Most of us who lift use heavy weights to focus on strength, moderate ones to emphasize building muscle size, and light weights to focus on muscle endurance. Hence, the weights we use are a reflection of our training goals.
While these modes of training are oftentimes very distinct, they can actually be combined into a single workout. That is, you can train for strength, muscle size, and endurance in the same workout, which allows you to generate some of—but not necessarily maximize—the benefits of each type of training.
This kind of program is called the Four-Rep Method, and it's very easy to implement. Quite simply, you do 3-5 exercises for a given body part, choosing moves that work the target muscle group from a slightly different angle. What makes the protocol unusual is that each movement provides a unique training stimulus.
- The first exercise is done very heavy for sets of 4 reps to focus on building maximal strength.
- The second is done with relatively lighter weights for sets of 8 reps to focus on the lower end of the muscle-building rep range.
- The third movement is done with even lighter weights for sets of 12 that work the target muscle at the upper end of the hypertrophy rep range.
- The last move is done with very light weights for sets of 16 reps to pump the muscle and build muscular endurance.
If you're looking to build muscle, training across multiple rep ranges can have a synergistic effect, says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., CSCS, Director of the Human Performance Lab at Lehman College (Bronx) and author of "The M.A.X. Muscle Plan."
"First off, low-rep training with heavy loads translates into an ability to use more weight during [your] 'hypertrophy range,' which increases mechanical tension and thus enhances growth processes," he says.
"Alternatively, high-rep training with light weights helps increase buffering capacity, allowing you to crank out an extra couple of reps at a moderate-rep range," says Schoenfeld. Moreover, heavier-load training tends to target the high-threshold motor units associated with the largest type-II muscle fibers, while light-load training focuses more on the endurance-oriented type-I fibers."
What does all of this mean, you ask? "This combination of training approaches maximizes hypertrophy along the spectrum of fiber types," Schoenfeld says. In other words, training with this variety of volume and intensity will maximize your ability to grow!
Four-Rep Back Attack
To help you put the Four-Rep Method into action, I'm going to break down each distinct training segment in a sample—but extremely effective—back workout. If you want to make exercise substitutions, please ensure you always start the workout with your major mass-builders, use a variety of equipment, integrate different grip positions, and consider finishing with a single-joint move (when applicable).
Because you start any Four-Rep Method workout with very heavy weights, a good warm-up is essential. Include several lighter sets, pyramiding the weight up each successive set, but never take your warm-up sets to muscle failure. Make sure your shoulders are good and loose. Remember, warm-ups don't count as working sets.
Here's the progression of the four exercises:
1: Do 3 sets of 4 reps
After nailing your first heavy working set, adjust the weight as necessary on your next 2 sets (for 3 sets total) depending on whether the first set was too light or too heavy.
Don't perform these sets with small, isolation-based exercises. Select basic, mass-building moves to begin the workout when your energy levels are highest, which will help you get the most out of these moves and build maximum strength.
"It's important to train for strength early in your workout, as fatiguing sets in a higher rep range cause metabolic buildup that impairs your ability to generate maximal strength in the lower rep ranges," Schoenfeld explains.
On back day, the T-bar row is a good choice because it's a basic back exercise that allows you to generate just a bit of body English to complete the move. If, however, you can't keep a flat back because the weight is too heavy—remember, you're aiming for just 4 solid reps per set—then opt for the chest-supported version.
Take a slightly longer than normal rest period between these sets. You're in no hurry on your heaviest sets, which ensures that you're fully recovered for your next effort. Do 3 sets total and move on to the second exercise.
Alternate Four-Rep Workout
While the Four-Rep Method is typically done by going heavy on all sets of your first exercise, you can instead work the muscle from heavy to light for each exercise.
For example, for each movement, do your first set for 4 reps, the second set for 8, the third set for 12, and the fourth for 16 reps. Because this technique adds a fourth working set and increases total volume, consider reducing the total number of exercises, like this:
- T-bar row with handle: 1 set of 4, 8, 12, 16 reps
- Wide-grip lat pull-down: 1 set of 4, 8, 12, 16 reps
- One-arm dumbbell row: 1 set of 4, 8, 12, 16 reps
2: Do 3 sets of 8 reps
If you're familiar with research on hypertrophy, you'll recognize 8 as the lower limit of the optimal muscle-building rep range, so long as you're using good form and training close to muscle failure.
"The 'hypertrophy range' is theorized to maximize growth because it provides an ideal combination of mechanical tension and metabolic stress—two factors that have shown to drive anabolic signaling," explains Schoenfeld.
"Moreover, this rep range allows for the performance of optimal training volumes without overtaxing bodily systems," he says. "A clear dose-response relationship has been found between volume and muscle growth, with greater amounts of work translating into greater gains—at least up to a certain threshold."
In other words, sets of 8-12 hit the muscle-building sweet spot. They provide enough volume to stimulate growth, but the amount of weight you can handle in that range won't fry your central nervous system.
On back day, choose another multijoint exercise, this one done from a different angle and with a different piece of equipment. So, if you started with a T-bar row, a wider-grip lat movement—like a lat pull-down—makes a nice complement since it better targets your upper lats.
3: Do 3 sets of 12 reps
The relatively lighter weights you'll lift here provide a slightly different kind of stimulus for muscle growth, but you'll still be working in the sweet 8-12 hypertrophy rep range. No, you won't be able to life as much weight for 12 reps as you could for 8, but you will get more time under tension, and your body will probably start to fatigue at this point.
Given that your first exercise was a free-weight move and your second was on the cable stack, consider using a dumbbell exercise as your third move. Dumbbells force each side of your body to work independently, which requires greater stabilizer involvement and coordination.
For this workout, I've chosen the one-arm dumbbell row. With your elbow tight to your side, it focuses more on your lower lats, ensuring that you work the entire muscle after your bout with pull-downs.
4: Finish with 3 sets of 16 reps
High-rep sets deliver a significant muscle pump, but the lighter weights you have to utilize are less effective for strength gains. Done late in your workout, you'll be able to push yourself to the limit without having to save anything in the tank for any exercises that might follow.
"High-rep training also keeps the slow-twitch, type-I fibers under tension for extended periods," adds Schoenfeld. "Since these fibers are endurance-oriented, the additional stimulation is believed to maximize their development."
Your finishing move in this rep range should be an isolation exercise, but other than straight-arm pull-downs there really aren't many of them for back. In this case, you could opt for straight-arm pulls, or you could go with another well-controlled row like the seal row, which is performed on an elevated bench and really isolates your back musculature.
Either way, make sure you focus on targeting your back, building a big pump, and feeling the burn with this round of exercises.