In this article, I’m going to be covering a few misconceptions when it comes to “strength” training and in doing so I’ll also be providing some evidence alongside my own personal recommendations as to why most people should train with a variety of rep ranges.
So first, what do people generally mean when they use the term “strength training”?
I think most people would typically give examples of strength training somewhat in comparison to Powerlifting. That being, lifting (huge) maximal weights for 1 repetition. Of course, that is one form of strength. However, strength comes in many forms, as does strength training.
We have; maximal strength, speed strength, strength speed, explosive strength, strength endurance, starting strength and many other forms of strength. Strength (in the general basis of muscular strength) is simply the ability to produce force against external resistance.
People often get caught up in the dogmatic rep ranges that are promoted for certain aspects e.g. do 1-5 reps for strength, 6-12 for hypertrophy (size) and 15+ for endurance. While these rep ranges hold true to some extent, utilizing all rep ranges in your training will only benefit you. Furthermore, you can gain size and strength with any rep range, although to what extent will definitely vary.
So while performing a 300kg squat for 1 rep is definitely strong, hitting a 20 rep set with 180kg is also undoubtedly a feat of strength, is it not? If you bring your 10 rep max on a lift from 100kg to 110kg, then haven’t you gained strength? If you reduce your 100m sprint time then surely you’ll be more explosive and therefore stronger, no? If two guys clean & jerk 140kg for a 1 rep max who’s stronger? By usual standards they’re equal in strength, however, I’d say the person who performed the lift faster was stronger, and this goes for all lifts. If two people squat 200kg for 1 rep but one guy does it 2 seconds faster then he, in my opinion, is stronger.
Progressing from this we have something known as absolute strength and relative strength. Absolute strength is exactly what it sounds like and could be considered the maximum amount of force one can exert. Relative strength, however, is your strength level in comparison to your overall bodyweight. For example, take two lifters weighing 80kg and 120kg, they both squat 160kg for a single rep. The 80kg lifter, therefore, has greater relative strength as he/she is lifting double their bodyweight whereas the 120kg lifter is lifting 1.5x their bodyweight, but their absolute strength is equal.
There’s an old story floating around which I feel demonstrates differences in strength perfectly, and that is the showdown between Fred Hatfield (also known as Dr. Squat) and Tom Platz who arguably had the best legs of all time in the bodybuilding world. Fred was a powerlifter and Tom a bodybuilder. They faced off with a 1RM squat and a submaximal squat for reps. Fred won the 1RM squat with 855lbs (roughly 388kg) compared to Toms 765lbs (around 347kg). Tom won the squat for reps, though, as he squatted 525lbs/235kg 23 times, compared to Freds 11 reps. So who is stronger? Neither, shit both! They are both strong as fuck! Fred had a greater maximal strength and Tom had more strength endurance.
Now before I finish off I want to reference Dr. Ken Lestiner, who wrote:
“I am fond of telling doubting trainees that it’s just a matter of always adding weight to the bar, adding another repetition, “If you could get to the point where you’re squatting 400lbs for 20 reps, stiff-legged deadlifting 400 lbs for 15 reps, curling 200lbs for 10 reps, pressing 200lbs for 10 reps, doing 10 dips with 300 lbs around your waist, and chinning with 100 pounds, don’t you think you would be big – I mean awfully big? And strong?” Obviously!
More often than not, strength and size are related, as in you can’t achieve one without the other. There are various exceptions to this, however for the most part as Dr. Lestiner states, it is just a matter of adding weight to the “bar”.
Furthermore, in relation to my field or chosen sport, Strongman, you can’t have any weak links. Competitions vary a great deal so each Strongman/Strongwoman athlete requires speed, explosiveness, strength endurance, maximal strength and so much more, so they must train through a wide variety of rep ranges. Similarly, Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters do not solely train the squat, bench and deadlift and snatch and clean & jerk respectively by hitting 1 rep maxes every session. All athletes will periodize their training and they will utilize assistance lifts/movements to help strengthen weak areas and improve their main lifts, as that is the main goal. Everything a Powerlifter does works towards improving their squat, bench and deadlift, whether it be lower rep strength work to higher rep isolation work.
Over the past few years, I’ve become really fond of “rep PRs”, which is exactly how it sounds. You set yourself targets for certain lifts and variations of those lifts (compound lifts, nobody gives a shit about how much you can side raise for 5 reps, that’s just dumb). So you could take the bench press and some of its variations (such as the paused bench, close grip bench, pin press, axle bench etc) and set targets for say a 1,2,3,5,8 and 10 rep maxes. With this, you could use any rep range you want and if your RMs increase then you’ve gotten stronger in some regard. In a sense, this is a form of undulating periodization, of which I’ve seen a fair bit of research on comparing it to linear periodization, with results being very similar. However, in my opinion, undulating periodization is just a lot more fun.
My concluding advice (especially to newbies) is to start light and progress slowly. Don’t get caught up in specific rep ranges, there are many ways to monitor your progress, such as increasing your strength across various rep ranges (obviously), increasing how fast you perform each lift and doing more work in less time (increasing density). To finish I’m going to provide a little example template for the average lifter which should hopefully give you an idea of how I would approach certain movements and the rep ranges I’d use:
1st Exercise – Your main strength movement. This should be a big compound movement like a squat, bench press, deadlift or overhead press variation. Typically I’d recommend 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.
2nd Exercise – This varies depending on your goal/feel. This would either be your main movement again for greater reps (say 3-5 sets of 8-20) or a slight variation of your main lift that targets your weakest area of that lift. For example, if you’re weak off the floor in the deadlift then try deficit deadlifts for 3 sets of 6-10 reps.
3rd Exercise(s) – This could be a number of accessory exercises (possibly 1-3) and would usually be performed with relatively light weights for higher repetitions.You can use either compound of isolation movements here for around 20-30 total reps (3×10 is ideal, as is 12,10,8). Taking the previous deadlift example of the deadlift I’d throw in any exercise that would help strengthen the muscles used in the deadlift, so the hamstrings, quads, glutes, lats, traps, erectors etc.
4th Exercise – Some type of core work. A type of anti-extension, anti-rotation or anti lateral flexion movement for 3 sets of 10 reps.
So as stated, this is a general nonspecific template that I feel most lifters could use effectively.
Lift Strong And Conquer!