Years ago I saw strongman competitor Derek Poundstone doing 100-rep work and asked him why he was doing it. One of his main reasons? Mental toughness.
Different kinds of work in the gym require different mindsets. A 20-rep set of squats – with a maximum load for that rep range – is brutally hard. It requires mental and physical toughness.
Ultra high-rep work (50 reps and up) is no different. It requires a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude and mental strength to lock yourself into that set and see the whole thing through. And this type of brutality works great as a finisher.
Most guys who complain about a lack of progress just don't train hard enough to make any program work. That's why they gravitate towards the "volume" approach. They'll do a whole bunch of sets with a bunch of reps left in reserve. This isn't hard training; it's "junk volume" and it sure as hell isn't going to drive growth or strength gains.
At some point you have to train hard enough to force your body to adapt. You have to apply stress to the muscle. There's literally no way around it. To get past a plateau, you have to train harder than you've ever trained before. Ultra high-rep work is one tool to help you do just that.
It's not just about the mental toughness. Here's what else it can do:
High reps create quite the pump. And bodybuilders have been using the pump for a long time. It's not just a fleeting cosmetic effect, it's a tool for muscle growth.
Metabolic stress, due to an increase in cellular swelling and potential for additional motor unit recruitment (through metabolic acidosis), can be a driver for muscle growth. Metabolic stress may increase growth hormone as well through the increased lactate response. High-rep work, done properly, is the driver for metabolite accumulation.
This stands for "excess post-exercise oxygen consumption" and has been called the "after burn" effect. If you train really hard, you increase the thermic effect of activity, especially when that activity is more anaerobically driven like sprints or hard lifting.
EPOC is referring to the uptake of oxygen above your resting levels after you've completed the workout. An increase in oxygen consumption has an energy requirement, so this means you're still burning calories at an elevated rate after the training session is over.
Very high rep work is a great way to induce some EPOC and achieve that energy-burning effect after you leave the gym. While the "after burn" of high intensity interval training (or a really intense lifting session) is a bit overstated in terms of post-training caloric expenditure, it's still a benefit.
Joint Pain Relief
While this may not be scientifically proven, over the last several years I've had a tremendous amount of people express to me how very high-rep empty barbell curls alleviated their constant and nagging elbow pain when everything else they'd tried had failed.
I've considered the obvious, like an increase in blood flow moving excess inflammation out of a joint or connective tissue. Or simply strengthening the forearm flexors and extensors in a more balanced way. The point is, if the root of your elbow pain exists between the elbow and wrist, this may alleviate some of that achiness.
Now let's get into the nuts and bolts of ultra high-rep work.
Your goal: Shoot for all 50 reps in one set. Can't do it? Then break them up into rest/pause sets. In this case, complete the reps using one of these approaches:
- Do as many reps as possible. Take 10 deep breaths and go again. Repeat this until all 50 reps are done.
- Break up the 50 reps into 2 sets of 25 reps with 30 seconds rest between.
But remember, the goal is to get all 50 in one shot. Now notice that there are loading options for most of these. Why? Because not everyone is at the same strength or strength endurance level. It also allows for a bit of progression and some goal setting.
Some lifters will need to use an empty 45-pound bar for these; others may need to slap on some baby plates and use 50-65 pounds. If your soul is still intact after 50 reps, add weight.
Behind the Neck Press
Use a 65-95-pound loaded barbell. Seated or standing is fine. We're working shoulders in metabolic stress fashion – that's the main point. If you're truly beastly, you could do the Bradford press, with the bar just barely skimming the top of your head on the crossover. But that would be absolutely torturous. Excellent. I'll allow it.
For those who'll quip about the behind-the-neck press and shoulder impingement, then do them in front of the neck. Or fix your shoulder mobility.
Find a dumbbell that's a quarter of your bodyweight. So if you weigh 200 pounds, that'd be a 50-pound dumbbell (or kettlebell).
Now do goblet squats for 50 reps. This can be a "broken" set. You can stand and catch your breath as needed, but you can't put the dumbbell down or sit.
If you're truly sadistic, do these in pump/piston rep style where you don't lock out. Those will hurt a lot and increase the metabolites a hell of a lot faster than doing full-range reps with a lot of breaks during the set.
Feet Elevated Push-Ups
I prefer these over standard push-ups because you're going to bias the clavicular pec more. Plus they're harder than standard push-ups. I don't include an easier option here, but I'm not the Stalin of the gym world either. No one can stop you from doing an easier push-up version.
Now, when most people start lifting they naturally gravitate towards the flat bench press and place far less of an emphasis on incline and upper pec work. Even if they naturally aren't inclined to have great upper pec development, it's still a great idea to emphasize it more due to the sternal pecs getting biased more often in other exercise selections. So do this version and just work towards the 50 reps.
This will blast the entire upper back and rear delts. There are, in fact, two versions. I'll allow both because I'm nice like that.
The hardest version is the one where your legs are propped up on something, so you're rowing a larger percentage of your bodyweight. The other version is where your feet are on the floor and you're rowing a smaller percentage of your bodyweight, and probably getting a slight amount of assistance from your legs as well.
You could actually use a mechanical drop set here: Start with your feet up, then move to feet planted to eke out the remaining reps.
Since these are finishers they're meant to be done at the end of the workout. You'll probably want to use these on the days that you train the muscle groups they're hitting.
But you could use them as the "pump" work for that muscle even if they weren't directly targeted from the previous movements. So let's say you trained chest, shoulders, and triceps heavy that day. You might finish up with the goblet squats as pump work for the legs.
The other option would be training three times a week. You could hit the upper body heavy on one day, the lower body heavy on the other, and then use all of these as a third workout session for the week. That's a pretty sweet option. It could look something like this...
Monday: Upper Body
- Chest Press Variation: 1 set x 6-8 reps, 1 set x 12-15 reps
- Flye Variation: 2 sets x 8-10 reps
- Vertical Pull: 1 set x 6-8 reps, 1 set x 12-15 reps
- Horizontal Pull: 1 set x 6-8 reps, 1 set x 12-15 reps
Wednesday: Lower Body
- Squat Variation or Leg Press: 1 set x 8-10 reps, 1 set x 15-20 reps
- RDL/Leg Curl (alternate week to week): 2 sets x 8-10 reps
- Lunge Variation: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
- Calf Raise: 2 sets x 10-15 reps
Friday: Whole Body (One set of each exercise)
- 50-Rep Goblet Squat
- 50-Rep Feet Elevated Push-Up
- 50-Rep Bodyweight Row
- 50-Rep Shoulder Press
- 50-Rep Curl
However you decide to use these is up to you. Just don't complain about the loading selection or the pain involved. This lifting weights thing was never supposed to be easy, or for the weak willed.