Exercise Selection and Repetition Ranges

What exercises should you do and how many reps should you aim for?

Some of the most basic questions in training are: what exercise should I do? And for how many reps should I go? At first glance they have little in common, but if you take a closer look, they are tightly related to eachother. What exercise do you choose, and does it even matter?

There are training programs, that allow you to choose from a wide selection of exercises. For example you could find a program that calls for “4×10 repetitions of any quadriceps dominant leg exercise”.

This kind of program leaves a lot of freedom for you to customize, which is always a nice thing. You are not forced into any movement as is often the case with cookie cutter programs. But there are some points to consider before choosing your exercise:

Risk of Injury

There are some movements, that are not appropriate for heavy weights because the risk of injury is too high with higher intensities. For example doing lateral raises with your 3 rep max will be very hard on your shoulder joints and probably result in injury. The same is true for dumbbell flyes: just a small mistake in exercise execution can put tremendous forces on your pecs and result in muscle injury.

As you can see, most isolation movements are best suited for lower weights and higher repetitions. High intensities are often trained best with compound movements as they allow synergistic muscles to work together and spread out the resulting forces. Regarding the examples above: if you want a movement for your delts that uses higher weights, barbell overhead pressing would be much more appropriate. Switching to this exercise will allow your traps and triceps to help moving the bar.

You may ask yourself now if compound movements are in general a better idea, even when using higher rep ranges. Using higher reps for compound lifts imposes other problems:

Supporting Muscle Endurance Limits

An easy example for this is the squat: you want to target your quads with squatting, but are you really able to squeeze the most out of your legs before your spinal erectors (the back) give out? Most likely your technique will degrade long before you maximally stimulated your targeted musculature, which is always a bad thing. Or you just aren’t able to perform more reps and have to end the set before your target muscle had to really work.

Cardiovascular Endurance Limits

Most compound lifts, by definition, involve your entire body to some degree. This is what makes them so useful, but also very taxing for your cardiovascular system. Doing 30 reps of biceps curls is one thing, but doing 30 reps of barbell squats is another beast. Not that high rep squats couldn’t be useful to build your legs, but they will leave you on the floor, gasping for air, never wanting to do this again. You have to pause between reps, just to be able to breathe again, making a straight set more of a cluster set, which changes the exercise completely.

To sum it up

Use heavy weights for compound movements and lighter weights for your isolation work unless you have a really good reason not to do so. But even if you do, always try to minimize risk of injury!

Train hard and safe, stay with it and grow!

Leave a comment below if you have questions or thoughts regarding the topic that you would like to share with me.

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