The Highway and the Low Road

High-Low training combines high and low reps. By Greg Merritt

Variety isn’t just the spice of life. It may be the main ingredient of muscle growth. But variety doesn’t merely reference exercise selection. You might switch lifts every time you work a body part, but how often do you dramatically alter your reps per set? High-low training is a method for organised rep scrambling, switching back and forth between the high and low ranges – from workout to workout, from one exercise to the next and even from set to set.

Research has proven that the eight- to 12-rep range is best for muscle growth, but it’s not the only way to grow. In fact, if you stick with it too long, your gains will likely stall. Don’t be too predictable. Besides, higher and lower reps have advantages, too. The former maximises blood volumisation and stamina. The latter is best for boosting strength. Both can generate growth. The best strategy is likely a mixture of rep ranges. High-low is going to throw out the middle, temporarily and focus only on the high (15–30) and the low (4–7). Let’s analyse the three distinct ways you can incorporate high-low in your routine.

This is the least radical method for going high and low. Alternate between all high reps one workout and all low reps the next time you train that body part. If you hit more than one body part per workout, you can also stress each with different rep ranges. For example, if you work chest before triceps, do all low reps for chest and nothing but high reps for triceps and flip that script on your next chest/tri day. Doing high-low workout to workout lacks the benefit of “muscle confusion,” which you get via attacking your muscles with rep variety in the same session. However, it allows you to better focus on one range at a time.

Another way to go high and low is to do all high-rep sets of one exercise and then perform all low-rep sets of the next exercise. Alternate that way throughout the workout, seesawing from pump-up to power-up. Plan your workout so you go low on compound exercises that let you slide on the most plates (like bench presses) and high on isolation lifts, which don’t easily lend themselves to low reps (like cable crossovers). It’s usually best to start with a sequence of high-rep sets because this serves as a working warm-up. However, you can go low first as long as it’s preceded by a sufficient warm-up.

We’ve arrived at the most radical way to utilise high-low – the method that best distinguishes it from other workout styles. Alternate high- and low-rep sets of the same exercise. This will have you seesawing back and forth from a pumping set to a power set. You’ll need to do some pre-planning to make certain you can easily increase or decrease the load during what should be your rest periods. If you’re training alone, some heavy free-weight exercises won’t lend themselves to this training style because you’d spend too much time and energy stripping plates. On the other hand, it’s easy to change resistance between sets with machine lifts like triceps pushdowns by simply moving the pin to a higher or lower slot.

A method that combines exercise to exercise and set to set is high-low supersets. For example, immediately follow every heavy set of barbell incline presses with a light set of incline flyes. This way, the lighter work complements and expands upon the heavier work.

The potential downside of set-to-set high-low training is that you’ll lose your focus. It’s easy to forget your immediate goal when you just did a light set and you’ve grabbed a much heavier weight. Rededicate yourself to the task at hand before each set, aiming for your rep target. A logbook can help you hit your goals. The upside is your muscles also never quite know what’s coming. Will it be a few reps with a heavy weight or many with a light weight? Answer: it’s going to change every set. You’re going to pump up and power up as you attack your muscles with high and low combinations again and again.

High-rep sets are 15 to 30 reps. Low-rep sets are four to seven reps.
Alternate high-rep and low-rep sets of the same exercise.
Or do all high-rep sets of one exercise and then all low-rep sets of the next exercise, seesawing throughout the workout.
Or do all high-rep sets one workout and all low-rep sets the next time you train that body part. Alternate for at least six workouts.

It’s best to do high-low set sequences with exercises, like pulldowns, that allow you to easily change the resistance.
On the other hand, heavy exercises like deadlifts or leg presses would likely involve too much plate loading between sets.
During a high-low cycle, avoid midrange sets of eight to 12 reps.
High-low can effectively shock calves and abs, which are not usually worked with low reps.