One of my favorite bodybuilding strategies involves ultra-high reps for growth: sets of 25, 50, or even 100. I love a challenge, and these ultra-high-rep sets require pushing yourself to the limit, even when using a really light weight. Actually, that light weight can be an advantage in itself: It’s a lot harder to accidentally injure yourself using 50 pounds compared to 500.
According to traditional thinking, high reps are only useful for hypertrophy and endurance — not strength. But in my experience, if you use them the right way, ultra high reps can lead to huge gains in the squat, bench, and deadlift. Here’s how!
Using Ultra-High Reps for Strength
First, a quick definition: “ultra-high” means at least 25, and probably 50-100 reps per set. When you’re doing this many reps, I honestly don’t think it’s crucial to count each and every one. As long as you’re in the ballpark and pushing hard, the effects will be the same.
So, how do you incorporate this type of training into a powerlifting program and get any sort of decent results? As always, there’s no one right answer, but here are a few guidelines:
Ultra-High Rep Set Guidelines
First, you probably only want to use this method with assistance exercises. While it’s certainly possible to do a set of 100 deadlifts, you’re almost certainly better off with a more traditional strategy, because you won’t be able to use enough weight to have any sort of relevancy to a one-rep max. On the other hand, a set of 100 tricep pushdowns could be really effective at strengthening your bench press, if your triceps are lagging.
Along the same lines, you’ll want to choose simple movements that target your lagging muscle groups. Generally, these are going to be the ones that give out first when you’re performing compound lifts. For example, if your upper back starts rounding really badly when you’re deadlifting heavy, then you’d want to choose some type of rowing motion.
Try Simple Movements, Machines, and Keep It Light
Why simple movements? Well, when you’re 50 reps into a set, you’re not going to be able to really focus all that well on performing rep 51 with perfect form — you’re going to be pouring all your effort into just getting it done. If you’re trying to perform a more complicated movement (say, Arnold Presses), there’s a good chance you’ll end up cutting your range of motion short; or getting so sloppy that the target muscle group is no longer doing the majority of the work.
Obviously, you’ll want to use a light weight. Machines and bands often work well here, because it’s easier to adjust the resistance if you overestimate your abilities. Limit your use of ultra-high-rep sets to immediately after your heaviest training for the week. That will maximize the time you have to recover after using this method, and make sure you’re feeling fresh and not fatigued the next time you have to push near-max weights.
Start too light. You’re not going to undertrain with so much volume, so err on the side of caution, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start very light, and add a bit of resistance each week until the ultra-high reps get really challenging.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Ultra High Reps
So, why does this method work? Shouldn’t high reps just add a little size and maybe some endurance? Well, yes — but size and endurance can have huge benefits when it comes to maximal-effort work, too.
For example, imagine you’re doing an all-out set of 5 on bench press. How often have you ripped through the first four reps, only to find that your triceps just hit a wall at lockout, and you miss that last one by just inches? Now imagine that, after your heavy benching for the week, crank out 2-3 sets of 100 on some type of tricep isolation exercise for a few weeks. There’s no way that, after all that work, your triceps are going to give out on the last little range of motion after just five reps. And, if your 5-rep best increases, you can count on your 1-RM improving, too.
On the flip side, high reps can be pretty difficult to recover from, and if you don’t add them to your program slowly and carefully, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up overreaching a bit and seeing your performance actually decrease (at least in the short term). To avoid that, make sure you start by using ultra-high reps for just one movement at a time.
For example, if your current program calls for 4 sets of 10 on pushdowns, try substituting that for 2 sets of 50 instead, but don’t make any other changes. And make sure to stick with that change for about 4-6 weeks before you determine whether it was a successful one or not. Any less than that, and there’s just not enough time to really evaluate how your body is responding.
A Sample Bench Program Using Ultra-High Reps
This would be a great one for someone who struggles a bit with stability and lockout when benching for low to moderate reps. Remember: start by using ultra-high reps for one movement at a time, don’t just jump into cranking out sets of 50 everywhere.
- Bench Press: 5×5 with 85% 1RM
- Incline Bench Press: 2×4 with 75% of your flat bench weight
- Seated Row: 4×10 at RPE 9
- Bent-Forward Lateral Raise: 2 sets of 50 reps
- Triceps Pushdown With Band: 1 set of 100 reps
Athletes: Have you ever used sets of 50-100 successfully, either for size or strength? If so, please share your experiences in the comments!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image courtesy of Ben Pollack.