In Part 1 of this series I discussed functional hypertrophy, which refers to muscle growth that improves maximal force production and non-functional hypertrophy, which refers to gains in muscle size that are not related to an improved capacity to generate force. In Part 2 I continued that discussion and got into more detail so that the difference (if there is any) between functional and non-functional hypertrophy began to become clearer. In Part 3 I looked at rep ranges and fiber sub types and their relation to hypertrophy. Today I would like to continue to look at rep ranges and other factors and misconceptions regarding functional and non-functional muscle and strength.
When we left off last week I basically outlined that genetics play a much larger role in muscle size and density than does rep ranges. So what value do rep ranges then have for us if we are already genetically programmed to develop as we will regardless of our approach and how does this relate to functional hypertrophy? Regardless of our goals, functional hypertrophy is the most sought after muscle. It’s great to be storing loads of glycogen and sarcoplasm, especially seeing as both play such a valuable role in contractions and muscle growth, but when you get right down to it we all want to be not only big but strong and mobile too. As someone I used to train with termed it: dangerous. We want to be more than just something to pretty look at (at least the majority of us do anyway).
This end goal is not as related to rep range as you may believe. It can be summed up by saying that how you train is just as important as what your rep range is. If you do nothing but lift heavy and very little else then you’ll be strong as hell, but have very little endurance or mobility. This doesn’t translate into much other than being good at the lifts you perform. If you lift heavy as well as vary your rep range, engage in the more complicated Olympic lifts, vary your lifts regularly, do HIIT and different forms of cardio and eat and recover to support all this, then you will be the complete package. In short, you will be dangerous.
This is the very essence of functional hypertrophy. One could argue that the powerlifter who trains only in the low rep ranges has more functional strength than the lifter who does it all, and on one hand you would be correct. That functional strength that the powerlifter possesses did not make them faster, more mobile, more flexible or more capable to do more work. The lifter who does it all has accomplished all of the above. Which one is more functional, regardless of glycogen storage or sarcoplasmic volume?
If you train using the progressive resistance model, as we all do, then you can build functional and dense muscle training anywhere between 1 rep or 20 reps. The key is that you are varying your rep ranges and the cumulative volume will produce the necessary fatigue that will signal the need for new tissue to be built. Something worthy of consideration is how certain muscle groups respond to rep range. The lower body, in particular the quadriceps and calf muscles, thrive on high rep training. The upper body tends to grow best using lower reps. Thinking about this in practical terms makes this become crystal clear. The lower body is used for movement and therefore will need to have a large endurance component, hence the results that come from 20 rep sets on the leg press or in the squat rack. The upper body would be used more for finer movements such as using tools or foraging for food but when called upon sheer muscular strength will be what is needed. You aren’t using your upper body to walk, but you will need it to move that heavy rock or rip that tree stump from the ground. These activities require strength but not endurance. This is why the upper body responds so well to lower rep training, however, reps ranging from 20 to 3 have shown to have the same effect on protein synthesis(1). The benefit of training the upper body in the higher rep ranges is the non functional growth that will occur due to the energy demands that will result in larger glycogen and sarcoplasmic fluid stores.
As has been covered the world over, the ideal rep range for hypertrophy is that which uses 80 to 85 percent of your one rep max and for most this translates into somewhere between 6 to 8 reps. This load will allow for full muscular recruitment from the first rep and enough reps to ensure the appropriate amount of fatigue. The benefits of higher reps, however, are the lesser demands and stress on the joints.
This series and my how do muscles grow series has explained all that we need to know in order to build muscle, or so it would seem. Next I want to tackle a question I asked in a recent round table and that was is training to failure necessary in order to build muscle? I said yes, it was, but have since looked into that question more in-depth and I have much to report. Until next time my friends,
(1) Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones.Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Nov;88(1-2):50-60. Epub 2002 Aug 15.
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