. And anything above 20 I thought is way to much to activate them? Or is it purely to help with protein synthesis with increasing the glycogen in the muscle.

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carlos
Posted Tue, 09/18/2012 - 14:47

would you recommend 2x/wk crossfit with 2x/wk low rep range? would you recommend crossfit with any type of wight /range, times per week?

thx in advance

cz

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Rup Jolly
Posted Tue, 09/25/2012 - 21:51

Thanks for writing this, I liked how you included the data about the muscle fibres and how they work - going to change up my rep ranges and experiment with your suggestion and see how it feels.

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Nazza
Posted Wed, 09/26/2012 - 03:44

How many times per week should I be working a body part. Also what is the optimum rest between sets.
thx

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Craig
Posted Fri, 10/19/2012 - 13:53

Wonderful article. This is probably one of the best comprehensive guides for understanding lifting ranges out there. Kudos for such an intelligent addition to the internet.

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Chris
Posted Tue, 11/13/2012 - 10:15

hey, do you have a suggestion for a 4 days pogram which includes all the subjects in the article, and info about pause between sets and how long i should train before change style/progam ?.

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Eric
Posted Fri, 11/16/2012 - 23:30

Excellent article! I am trying to gain wait and have thus come across lots of wrong information. After taking a Physiology class last semester I support everything he has just stated!

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Simon
Posted Mon, 12/03/2012 - 13:24

Cheers for this article, really informative (tho similar to Power/Strength/Burn like Matt said, but no bad thing).

For the '1 workout per muscle per week' format, since the muscle sets are straight after a strength set, and the burn sets are after both strength and then muscle, do you have any recommendation of the starting weights relative to 1RM? I've just been doing a 3x3 strength routine on ~90% 1RM so I know what my current 1RMs are, roughly, and I'll assumedly keep using my current 3x3 as the starting weights for the 'heavy' section. Since this'll burn me out a fair bit, I won't be able to finish the 'medium' or 'light' sets on the weight I would be able to had I not just done the heavy workout.

Would it be something like
3-4 x 01-05 @ 90% 1RM
3-4 x 08-12 @ 30% 1RM
3-4 x 15-30 @ 10% 1RM
?
Those 5RM numbers calculated based on doing the same amount of weight lifted per exercise, i.e. more reps of less weight. But that instantly feels like a stupid assumption - after doing a strength 3x3 @ 90%1RM, there's no way I could do ANOTHER 3x3@90%1RM. So guessing at half weight achievable per successive type (heavy/medium/light):

3-4 x 01-05 @ 90% 1RM
3-4 x 08-12 @ 14% 1RM
3-4 x 15-30 @ 03% 1RM

So my starting 1RM for the bench press was 55kg, which would look like

3x03 @ 49.5kg
3x10 @ 07.5kg
3x23 @ 01.5kg

If this is roughly what's intended by this routine, fine by me, I'm just wondering if I've completely got the wrong end of the stick!
Thanks in advance for any thoughts on the matter, or if anyone knows their own numbers for the percentage drops for each stage.

Simon

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Justin
Posted Mon, 12/24/2012 - 16:24

I've only been applying you approach to my workout for about 3 weeks and ALREADY I am seeing much more progression than anything else I've tried. I'm doing a 4 day split w/1 day rest in between the heavy and light routines and feel great. Feel free to comment on this and I'll share my routine if anyone is interested!

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Katie
Posted Sat, 04/27/2013 - 17:06

Hey Justin...would You mind sharing your routine with me.? Thanks

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Justin
Posted Mon, 06/24/2013 - 20:57

Ok, sorry for the late response! Here is my back split to give you an idea of what the rest of the workout looks like. As the article states, the idea is to progress from compound to isolation. I change out the exercises and the order every couple weeks to avoid the plateau.

Warmup: Front Squats 4 x *, 1500 yard machine row

Back:
Lat Pulls - 4 x *
Dead Lift - 4 x *

Reverse Grip Bent Over Barbell Rows - 4 x *
One-Arm Cable Pulls - 4 x *

Lat Extensions (Cable) - 4 x *
Hyper-extensions - 4 x *

*as the article states, the rep ranges go from 4/12 (heavy) to 6/15 (moderate) to 8/25 (light)

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Alex
Posted Thu, 01/03/2013 - 00:41

Justin, id like to maybe use your workout or at least look at it. If yoy would share it that would be great! Thanks!

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Jermaine Cole
Posted Mon, 01/14/2013 - 15:03

none of this crap works

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jack
Posted Tue, 01/29/2013 - 17:21

Its somewhat good up until you say to mix rep ranges on the same workout. do you know nothing about the principle of specificity? keep the ranges the same throughout.

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Bris
Posted Wed, 06/05/2013 - 17:11

Didn't Arnold use a pyramid method, 15,12,8,8,4 well at least that's what is encyclopedia said. And that seemed to work. It seems like the same idea, modified, variation.

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oliver
Posted Mon, 02/04/2013 - 09:21

Works well with squats. Do two heavy sets 1-5, then lower the weight down, do 2 sets 8-12 and then lower once more and do over 15 reps. Seems to burn my legs and have stopped getting as many aches and pains as a result of doing ridiculous amounts of reps.

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Sergio Tomazzo
Posted Tue, 02/12/2013 - 20:41

I'm going to try the one week muscle groupe training in all rep ranges, but could you update that part of the article and also say what should be the resting time between the heavy/moderate/lighter sets? I'm only giving the usual 2 minutes between sets and don't know if that is enough. After doing the heavy rep sets I can't lift as much weight on the moderate and light sets as if started fresh, is that OK?

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sky6
Posted Mon, 02/25/2013 - 10:15

Bodybuilding workout is not all about rep range. Let it go

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Zidan
Posted Sat, 05/11/2013 - 04:27

Why are there so many thumbs-down?!

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Phildo
Posted Fri, 06/21/2013 - 06:31

Train hard, lift heavy, eat sleep and grow. Stop making something so simple sound so complex.

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John Arcello
Posted Tue, 06/25/2013 - 12:14

I have used this method for some time now, the only difference is I will go to 50 reps on my high sets, I'm 6'3 and no bs I have hit the 300 pound mark with abs of course, using this method. Great info

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beastmode
Posted Wed, 08/07/2013 - 17:48

Week 1&2 reps 10,8,6 week 3&4 8,8,6 week 5&6 6,6,6 week 7 reverse and repeat.
machines and cables reps 12,10,8 ALWAYS
Chest/shoulder/trap (day1)
Incline barbell
Bench
Decline barbell
Dumbbell press
Lat raise
Shrugs
+AB
Legs/tri (day2)
Squat
Leg ext.
Leg curl.
Seated calve raise
leg press
Tri ext. V bar
Tri ext. 1 handed
2x15 dips (if time)
+AB
Back/bi (day3)
Deadlift
Bent over row barbell
T-bar row
Lat pulls
Dum curl
Cable curls
Spider/preacher curls
+AB
DAY 4 OFF!!!!!
DAY 5 REPEAT!!!
I have been doing this and have seen much muscle mass put on.
Switch on n off between dumbbells, cables, barbbells

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Marty
Posted Fri, 10/25/2013 - 17:06

This is a very accurate article on weightlifting technique. I have been lifting since 1978 and still I continue to learn. My body is still developing. It's different now that I'm older, but besides maintaining muscle I want to get really lean in the gut.

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Cris
Posted Fri, 11/22/2013 - 17:36

"Even top level pro bodybuilders are often misinformed themselves."

If this is true, how do these Pros get to the level they are at? By accident?

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Rich
Posted Fri, 06/06/2014 - 18:20

Simple; top pro bodybuilders take steroids. It's pretty easy to grow muscle when your testosterone levels are 16x normal.

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Kingsley Shbay
Posted Fri, 11/22/2013 - 18:01

Great read. I recall learning about this while studying physiology. The recruitment of muscle fibers based on load was referred to as the 'principle of orderly recruitment', and it's true that the load will determine which fibers are recruited for work.

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Rajat
Posted Mon, 12/23/2013 - 22:44

Great article cliff. It was always confusing between high and low reps.

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Jack
Posted Tue, 12/31/2013 - 06:54

Great article, backed up with science and evidence. Awesome stuff. '“Why I am I doing this?” If you don’t have a good, scientifically sound answer, then it’s time to reevaluate your methods.'

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Brian
Posted Mon, 02/03/2014 - 15:08

I like the article, but I think the number of sets is way too high. I get good growth on just 3 sets per body part. My whole upper body training consists of just 3 basic compound movements. Bench, Military press, and a back movement. I hit all upper body muscles. My arms are finally growing again. 9 sets for arms to zero. Reps very per week from 5-3-1 to sets between 15-20.

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mike
Posted Wed, 03/26/2014 - 06:29

Good read. However, doing high rep ranges with a conrolled movement on both the negative and the positive will use more fat as energy.

I read a book on the science behind training and that stated that the best way to train is the 6-10 rep ranges with a fast positive movement and a slow controlled negative movement and like this article suggests let the diet do the talking.

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Kimberly
Posted Mon, 03/31/2014 - 05:17

So refreshing to see a trainer that can speak science. I'm no mean and lean bodybuilder, but when I train I always want to know the "why" behind my routine. With an extensive background in Nutrition Science I am always looking for articles of this quality. Keep up the good work.

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Sam
Posted Tue, 04/01/2014 - 23:14

I love this article. Normally I don't even spend to much time reading articles on weight lifting because mostly they are full of shit! But this is just a great common sense approach. I mix between 4-6 reps on compound movements but then switch to moderate reps and super/tri sets to mix things up and isolate.

I have found also to experiment with other workouts. One for instance I found to be effective to change things up is the classic "German Volume Training". Basically it is 10 sets of 10 at 65% of your max weight for any compound movement. Really changes things up. Great article though! Love your approach on isolations sets vs compound and changing the rep ranges.

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Daniel
Posted Fri, 04/04/2014 - 23:57

Extremely well written article. The only thing I would add is that not only are high reps not better for fat burning, they're actually detrimental. Lifting a low amount of weight in a caloric deficit will cause the body to shed "unneeded" muscle because you're not using all your fibers. The extra mass is not being used by the body so the body views it as parasitically siphoning off extra calories. This in turn down grades your metabolism because you have less muscle with which to burn calories. A horrible feedback loop.

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Maarten "The Bu...
Posted Tue, 06/03/2014 - 06:39

"...Do not use high reps to stimulate fat loss. All weight training will stimulate the metabolism and cause a calories burn. No one rep range will cause significant fat loss over another. Diet and cardio should be the primary tools you use to shed fat and get lean. Let the weight build muscle, let your diet cut the fat...."

So you're saying that if you want to grow muscle you only need weights and if you want to cut you only need a diet?

I think you're wrong mate!!!

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Nino
Posted Mon, 07/14/2014 - 14:34

Geat info in this article, thanks a lot. I'm trying to make my own full body workout to hit each body part three times a week with a less volume. Would periodizing throughout the week, for example 15 reps on Monday, 10 reps on Wednesday and finally 5 reps on Friday be a good idea to reap the benefits of those rep ranges?

thank you

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