The Weightlifting Magic Number

Five reps for optimum strength and muscle.


How many reps should you do?

The complex answer: it depends.

The simple answer: five.

Now it’s a free country, and you can make your life as complicated as you want, but I like to get into the gym, do my workout as efficiently as possible, and get on with my day.

That means working hard, for sure, but it also means working smart.

The magic number

Everyone knows you push for ten reps, right? Or maybe you haven’t really thought about it, but that’s just what you do. Three sets of ten reps, and then maybe a few drop sets for good measure.

It’s time to re-examine that assumption.

What’s the point of lifting weights? To get strong and build muscle, duh.

Plus, by continuing to apply tension to your muscles, progressively increasing the load, you continue to get stronger and bigger.

Additionally, to simplify just a little, the best way to get this done is to lift increasingly heavy weight for five reps.

Why five? The answer is simple: because it works.

How do we know it works? Because it’s been tested by athletes and amateurs, strongmen and fitness junkies, again and again over decades, and shown to produce the best results.

That’s why programmes like Bill Starr’s 5×5, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, Madcow remain so popular: because they work. (Of course, the effectiveness of these programmes is also about exercise selection and smart programming. But using the right rep range is key.)

What sorcery is this?

To get the most out of a set, you want two things to happen. You want the maximum number of muscles fibres to be recruited in the movement and you want maximum motor unit activation (so your muscle contract harder).

Lift too light and your body won’t recruit the maximum number of muscles fibres until near the end of the set, meaning those fibres are only under tension for a relatively short number of reps. Go too heavy, and you’ll be performing too few reps per set to apply the tension your muscles need to experience exertion.


Bro, I don’t care about power, I just want to get jacked

Sure. I’m not here to tell you what to do. If you want to paint your skin orange and flex on stage, that’s cool. If all you want is sick guns and a six pack, I’m not here to judge.

But the way to get big is to get strong, and the way to get strong is to do compound exercises at low reps.

Want big arms? The dude who does heavy deadlifts and rows, who doesn’t run away from chin ups, that dude is going to have boulders for biceps and cannonballs for delts. The skinny guy who does 12 variations of curl and never squats? You can bet he’s as weak as he looks.

(My working assumption is that you’re training clean. If you’re taking steroids then just keep at it and watch your muscles pop as your testicles shrink.)

Really? Five reps? Always? Only, Really?

Okay, look. If you’re a powerlifter or a serious bodybuilder or an advanced lifter, you’re going to have to fine-tune your routine. That means three rep sets, 10-12 rep sets, even one rep sets, depending on your goals and your progress level.

And the rest of us are going to benefit from cleverly programmed isolation work and accessory exercises in the 8 – 12 rep or more range.

If you’re a beginner, however, ignore the bodybuilding magazine advice and build some real strength.

Five reps of heavy compound exercises, performed correctly, will always make a great routine. Performing these exercises at these ranges will make you strong and becoming strong will make you big.

Considering that your average bro walks into the gym and does a mindless routine of three sets of ten reps per exercise, this simple shift in thinking will change everything about how most people work out. The basic consequence: bigger, stronger lifters.

Lift heavy, eat well, and grow big and strong. It’s that simple.

Now choose your programme and go get stronger.