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The Problem with the 8-12 Rep Range

May 27, 2024
This is the second in a six-part series. Click here for Part One.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on why your program is stopping you from getting stronger.

I wrote it because it’s incredibly common to see dedicated gym-goers experience great progress at first, only to find their gains stalling over time.

I’ve been there, and I know how frustrating it is.

In that article, I outlined five of the most common reasons I see for why that happens.

Today, we’ll explore reason #2: using the wrong rep ranges.

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In Defence of 8-12

If you’re following a templated program or training app, there’s a good chance a lot of your time is spent in the 8–12 rep range.

It’s a crowd favourite, and for good enough reason.

Before we get into the drawbacks of always doing 8–12, it’s worth understanding why it’s so popular.

While the days of the ‘muscle growth rep range’ are behind us, 8–12 is still very practical for growing muscle.

It allows most people to get enough hard work in across a session and a week, without having to spend too much time at the gym or accrue unnecessary fatigue.

And for a lot of newer lifters who aren’t sure what hard training should look like or how heavy to lift, anything lower can feel like it’s just not much of a workout.

But if you’re exclusively using the 8-12 range (or anything above that) you’re missing out on strength gains.

Here’s why.

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Strength is Specific

When people talk about getting stronger, they’re usually referring to maximal strength - the ability to lift the most amount of weight possible for one rep or do an unassisted push-up or pull-up.

Sure, getting stronger can also mean adding reps or working your way up the dumbbell rack.

But most people aren’t set on building a stronger 12-rep shoulder press. And yet, their training is set up that way.

You see, strength is specific — your body will adapt to whatever demands you place on it.

If you’re always doing 12 reps, your muscles and nervous system will get better at doing 12 reps.

But 12 is a long way from 1, and as such, isn’t a very efficient way of building maximal strength.

That’s because strength isn’t just about muscle size; it’s also about how efficiently your brain can send a message to your muscles to produce force — otherwise known as neuromuscular efficiency.

So even though you might have enough muscle to be capable of moving bigger weight, without the subsequent efficiency of the nervous system, you simply won’t be able to.

That’s where lower rep ranges come in.

Training in lower rep ranges improves the efficiency of your neuromuscular system.

This means your brain gets better at sending strong signals to your muscles, helping you lift heavier weights.

So, if you want to get better at lifting heavy weights, you need to practice lifting heavy weights.

This might seem obvious, but it’s a concept that often gets overlooked in generic training programs.

By using lower rep ranges, you make your training more specific to your goal and help create the adaptations necessary for building maximal strength.

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How to Start

To start incorporating lower rep ranges into your training, I recommend picking big, compound movements that you want to get stronger at (a squat, bench press, deadlift, or pull-up, for example), and doing more of your work in the 1–5 range.

The closer you are to the bottom end of this range, the more specific to maximal strength your training becomes.

The tradeoff is that the fewer reps you do, the less opportunity you have to practice and refine your technique —  which is why the upper end of the range might be more beneficial for newer lifters.

Try to stay 2 to 4 reps from failure on average — your reps should slow down, without technique breaking down or the set becoming a total grind.

By lowering your rep range, not only will you instantly be able to move more weight, but you’ll also be training in a way that is much more specific to your strength goals.

Give it a go and watch your strength take off.