I’m not kidding when I say that folks struggling with good form should focus first on doing just one clean, quality rep. I can think of a number of bodyweight exercises where this rule applies: crunches, dips and certainly unassisted pull-ups.
Today at the gym, however, I saw another kind of one rep exercise that is most definitely not what I have in mind. It’s the all too familiar group of guys who prepare for bench presses by loading a minivan onto each side of the barbell.
The terrible form, sure to follow, doesn’t defeat just the philosophical purpose of my “one rep” rule. On a physiological level, the only possible benefit derived from singles is the strengthening of ligaments – an advantage clearly outweighed by the increased risk of injury. One rep max lifts grow very little muscle, contrary to the hopes of high school football players and frat boys. Just compare the muscularity between Olympic weightlifters and serious amateur bodybuilders.
Nevertheless, a discussion of muscle biology misses a far more interesting sociological point. These guys load up a bunch of weight so they can lean conspicuously against their barbell and grin idiotically when attractive women pass by.
In fact, I think there is an opportunity here to launch the next innovation in seduction techniques. Go ahead and load up your barbell – stand around – but don’t actually lift at all. The most productive part of the max workout comes from the effort loading and unloading several 45 lb plates anyway. Why find yourself lying on the bench, wasting a few precious seconds, when the next HB 10 walks by? Most importantly, why risk breaking a sweat?
There can be too much of a good thing, however. Just because one rep is too few doesn’t mean that peak muscularity comes from doing 50. The muscle building sweet spot is somewhere between six and eight reps per set (for women, I’ll call it the muscle toning sweet spot). Scientific studies also encourage a little variety in your workout: 6-8 reps to work the explosive “fast-twitch” muscle fibers, 10-12 reps to stimulate the endurance “slow-twitch” fibers.
Either way, you should be using a weight heavy enough that you experience muscle failure by the tenth, maybe twelfth rep. You’re just cheating yourself on multiple levels if you pick a weight with which you can do 30, but simply stop at 10. Regardless, once you enter the 12-15 rep range and beyond, your workout becomes a form of endurance training, not muscle building.
Besides, if you can really do dozens of reps – particularly when it comes to abs – you’re probably not doing the movement right at all.