The expert: Izy George, personal trainer, co-f0under of GRNDHOUSE and Women's Health Collective panellist
If you’ve ever turned to Google for intel to help you programme your workouts, you’ll know that search results are a carnival of conflicting information. While some pages sing the praises of sticking to very specific structures where sets and rep ranges are concerned, others insist that there’s more flexibility.
We’d therefore understand if, far apart from feeling empowered to plan your training sessions, you’ve concluded enthusiastic searches feeling more clueless than you had beforehand.
There’s a reason that the particulars of building strength sometimes vary, depending on the source. Whilst it’s a topic that has been researched in depth, it’s also one that’s, by nature, difficult to draw generalised results from.
Every body, after all, is different, and therefore responds differently to various training routines. There’s also the fact that strength-building is influenced by more than solely what’s done in the gym; including nutrition and recovery.
That said, there is a framework for building strength – and it’s not as complex as the web might make it seem. We asked Izy George, personal trainer, co-f0under of GRNDHOUSE and Women's Health Collective panellist, to talk us through it.
I'm looking to build strength – what rep ranges would be best and why?
The simple answer is that weightlifting in general will help you to build strength. But, some set and rep range combinations are more optimal than others.
Most personal trainers recommend rep ranges of 12-20 for endurance, 6-12 for hypertrophy (building muscle, in other words), and up to 6 for building strength. For years, research has indicated that this is the ideal framework to follow when creating a training programme.
However, further research in recent years has contested this, suggesting that muscle growth, in particular, can occur with rep ranges from 1-50. It’s also worth noting that, historically, most research where strength building is concerned has been done on men.
There’s a significant lack of information relating specifically to how women can build strength optimally. The takeaway here is that there are no hard and fast rules for building strength, and it’s best for you or your trainer to apply research in a way that works for you.
Your plan of attack for building strength will be determined by your starting point. ‘It depends on your experience in the gym and on your goals,’ says George. Although 1-6 reps at a high load appears to be the most optimal way to build strength, it’s not advisable for all. 'If you are pretty new to lifting, I wouldn’t advise going lower than 8 reps on a set as you build good foundations with movements,’ George says.
Training at a high load for a small rep range is not only taxing for the central nervous system, it also requires a relative amount of skill and experience to perform the lifts with good form. In contrast, performing 8 or so reps at a lighter weight lowers the risk of injury and central nervous system fatigue.
Isolation exercises, such as bicep curls, are best performed at a slightly higher rep range (8-12 may be a good place to start when the goal is building strength), whilst for compound lifts (those which recruit multiple muscle groups) such as deadlift, squat and bench press, George recommends performing up to 6 reps – when you’re confident doing so – for 2-6 sets.
Choose a weight that feels challenging, and as though you might be able to squeeze one or two extra reps out at the end if you had to.
Bear in mind that the heavier you lift and the more sets you do, the more rest you will need between sets. ‘Make sure to get at least 2-5 minutes to properly recover,’ George advises. ‘Performing 5 sets of 5 reps (5 x 5) of a barbell back squat, with 3 minutes rest in between sets, will increase your strength over 8 weeks.’
Strength is built over time, so as – if not more – important as the rep range and set structure when strength is you goal, is consistency – ensuring that you commit to a certain number of training sessions per week, almost every week. The idea isn’t to lift increasingly high loads each week until you turn into the Hulk, though.
To optimally build strength, follow an 8-16 week programme which has progressive overload at its core, and then it’s important to take your foot off the gas and recover during a deload period. This will help to harness those strength gains and reduce the risk of injury from overtraining.