Powerlifting is often associated with higher intensity and lower repetition range. This is because powerlifters need to have exposure to heavier loads compared to most other forms of training so that they can develop maximum strength.
But the question is do powerlifters do high reps? Yes, powerlifters do incorporate high reps into their training; however, not every block of training. When powerlifters do high reps it’s to increase muscle mass, build work capacity, and optimize their technique. High reps for powerlifting are considered any reps between 8-15.
In this article, you will learn exactly what high reps in powerlifting means, why powerlifters include this in their training, drawbacks that you need to consider, and how to incorporate high reps into your training.
High Reps For Powerlifting: Explained
There is not a universally agreed definition of how many reps is considered high reps. Most powerlifters consider any set that is 8 reps or more to be high reps. When the vast majority of powerlifters train high reps sets, they tend to perform then between 8 to 15 repetitions. It is very rare that powerlifters exceed 15 rep sets but some powerlifters do exceed that.
High reps in powerlifting may occasionally be applied to their main lifts i.e. squat, bench press and deadlift. More commonly they will apply high rep sets in their accessory exercises.
Check out our training guides on accessory powerlifting movements:
High reps are often associated with the off season phase of training, which means the period of training that is far from a competition date. This is because it is less specific to a competition performance. If high reps are associated with a high rate of progression in terms of strength gains, then they may be performed close to competition.
For high reps to be performed, the intensity or percentage of their 1 rep max must be relatively lower i.e. below 80% of their 1 rep max approximately.
Why Powerlifters Do Perform High Reps (6 Benefits)
The 6 benefits of high reps for powerlifters are:
- It builds muscle mass
- It builds strength in newer powerlifters
- It increase muscular endurance for work capacity
- It can break through plateaus in sticking points
- It gives you more practice for technique improvement
- It brings up weak or rehabbed muscle groups
1. Build muscle mass
Muscle mass is important for increasing the ceiling of strength potential long term for powerlifters. Research has shown that muscle mass can explain up to 65% of the variability in strength gains among experienced lifters.
Training with heavier loads and low reps versus training with lighter loads and high reps have both been shown to be conducive to building muscle mass.
The problem is that with heavier loads or higher intensities, the amount of reps of quality technique that you can do at those intensities is limited.
So the advantage of training with higher reps is to being able to fit more meaningful work in to stimulate more muscle growth.
Check out our other guides on high rep training:
- What Are The Benefits Of High Rep Squats?
- 5 Benefits Of High Rep Bench Press
- High Rep Deadlifts: Should You Do It?
2. Build strength in newer powerlifters
Ultimately, a powerlifter needs to train to get stronger. Some lifters may experience better rates of strength gains at lower repetitions and higher intensities, and some lifters may experience better gains at higher repetitions and lower intensities.
There is research to show that there is a relationship between optimal average intensity and training experience for optimal strength gains.
The more advanced that an athlete is, the higher the average training intensity needs to be. This research suggests that an average training intensity of about 60% of 1 rep max leads to maximal gains in untrained individuals. 60% of 1 rep max is associated with being able to perform higher repetitions.
This suggests that newer lifters can likely benefit from performing higher reps to optimally increase maximum strength performance.
3. Increase muscular endurance for work capacity
Long term, being able to train more whilst being able to recover from that training will be beneficial at increasing gains. The benefit that high reps can contribute to training is to increase muscular endurance in the trained muscle groups.
This may happen through improving energy systems and improves your ability to do more reps in a given set. If you are able to perform more reps consequently at higher intensities, you will increase your stimulus for strength so long as you can recover from it.
4. Break through plateaus in sticking points
Most powerlifters will have sticking points in most of their lifts. Sticking points are generally points in the range of motion where the barbell slows down before it speeds up again. Breaking through sticking points are often addressed through accessory exercise selection but it can be solved through manipulating the rep ranges and intensities that your main lift is trained with.
By performing lower intensities and higher reps, what you can do is increase the time under tension of the point in your lift where you get the sticking point. By increasing the time under tension of your sticking point, you increase the training stimulus to increase strength over that sticking point.
Consequently, this will help you iron out those sticking points and break through the ceiling of your strength performance.
Check out our other guides on how to break through strength plateaus:
5. More practice for technique improvement
Performance in the powerlifts is a combination of muscles being maximally recruited and skill. The “skill” component involves balance and coordination. Quite often it is not that powerlifters aren’t big and strong enough, it’s that they have poor technique and control during the lifts.
Conventional wisdom dictates that “practice makes perfect”, when the truth of the matter is, “practice makes permanent”.
Once good technique is understood and established in your mind, you can take advantage of high reps to cement good technique without having overly heavy weights to hold you back by being too challenging.
High rep sets can still be hard sets but the majority of the early repetitions will be easy enough to control and engrain good technique and coordination.
6. Bring up weak or rehabbed muscle groups
Injuries can happen in powerlifting, especially as you become more advanced. Rest and seeking the help of a qualified health professional is always key when dealing with injuries. However, once a muscle has fully healed, its work capacity will have likely decreased.
In order to bring up muscle mass and work capacity in those muscle groups, you can perform higher reps and lower repetitions to stop them from lagging behind in your powerlifts. This will give you a chance to acclimate to training again without the risk of re-injury.
Drawbacks of Doing High Rep Training For Powerlifting
Doing high reps may not be appropriate for everyone, there are drawbacks to doing high reps for powerlifting, they are:
- No longer increases strength
- Stimulus is not specific to competition performance
- Not suitable if good technique is not established
No longer increases strength
As much as high reps can increase strength in some people, research shows that for most people lower reps with higher intensity may be more superior in increasing strength gains. This is called the Max Effort Method.
Within your career as a powerlifter, it might only be a very short period of that where you benefit the most from high reps and lower intensity in your training. As your average intensity goes up in training as you get more experienced, your ability to perform sets at high reps goes down and you will slowly transition to performing lower repetitions.
Performing high reps limits the intensity that you can be training at in your working sets. This limits your exposure to heavier loads.
Stimulus is not specific to competition performance
If you are a competitive powerlifter, performing high reps is not a specific stressor to the competition performance of 1 rep maxes. In order to best prepare for competitions, you need more exposure to competition specific training of lower reps and high intensities.
There is research that has looked at muscle activity at different intensities and have shown that the muscle activity of the main contributing muscle groups change as you perform weight at heavier loads. For example, the glutes and hamstrings increase in activity at higher loads in the squat and deadlift.
Because of this effect, in order to best prepare your body for competition, you need more exposure to a more specific stimulus in order to challenge the muscles that will ultimately be recruited under a 1 rep max test.
Not suitable if good technique is not established
High rep sets allow for many repetitions to be practiced. When many reps are practiced, it reinforces the technique you already have. If you do not fully understand good technique or if you have bad technique, doing high reps reinforces bad technique.
This is undesirable because you will eventually need to improve technique and it will take more time to fix bad technique, if bad technique is being reinforced more and more. Practice makes permanent!
When some lifters switch from low rep to high rep training, they may feel like throwing up. I discuss this more in my article on Why Do Powerlifters Vomit.
Example of Powerlifters Doing High Rep Training
Jonnie Canditio is a high level powerlifter who competes in the USAPL. He incorporates high reps in his training so that he can maintain a high level of effort in training whilst not dealing with high intensity loads to reduce risk of injury. Long term he uses high reps in his training as a means to continuously progress in his training without plateauing.
How Powerlifters Structure High Rep Training
Powerlifters can structure high rep training in different aspects of their session and at different points in their training period.
High rep training can be applied to:
- The main powerlifts (squat, bench press, and deadlift)
- Powerlift variations (any variation of the squat, bench press, and deadlift)
- Accessory exercises (any exercise that is not the squat, bench press, and deadlift)
The main powerlifts are the squat, the bench press and the deadlift that you would perform in competition whether that is conventional or sumo. Most powerlifters do not do high reps for these movements but there are opportunities to incorporate them into your training for certain reasons.
You can perform high reps in your main powerlifts as a means to break a plateau if you have stalled in progression in any of your lifts. The high reps offer a stimulus that you may previously have not been using and can be a possible solution. You can also use high reps to monitor progression at a given weight.
High reps for the main powerlifts can be performed in a training block where the focus is on a high volume of work but is approaching a competition period. This may be 2 to 3 months from a competition.
Powerlift variations would be compound exercises that are similar to not the identical to the main powerlifts.
For example, high bar squats if you are a low bar squatter. Powerlift variations are generally chosen for the purpose of bringing up weaknesses within your main powerlifts.
High reps for the powerlift variations can be performed in the off season when competition is not near. This may be between 3 to 6 months from competition.
Accessory exercises include all of the exercises that you do outside of the main powerlifts and related variations.
Most of the time, high reps are generally performed with accessory exercises. Driving accessory exercise performance is generally for the purpose of increasing hypertrophy and improving work capacity in certain muscle groups.
Accessory exercises can often be the bulk of the stimulus for hypertrophy in most of the training year. High reps in accessory exercises can be performed throughout the year to the competition peak and taper. During the peak and taper, high reps in accessory exercises may still be used but with less sets to offset fatigue for the purpose of preparing for competition.
Most powerlifters will incorporate high reps to some extent in their powerlifting journey.
All powerlifters have their own opinion on how to train, but the most important takeaway is that there isn’t a universal answer for when high reps should be used.
The main thing to remember is not if you should incorporate high reps, but more so in what situation and when it’s most appropriate.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com