A question that is on so many people's minds is – what is the best rep range to use in order to build more muscle? Fact is, most of us do 8 to 12 reps for each set to gain maximum growth.
Neverheless, using heavier weights and less reps can build as much muscle, providing of course there is sufficient volume. You'll not add much mass with 3 sets of 3 reps, but you will if you perform 10 sets of 3 reps.
Another question then is – high rep training – can it help you realize just as much muscle?
There comes a time when the joints need a rest and the muscles require a different type of stimulus to achieve more growth.
That said, high rep training can help you to accomplish this, providing that you stick to the four steps given below:
1. Each set should reach failure
Personally, I'm not much of a fan of training to the point of failure. When you use light weights, you should take each set to the point of failure. When training with heavier loads and working 4 to 6 reps max for example, you do not need to hit failure because the load is already working your most muscle groups.
For muscle growth to occur, you need to fatigue those muscles. If you can in fact achieve 25 push-ups but you choose to stop at 20 reps only, your muscles will not be damaged enough to achieve growth. Research carried out in 2010 concluded that when training with light loads (30% of max) it can actually bring about the same level of muscle protein synthesis (and then growth) as when training with heavier loads (90% of max). But you do need to reach the point of failure with the high rep sets.
There's some confusion about what training to failure actually means. My own definition goes like this: if you can not achieve a full range of motion rep and maintain perfect form while doing so, then you've reached the point of failure. It should go without saying – do not try to keep pushing beyond that point because that's when injuries occur.
2. Higher rep training and choosing the correct exercises
There are some strength exercises which should not be taken to the point of failure – deadlift, squat, Olympic lifts, just for example. The potential benefits of taking any of those exercises to the point of failure are greatly outweighed by the risks. As a general rule of thumb, it's wise to focus on upper body lifts and single lower leg body exercises when doing high rep training to the point of failure.
I've a few exercises that I really like doing while I'm using high reps and training to failure: pull-ups, push-ups, handstand push-ups, standing calf raises, single-leg hip thrusts, and lunges.
3. Going too light
If you go too light, you're not going to add any muscle mass. In simple terms, when using light weights you will not be able to fatigue the muscle tissue in order to achieve any noticeable levels of growth.
The general rule should there before be something like this – for your first high set rep, go for loads that will allow you to achieve 20 to 30 reps. If you can easily shoot past the 30 rep mark, then you're not using enough weight.
4. Getting the most from each rep
Speed and tension that you develop within each rep when training with lighter loads is extremely important. If you slow down on the concentric phase (muscle shortening), you are surely allowing the larger muscle units to go unused. When you reach peak contracting on an exercise, you should then squeeze briefly to gain that extra muscle tension. The extra tension improves muscle growth simply because you are recruiting all the more muscle units.
The bottom line then is – the shortening phase needs to be fast and should be followed up with an intense albeit brief squeeze of the muscle. Then move on to the lengthening phase (eccentric) and maintain control throughout.