by Greg Merritt (1999)
Bodybuilding has only a tangential relationship with numbers. While three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane was a math teacher, you'll do just fine in most gym arithmetic as long as you can count to 12 or 15 without using an abacus. Calories, as well as fat and protein grams, can be computed with a calculator at home. And while we won't go much beyond the Sesame Street basics in this lesson of workout numbers, it still may seem like new math. Those of you who never go into double-digit reps for any bodypart except calves, abs and forearms (and many of you top out at 15 for those) may want to practice counting to 50, 100 or even more.
High repetition training is not a new development. In the '60s and '70s top physique-men like Sergio Oliva and Serge Nubret were known for going well beyond 10 reps. In the '80s Diana Dennis and John DeFendis were among those of note who sometimes went to 100. Tom Platz was another champ who went as far as he had to go to fully tax his muscles, even it if meant doing 100 consecutive reps - with 225 pounds - of deep squats to further expand his legendary thighs.
Why So Unpopular?
The use of very high repetitions has remained a rare sight in most gyms. There are four principle reasons for this.
First, bodybuilders are creatures of habit. Many find a routine they're comfortable with and stick to it for years, whether or not it continues to generate the desired results. Using high reps is radical compared to using sets of 10, and many trainees are afraid of such a change. For most of us, it's much easier to just do what everyone else is doing.
Second, the poundages utilized must be significantly less than in a "regular" routine. If you've worked years to max out at 405 in the squat, you may be self-conscious about screaming through the final reps with a lowly 185 on the bar.
Third, high reps hurt. During endurance work lactic acid builds up and generates a painful burn. Furthermore, unlike when doing a heavy set, your muscles may be physically capable of completing many additional "light" reps by the time the pain starts to get intense. It then becomes a test of mind over muscles to keep going, to burst through the hurt for rep after rep until physical failure arrives.
Fourth, very high repetitions may halt size gains or even reduce muscle mass. Endurance training typically creates relatively small dense muscles. Of course, this is a scary proposition for many lifters. Few people take up bodybuilding to look like a marathon runner, and the truth is that if you were to spend a year or more on a program made up only of sets of 100 reps you would probably lose muscle mass.
The first three excuses can be easily dismissed. Variety (excuse number one) and pain (excuse number three) can bring about greater growth, and that's the most important thing - regardless of how high-rep training may appear (excuse number two) to others in the gym. The potential for losing muscle mass, however, is a different matter. This is the reddest of all red flags for bodybuilders. The key, therefore, is to utilize ultra0high reps in a limited fashion.
A buzz developed in the late '80s about "hundreds" training: a system of only a few sets (three to five per bodypart) of 100 reps each. Most people don't gain muscle by using this method month after month, year after year. But when used for finite periods, such as three to six weeks twice a year, it can have three positive effects.
First, there is often a growth spurt. Very high reps are a unique stress for most weight trained muscles. For the first week on a hundreds program you may experience soreness and growth. Muscles subsequently have a tendency to store up energy for endurance work and not expand their girth. At that point you may actually lose size. However, when you go back to your old routine - BAM - you may experience the sort of growth period you experienced when you first started training and every exercise was new.
The second benefit of ultra-high reps is somewhat more subjective: muscles seem to show greater detail and shape (whether or not size increases significantly). This effect may be due to the fact that high reps stress more slow-twitch (endurance) fibers. Very high reps also may allow you more time during a set to focus on contractions and forge a greater mind/muscle link. In support of the latter premise, adherents often report an improved pump during and after a month of very high rep training.
Finally, an ultra-rep routine can be a great way to "rest" mild muscle and tendon injuries without truly resting. For example, a front deltoid that aches though heavy or even moderate pressing movements may feel fine when the weights are light and reps are over 50. Indeed, some injuries may be helped by the increased blood flow and the maintenance of muscle tone.
Ultra Isn't Easy
Since endurance weight training is completely foreign to most of you, it may take a few workouts to build up the cardiovascular and muscular fortitude necessary to complete a set of 100 reps. You should start with 20- to 30-rep sets for at least one session for each bodypart, then jump to 50- to 60-reps sets for at least the next session. Then, if you're feeling comfortable and capable you can attempt 100 reps per set in subsequent workouts.
Very high rep training is not an excuse to use light weights for easy sets; quite the contrary. Choose a weight that leads to muscle soreness and ache at about the halfway point, and which makes it seem nearly impossible to reach your target number. Then, go to failure. It may be tempting to cheat toward the end, but maintain proper form throughout. You should stretch properly before commencing, but warmup sets can usually be minimized or eliminated.
When reaching exhaustion in an ultra-rep set (before the 100-rep mark), you can pause for a few seconds in the start position to replenish enough energy to make it to the end. This is easier to do with some exercises (like leg extensions) than others (like chest or shoulder pressing) where any "resting" place is still stressful. Still, if necessary, this can help you to catch a second (or third, or fourth) wind in most cases. An example of an ultra-rep program appears at the end of this article.
Numerologists take note: there is nothing magical about the numbers 50 or 100. Sets of 25-50 reps may accomplish the same results if taken to failure. Also note that there is little danger in starting an ultra-rep program, but beware when returning to your regular workouts. Your body will need time to re-adapt to heavier weights. Warm up properly and use caution when working your way back to your previous poundages.
If you're hesitant to embark on a high-rep program, even limited use of very high repetitions can shock stagnant muscles into new growth. A 100-rep set of squats followed by 100 reps on a leg press machine is almost guaranteed to make complacent quads sore the next day. For thighs that become accustomed to 100 consecutive reps, 300, 500 or 1,000 reps (you read correctly) of no-weight squats (with glutes touching ankles each rep) - the old "deep knee bends" from gym class - are sure to bring on some growth.
Likewise, all bodyparts can be stunned with the occasional use of ultra-high reps. Such a technique can be alternated from area to area, or reserved for particularly stubborn weaknesses. Of course, it's impossible for most mortals to complete more than 20 reps of some exercises, like chins and dips, without a helping hand. Also beware of performing any exercise in which the weight is held in a precarious position without a spotter. You want to be able to go to failure safely, and "light" weights can be as dangerous as heavy ones when muscles give out.
Ultimately, the only bodybuilding calculus that matters is "strenuous exercise + proper nutrition + rest = growth". They may not seem like the schoolhouse basics, but - whether used as a multi-week program or as an infrequent shocking technique - ultra-high reps will certainly help you with the "strenuous" part of the equation. In the end, counting considerably higher than 10 could do wonders for the geometry of your physique.
SAMPLE ULTRA-HIGH REP ROUTINE
Leg Extensions - 1 x 50, 1 x 100
Squats - 1 x 100
Leg Presses - 1 x 100
Hack Squats - 1 x 100
Leg Curls - 1 x 50, 1 x 100
Stiff Legged Deadlifts - 1 x 100
Standing Calf Raises - 2 x 100
Seated Calf Raises - 2 x 100
Hanging Leg Raises - 2 x 50
Situps - 2 x 50
Bench Presses - 1 x 50, 1 x 100
Flyes - 1 x 50
Incline Presses - 1 x 100
Pec Deck Flyes - 1 x 100
Military Presses - 1 x 100
Side Laterals - 1 x 50
Front Raises - 1 x 50
Rear Laterals - 1 x 50
Upright Rows - 1 x 100
Lying Extensions - 1 x 100
Pressdowns - 1 x 100
Overhead Dumbbell Extensions - 1 x 100
Pulldowns - 1 x 50, 1 x 100
Bentover Rows - 1 x 50
Seated Rows - 1 x 100
Pullovers - 1 x 100
Deadlifts - 1 x 50
Hyperextensions - 1 x 50
Barbell Curls - 1 x 100
Dumbbell Curls - 1 x 100
Preacher Curls - 1 x 100
Reverse Curls - 1 x 100
Wrist Curls - 1 x 100