Monday, October 10, 2011

Performance Athletes: How Many Reps? (Intensity vs. Volume)

The following is an article that I wrote for an up-and-coming website called
For over 10 years, I have witnessed many people (professional athletes, bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts, etc.) training without a fundamental understanding of key exercise variables (including reps, sets, and tempo). Why is this significant? Well, it often leads to resources (such as time, effort and money) not being used effectively; decreased performance and/or injury. As this obviously does not contribute to your overall success, and is contrary to building yourself ‘body proud’, it is the last thing we want for you here at For this reason, I feel compelled to help you gain a better understanding of these key exercise variables and get the most out of your training.  As a matter of fact, once you understand how to effectively implement these exercise variables, your training and ultimately, your performance will rise to a whole new level. In order to give these exercise variables the attention they deserve, I will dedicate an article for each of them. In this article, I will present the basis of optimal repetition selection.

The Science of Repetitions

There are two terms which are important to understanding the science of repetitions – intensity and volume.

1RM for Squat = 225lbs (click here to determine your 1Rep Max)

Set # 1: 3 reps to failure using 190lbs (95% of 1RM)
Set # 2: 10 reps to failure using 175lbs (80% of 1RM)

Table 1

Intensity is measured by using a percentage of a person’s one repetition maximum (1RM). The 1RM is simply the greatest amount of weight you can lift in a specific exercise for one repetition. When you perform a set, the closer the weight is to your 1RM, the higher the intensity. Take a look at Table 1 for example, if you complete a set of squats with 3 repetitions to failure (not able to perform any more reps with good form/technique), you would be training at a higher intensity (about 95% of 1RM) than if you completed a set of squats with 10 repetitions (about 80% of 1RM) to failure.

Volume (of a set) is calculated by multiplying the number of repetitions by the amount of weight lifted (reps x weight). In other words, volume equals the amount of total weight lifted during a set. Therefore, (using the Table 1 figures) if you multiply 3(reps) by 190(lbs), you have lifted a total volume of 570 lbs; whereas, if you multiply 10(reps) by 175(lbs), you have lifted a total volume of 1750lbs. As you can see, volume and intensity have an inverse relationship – when volume increases, intensity decreases and vice versa.  Below I have included a chart which shows the inverse relationship between intensity and volume. This chart will also help you determine the intensity of your training and optimal repetition selection.

Percentage of
1 RM
Number of Repetitions

Source: Bompa, T.O. and Carrera M.C. 2005. Periodization Training For Sports

Optimal Repetition Selection

There are many variables when determining optimal repetition selection; however, I will discuss some of the most relevant factors.

1)      Periodization Phase – Anyone who is serious about their training should be following some sort of periodization program (plan). A periodization program consists of phases (such as preparation, competitive, macrocycles, and microcycles) which determine the amount of repetitions you should be performing for each workout. The diagram below is an example of an annual periodization plan and demonstrates multiple phases and their divisions. For instance, the first macrocycle of the ‘General Preparation’ phase consists of 4 divisions or microcycles. The macrocycle would be 4 weeks long and each week would be considered a microcycle. Each microcycle can have a different repetition target:  week 1 – 60% 1RM, week 2 – 65% 1RM, week 3 – 70% 1RM and week 4 – 75% 1RM. Therefore, there is no repetition range that is perfect for you to follow all of the time. For instance, if you always performed 12-15 reps for every workout throughout a year, your strength gains would be negligible. It is highly recommended that you hire a reputable professional (strength and conditioning coach, C.H.E.K. practitioner, personal trainer, etc.) to design an effective periodization program. An effectively designed periodization plan will significantly increase your performance and ensure you peak at the best times during the year. (Please note that the periodization plan below is only one example; there are many forms of periodization, which form is optimal for you should be determined by a qualified professional.)

 Source: Bompa, T.O. and Carrera M.C. 2005. Periodization Training For Sports

2)      Specificity – Each sport has a dominating biomotor ability (such as endurance, strength or speed) which should be taken into account when designing and following a training/periodization plan.  The diagram below, illustrates 3 different types of biomotor ability dominance – ‘F’ represents strength, ‘S’ is for speed and ‘E’ is for endurance. Some sports (Weightlifting) require the development of anaerobic training (predominately strength) shown in example (a), others (marathon) require aerobic training (predominately endurance) shown in example (c) and (b) is an example of speed training (anaerobic training). In each instance, optimal rep range will vary based on the specific sport and its dominating biomotor ability.    

Source: Bompa, T.O. and Carrera M.C. 2005. Periodization Training For Sports

3)      Performance Goals – All performance goals are established by you and your coach. First of all, you need to know your strengths, weaknesses and discrepancies (compared to others in your sport, position, etc.).  A complete assessment of your biomotor abilities is crucial at this point. This will help determine what areas your training must focus on most in order to reach your goals. For example, if your biomotor assessment results indicate a large discrepancy in strength your area of focus should be less on endurance training and more on strength training. In this case, your rep range will often be lower (high intensity) to increase strength. As you can see, performance goals will also have an effect on optimal repetition selection.

Here is a chart you can use to record your current biomotor abilities status:

Biomotor Ability

Score From 1- 10
(1 weakest – 10 highest)
(Sport, Position, Specific Player)









As I have shown, there are a number of important factors that determine optimal repetition selection. However, I continue to see people guessing which rep range is best for them. The extent of their choices is – should I lift heavy or light today? In today’s highly competitive sports industry, this old-school approach will NOT give you the edge you need to separate yourself from the rest of the field.  If you want raise your performance, be very successful and become a champion then you must raise the effectiveness of your approach, training and program. Fortunately, you have many great educational resources here on to keep yourself informed and up-to-date.

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