If you're after muscular development, strength, and function, then you're going to have to tailor your approach and break away from the generic "3 sets of 10 for everything" approach. It's important to think about the nature of our muscle fiber types and their distribution.
We have fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers throughout our body. And different people have a different balance of each type, depending on their genetics. We can think about the roles and requirements of our muscles by body region and make an educated guess on whether they'd be more fast-twitch dominant or more slow-twitch dominant.
For instance, muscles of the hands, hips, pecs, and shoulders are often asked to perform quicker, explosive activities, but they also fatigue fairly quickly compared to other groups. So it's safe to say they have higher distributions of fast twitch fibers. Training them heavily or explosively in various ways can cater to their strengths and needs.
Upper Back: 10-Plus Reps
You can't overtrain your upper back. The benefits of training the upper back and scapular muscles as often as possible far outweigh the disadvantages.
The muscles of the mid and upper back are responsible for keeping the spine erect, pulling the shoulders back, and fulfilling these postural demands all day long. On a basic level, it would make sense to believe they're more slow twitch dominant, especially compared to other muscles of the body.
That's one reason they tend to have a higher resilience and better recovery time, fatigue less quickly, and can take a higher weekly training volume compared to a muscle group like the chest or hamstrings.
We should also cater to these strengths in the name of development and performance and train the upper back for high reps. There's never really any need to do fewer than 10 reps, with the exception of pull-ups and deadlifts (if you want to view deadlifts as a back exercise).
Row variations, pulldowns, reverse flyes, single-arm pulls, and everything in between get a prescription ranging from "10 reps" all the way up to "max reps."
Quad Isolation: 12-20 reps
The world of sports gives compelling examples that high-lactate and high-rep quad training can produce excellent development. Speed skaters, skiers, and cyclists all have one thing in common: Their sports all involve bouts of effort that go beyond a short 10-15 second burst. They use varying degrees of extensive amounts of time under tension and most athletes in each discipline have impressive legs to show for it.
The SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle states that if you repeatedly place a demand on a muscle group, it'll grow bigger and stronger to accommodate that demand. Of course, these big-legged athletes also use heavy weight training as part of the program, but bodybuilders would do well to emulate them by upping the reps while training quads.
That means foregoing the paltry sets of 8 when using the leg extension machine or when going duck footed on the leg press or hack squat. Chase a pump with 12 to 20 reps and you'll see the gains. This video shows Tom Platz and John Meadows clearly putting this idea to practice.
Chest and Shoulders: Mix it Up
This is where intuition comes into the mix. "Bigger" isolation movements like dumbbell bench presses and shoulder presses require going pretty heavy, and keeping reps between 6 and 10 makes sense.
Accessory movements like chest flyes, shoulder lateral raises, front raises, and cable grips should be treated as "pump" exercises. So gunning for double digits is the way to go, especially since the point of all of those movements is mainly cosmetic and much less for function and performance-based gains.
Big Compound Lifts: 1-6 Reps
When we're talking primal movement patterns like deadlifts, squats, presses, and more, we should take advantage of the fact that we can load them up significantly more than many other movements. They'll serve as the foundation of our strength. And due to the compound, multi-joint nature of each movement, you'll get great benefits from going heavy.
But that doesn't mean you have to hit heavy triples every time you enter the squat cage. You should, however, use sets of 6 or fewer reps for these movements simply because of the fact that the larger the movement, the more room for technical error.
Even if you're squatting far below your max, the implement you're using will likely be that much heavier than that used with many other training methods. Relying on your coordination becomes a bigger deal, and you're simultaneously at greater risk while setting yourself up for bigger gains by selecting such exercises in the first place.
Here are the guidelines for the big stuff:
- Focus on quality over weight lifted, especially as you tack on years of training experience. This will become invaluable to your health, true strength, and recovery. Control your eccentrics (negatives) and learn to kill momentum, using perfect form on every rep.
- When it's time to lift lighter, it doesn't mean you need to do sets of 15-20 to compensate. Keep the rep range in the same area, and just add volume to your workout. Do more sets and cut your rest time to get the same conditioning benefits while maintaining quality. Where these big lifts are concerned, 4 sets of 5 with short breaks can be just as effective as 1 set of 20.
- When it's time to test your max, adjust the percentages of your PR's to be based on what you can lift with the strict, slow tempo that kills your momentum. If you can reach your "old" PR's using that technique, you're a true rock star, no matter what those old numbers were.
For instance, if my best triple back squat done at regular speed and taking advantage of the stretch reflex was 405, but I could only do 335 when using a 4-second negative and pause for the same triple, I'd use 335 as my new gauge. Working my way back up to 405 using those same parameters would make me super strong.
Take This How You May
For the record, none of this means that you're going to crash and burn the second you do a set of barbell squats for 12 reps, or a set of pulldowns or leg extensions for 8.
It often depends on the individual, and there'll always be that one guy, the anomaly, who gets bigger triceps whenever he adds something seemingly unrelated, like calf raises, into his routine.
I can't diagnose everyone's neurology and physiology from my seat, but if you've been struggling to see gains in the gym, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look, not at how you're lifting, but how many reps you're doing per lift.