We have all heard it before. "You have to lift big to get big." How many times have you heard someone tell you to squat heavy for huge legs, dead lift heavy for a big back, or bench press heavy for a big chest. Probably countless time! Building a foundation of strength is absolutely important and is the first thing you should do in your fitness journey....but after the beginner gains, it's time to be more specific to your craft. Do you want to get bigger, stronger, or faster? Of course you can be a jack of all trades, but is it worth being a master of none? When it comes to building as much muscle as possible (especially for natural athletes) you need to specify what your goal is and go after it!
I recently went back to bodybuilding (mass building) styled work outs after battling a year and a half old spinal fracture. I decided that I needed to take it easy on my bones, joint, ligaments, and tendons, and to focus more on taxing the muscles. During the time of switching back from powerlifting to bodybuilding styled work outs (I started my fitness journey doing bodybuilding work outs then eventually got heavily into powerlifting), I looked back at some of the exercises, splits, repetition ranges, and set counts that I did in the past during the time I was at my heaviest (lean body mass wise). I noticed that I was doing far more sets and far higher repetitions. I also noticed that I used exercises that extended the range of motion, rather than barbell exercises that are limited by the bar touching your chest (such as during rows and bench press). Exercise selection aside, I could tell (and continue to tell) great progress with 20 repetition sets. In this article I explain the reasons why you should be doing 20 repetition sets and the benefits of 20 repetition sets.
Better Strength/Mass Improvement
After doing some web surfing, I found two articles that caught my attention. There was one discussing subjects who did high repetition sets to failure after their heavy sets gained more strength and muscle than those who did strictly heavy sets. Then another discussing both 10 sets of 8 and 10 sets of 36 stimulating hypertrophy.
These studies conclude not only does high repetition training produce hypertrophy, but high repetition sets improve strength and hypertrophy better than if you only performed heavy sets of lower repetitions.
One of the things I had realized between going through both powerlifting and bodybuilding styled routines, was that the higher repetitions taxed my muscles more and the muscles themselves were the limiting factor for missed repetitions WITHOUT OTHER MUSCLES TAKING OVER DUE TO FORM BREAKDOWN. Lower repetition training taxed my nervous system more than the higher repetition training and higher repetition training taxed my muscles more than lower repetition training. Higher repetitions allow the target muscles to be taken closer to failure without the extra taxation of the nervous system and even other muscles that would be taxed during heavier loads.
Studies have shown that more volume (within reason) produces better strength and hypertrophy results. When doing sets of 20 repetitions, it is much easier to get in more volume than it is 10 repetitions. Of course the load used will have to be pretty close in intensity in order to make a fair comparison between the results of 10 and 20 repetitions.
When performing high repetition sets, more blood flows within the muscles and transports more nutrients to the given muscles that are being worked. On lighter days (or recovery days) higher repetitions are used to provide blood flow and activity recovery for the body and has been shown to produce better results than just performing your heavier sessions.
The last reason to use 20 repetition sets is because....well....they're f***ing difficult! They don't speak so highly yet bitter about the "20 repetition squat routine" for no reason. Doing sets of 20 with compound movement, hurts, makes you cramp, and with full-body movements can leave you absolutely winded. Your mind will quit before your body is even close to failing.
20 repetition sets, let alone high repetition sets, are not just for single mother's who do pilates on the weekend. 20 repetition sets can be a valid tool in your tool-box of bodybuilding methods. Does this mean you should not train heavy? No! This just means that 20 repetition sets have a place in everyone's training. Bodybuilders use burn out high repetition sets and for stubborn msucle groups, powerlifters use high repetition GPP (general physical preparedness) work and accessory work, and plenty of sprinters run more than 20 strides.
The only way you will know if it works for you is if you try it yourself. Try doing 20 repetitions for your accessory work for the next months and record the results.
Let me know in the comments about your experience with high repetition sets and if you continue to use them in your training.
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