The Method and the Madness

Recently, T Nation posted my tip about doing 100-rep leg presses on Instagram. Most people were very interested in this torture method, but others dismissed it at baseless. It was quite polarizing.

So I decided to explain it a bit more and provide various options for this methodology depending on your objectives. But first, here's a recap of the original protocol:

  1. Start every workout with 100 reps on the leg press. That's every workout, not just leg day.
  2. Use a very light weight. Try to do all 100 reps unbroken, meaning without having to rack the sled and rest. You can however pause briefly at the top with locked legs for a few breaths, but don't rack the sled.
  3. Do fairly slow, rhythmic reps. Don't go slow on purpose, but don't go super fast either.

It's much tougher than it sounds. Here's bobsled athlete Gabriel Chiasson doing it with an empty sled. Note that this single set took him about two minutes and 45 seconds to perform!

In the original tip, I talked about how this method has been used successfully by bodybuilding coach Florian Bianchi. I even said that, in 4-6 weeks, this method could change the look of your lower body forever.

It has to do (in part) with increasing the number of capillaries going to your legs, making it easier to shuttle nutrients and amino acids to your muscles. That facilitates faster recovery and new growth.

More vascularization also makes it easier to mobilize fat in the lower body, something women often struggle with.

Now let's dig deeper.

Nothing New!

While this method might seem new to you, it's actually quite old. It was very popular in speed skating circles, being a favorite of legendary skaters Gaetan Boucher (four Olympic medals) and Eric Hayden (five gold medals).

Hayden was eventually able to work up to using 80% of his leg press max for 100 reps! A normal human being can do only 6-8 reps with 80%. Of course, genetic predispositions had a lot to do with it, but training adaptations played a big role, too. He was also capable of squatting 400 pounds for 40-plus reps.

Mega high-rep leg work was also a favorite of Tom Platz, the man with the best legs in the history of bodybuilding. He routinely did multiple sets of 100 reps on squats with 225 pounds or more.

Tom Platz

Why hasn't it become more popular? Three possible reasons:

  1. It hurts... a lot.
  2. It's boring.
  3. It's less effective (by itself) for strength and size than heavier lifting.

Now, number three might discourage you from trying it. It shouldn't. First, because it's still effective and works via different mechanisms than heavier lifting. As such, the results can be additive. Second, it provides certain benefits that you can't get from heavier work. Finally, the high-rep leg press might magnify the results from the heavier work.

Of course, this method can't completely replace heavier work, but it can increase your results quite a bit.

Mega-High Reps: The Good

Growth

Super-high reps are effective at stimulating growth if you reach failure or close to it. You can stimulate the same amount of hypertrophy with very high reps as you do with heavier weights.

A study conducted by Cameron et al. found that doing 3 sets with 30% of maximum to failure caused the same amount of growth as doing 3 sets with 80% to failure. (About 30% is where you should start for your set of 100-rep leg presses.)

Now, there are other studies that say higher-rep work is inferior for growth, but these were very flawed. Without getting too deep, one of the most cited "high reps bad" studies actually used the incorrect method of calculating volume (only looking at reps and not total tonnage). If they had used the right method, the hypertrophy results would've been about the same as the Cameron study.

Another study looked at the acute anabolic response from light and heavy sets and found a greater anabolic response from the lower load work. In that case, "light" was 4 sets at 30% to failure. "Heavy" was 4 sets at 90% to failure.

The point is, super-high reps can stimulate growth. Whether it's just as effective or less effective doesn't matter because I'm not suggesting replacing your heavier work with the mega-high reps. Rather, I'm suggesting mega-high reps to supplement heavy lifting.

Muscular Endurance

One of the main benefits of super-high reps is an increase in muscle endurance. Big surprise there, right?

When they compared heavier, lower reps (3 x 6-8 RM) and lighter, high reps (1 x 100-150 RM), Anderson and Kearney found that the first group (heavy) had a decrease of 7% in relative endurance while the high-rep group had an increase of 28%.

If you're involved in sports requiring muscular endurance (soccer, hockey, mid-distance running etc.) then mega-high reps might be helpful. And you only need to do one set to get great results.

These results would indicate changes in either the vascular system (increase in the number of capillaries shuttling blood to and from the muscles) or in the mitochondria. Both can be desirable to improve workout performance – being able to recover faster between sets and perform at a higher level – and recovery between sessions due to better blood flow to the injured muscles.

Tendon Thickness

According to Thomas Kurz in "Science of Sports Training," very high-rep sets can increase tendon thickness and resiliency. This not only greatly reduces the risk of injuries, it can even increase strength and power over time.

Thicker tendons will store more energy and have a stronger stretch reflex, helping you in explosive movements. The thicker tendons also "tell" the brain that you're less likely to tear something when lifting heavy. When the body feels secure, it allows you to use a greater proportion of your strength potential. Thicker tendons lead to less active Golgi tendon organs and less inhibition under heavy loads.

Not surprisingly, Louie Simmons uses a lot of very high rep work in the training of his powerlifters (mostly done with bands or sleds).

Leg Press

Mega-High Reps: The Bad

If you look at the Cameron study, you'll find that while muscle growth was the same in the 3 sets of 30% group and the 3 sets of 80% group, the strength gains were approximately half as good in the 30% group.

This is in line with the findings of the Anderson and Kearney study, which found that the heavy group had much greater strength gains (20%) than the lighter, high-rep group (5%).

The take-home message is simple: super-high reps by themselves are not an efficient way to gain strength compared to heavier lifting.

That's not surprising. The body adapts to what you ask it to do. Just like the super-high reps lead to greater endurance improvements, the heavier weights lead to more strength gains, partly due to neurological improvements, fiber-specific hypertrophy, and sarcoplasmic verses sarcomere hypertrophy.

At least the super-high reps still gave SOME strength gains, so it's not detrimental to that objective if added to the daily regimen. And remember, by thickening the tendons you might improve your future capacity to get stronger from your heavy work.

Mega-High Reps: The Ugly

I see five potential drawbacks to very high-rep work. I DON'T see the lower strength gains as a drawback because very high reps certainly don't decrease strength and provide other benefits, like size gains. A drawback is something that takes away from your workout.

These drawbacks are:

  1. It's boring. Don't dismiss boredom when it comes to workout quality. While some people do have the capacity to turn on the "machine" at will, most people aren't like that. If it affects your daily motivation, boredom can affect your gains by reducing overall focus and effort, even if it's subconscious.
  2. Developing bad technique. When you do super-high reps, you want to go fast and don't really think about proper technique. In fact, quality of movement is inversely proportional to the number of times you have to do said movement in a set. Also, when you do 100 reps, fatigue will set in which also affects mechanics.

    Further, if you reach a state of oxygen debt (can't catch your breath), the area of the brain responsible for motor programming will run out of oxygen. Movement quality and coordination will suffer. That's why, even though super-high rep squatting feats look awesome, I believe that using machine work is the better option. Hence the leg press and not the barbell squat.
  3. It can tax your workout. Doing 100 reps on the leg press prior to an upper-body workout shouldn't affect performance. But if you do it with any kind of intensity prior to squatting, your performance will suffer. In that case, it's not a good investment. (I'll present several options on how to use the high-rep leg press below.)
  4. It could increase cortisol. Cortisol increases as you do more volume. Adding 100 reps of leg presses, even with light load, can increase cortisol and it might require adjusting the rest of your workout to compensate.

Don't freak out. No method is perfect. It's just a matter of understanding these drawbacks and the potential benefits so that you know when to use a method and what adjustments to make to your training.

Applications of the 100-Rep Leg Press

Originally, we talked about using it at the beginning of every workout for a training block of around four weeks to unlock your leg development. That's the most extreme application for bodybuilding purposes.

But it's not the only way of using the method... and possibly not the most useful. It will be very effective if your lower body is severely lacking and you need to focus on your legs by improving the mind-muscle connection.

Doing it two to three times per week in certain training phases can also be useful for athletes requiring strength-endurance.

But my favorite way of using it is at the end of lower body-workouts. This is similar to my HSS-100 program where you ended each workout with one set of 100 reps for the muscle you focused on that session. If you train your legs twice per week for example, you'd do 100 reps on the leg press at the end of both workouts.

This approach won't negatively affect the rest of your workout. Doing a 100-rep set at the beginning of a leg workout is sure to decrease performance for that session. But if you do it last, all the heavy work is already done.

The benefits of this approach are:

1. An increase in lactate accumulation.

Lactate could have a potential anabolic effect by increasing follistatin which inhibits myostatin. Remember, myostatin is a myokine released by the muscle that limits how much muscle your body allows you to build. The more myostatin, the less muscle you can build.

Follistatin is a binding protein that inhibits myostatin. The more follistatin you have, the less active myostatin is, the more muscle your body will allow you to build and carry around.

By increasing follistatin production, lactate could be helpful when it comes to gaining muscle. It might not be a huge factor though. Maybe it'll only have a measurable impact in the longer term.

2. The release of local growth factors.

The combination of lactate and hypoxia (lack of oxygen in a muscle) leads to the release of IGF-1, one of the most anabolic hormones in the body. Very high-rep leg presses can trigger that release.

3. Increasing blood flow to the muscle.

Those elements, by themselves, won't have a huge impact on growth. The main stimulus for growth remains the mechanical loading of the recruited muscle fibers. But the metabolic and hormonal elements can increase the anabolic response to the mechanical loading.

By doing high reps at the end of the workout, when the mechanical stimulus has already been applied, you can amplify the growth signal.

Another benefit is that very high-rep work can increase growth stimulus in the slow twitch fibers. If you do it by itself, it won't result in huge growth because the most growth-prone fibers (fast twitch) won't be maximally stimulated. But if you stimulate the fast-twitch fibers with heavier lifting and THEN add the slow-twitch stimulus, you can get a slightly greater growth stimulus.

Can I Do It With Other Exercises?

As noted above, I don't like using free weights with this method (because of technique degradation and engraining bad motor patterns.) You could use the method on the hack squat machine or other lower-body compound machines.

The one free-weight movement that I'd consider is the landmine squat. While it's a free-weight exercise, the potential for technique degradation is much lower because the bar fixes your movement path quite a bit. For example, you can't lean forward, which is the biggest technical issue that comes with fatigue in a squat.

Here's former Raiders tight end John Madsen performing a 100-rep landmine squat:

One last alternative, the lowest stress option, is Prowler pushing. To get a similar training effect, you'd have to take 200 steps with the sled (100 per leg) which means 150-200 meters depending on your stride length. You'd use a fairly light weight and a walking speed, not sprinting. You don't want your lungs to give out before your legs.

Loading and Progression of 100-Rep Leg Presses

Most people should start with the empty sled and gradually work their way up. Metabolic adaptations are fairly rapid, and you might surprise yourself with how heavy you can eventually go if you stick to this approach.

While you probably won't reach the 80% level like Hayden, shooting for 30-40% is a realistic target after a few weeks. Don't add more plates until you can do your current load unbroken without pauses.

Summary

The super-high rep approach for the lower body can work and improve muscle growth. It shines the most when used in conjunction with heavier work. In that case, it will augment the growth response. I don't see it as a stand-alone method, however.

For performance improvement, it can be useful for athletes involved in sports where you need strength-endurance in the legs, including CrossFit. Once again, mostly as an auxiliary method.

It can also develop the tendons which can increase your future strength gains and protect you against injuries.

It's not a fun method. A lot of people will look for reasons not to do it. They'll argue that it's a stupid method so they'll feel less bad about not giving it a go. But if used right, it could be the add-on that you've been looking for to give your training and gains a spark.

Related:  Want Bigger Quads? Do High Reps

Related:  The 2-Minute Leg Press

References

  1. Burd NA, West DWD, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, et al. (2010) Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men. PLoS ONE 5(8)
  2. Tim Anderson & Jay T. Kearney (1982) Effects of Three Resistance Training Programs on Muscular Strength And Absolute and Relative Endurance, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 53:1, 1-7, DOI
  3. Kurz, T. Science of Sports Training 2nd edition. Stadion Publishing Company, Inc. 2016
  4. Oishi Y., Tsukamoto H., Yokokawa T., Hirotsu K., Shimazu M., Uchida K., Tomi H., Higashida K., Iwanaka N., Hashimoto T. Mixed lactate and caffeine compound increases satellite cell activity and anabolic signals for muscle hypertrophy. J. Appl. Physiol. 2015;118:742-749