Last updated on November 5th, 2022 at 12:20 pm
There’s always been some controversy about the best rep range for training legs.
We’re typically told that we should concentrate on low reps for strength gains, moderate reps for hypertrophy, and high reps for muscular endurance.
So, this is how we train, and yet you’ll often hear someone discuss the merits of high rep training for legs.
So, are high reps better for legs?
Should you completely avoid low rep leg training?
Or is a mix of both the best way to train legs?
Here’s what you need to know.
Are High Reps Better For Legs?
There have been various studies which show that high reps are better for legs. In fact, many old-time bodybuilders regularly trained legs with sets in the 20-50 rep range. With that being said, fast twitch muscle fibres offer the best potential for muscle growth. Therefore, it makes sense to train legs in both the lower and higher rep ranges.
No High Reps For Beginners
Before I get into the ins-and-outs of high-rep leg training, and it’s inherent benefits, I want to stress that this shouldn’t be attempted by beginners.
In fact, a beginner should typically train by doing the complete opposite of what most people suggest.
Basically, as someone fairly new to weight training your first goal is to master a skill.
As simple as they initially seem, squats and deadlifts are actually fairly complicated exercises, which have a high potential for injury if not performed correctly.
So, it makes perfect sense for a beginner to master these exercises first, while keeping the reps fairly low.
I would actually say it is their core strength that generally gives out before the legs, and it is this that can cause injury.
And this generally seems to happen at around the 5-rep range.
However, with a few months of dedicated low-rep training it won’t be long before you can graduate to high-rep training.
Fast Twitch vs. Slow Twitch Muscle Fibres
When you think about high-rep training it actually goes slightly against the grain for size and strength gains.
Firstly, it is the fast twitch muscle fibres that have the best potential for muscle growth.
So, this would typically involve training heavy with low reps.
With that being said, the slow twitch muscles fibres are also activated during heavy low rep work, but they obviously offer very little in terms of adding size.
Your slow twitch muscle fibres are more geared towards endurance activities.
Additionally, it is said that regardless of which muscle group, without a significant load you’re simply training for endurance, as opposed to size or strength.
A “significant load” would typically mean training with a weight that is at least 60-65% on your one-rep max.
Therefore, from this information alone it would almost appear that you should avoid high reps for legs if you’re interested in strength and hypertrophy.
But, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Train High Reps & Low Reps For Legs
I do agree that training for strength should always be your first port of call.
So, you should always include heavy weight, low rep leg training.
Plus, you now know that this will stimulate the fast twitch muscle fibres, which is perfect for muscle growth.
However, there is a reason that many of the old-time bodybuilders trained legs with high reps, and that’s simply because it works.
Therefore, I think it’s ideal to train legs with a combination of both training protocols.
In effect, you could train legs one day a week for low reps and then another day for high reps.
However, if you’re restricted to training legs just once a week, then start off with low rep training before adding in some high rep work.
An example of how this combination of high rep, low rep training works can be seen in a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Basically, researchers took 16 male lifters and divided them into groups of two.
The first group performed 3-5 reps for 5 sets using 90% of their one-rep max.
The second group completed the same workout, but completed one final set of 25-35 reps using 40-50% of their one-rep max.
After four weeks the results showed that the second group made better gains in size and strength.
Admittedly, the size gains weren’t that impressive, but the reason for this takes us back to the “significant load” of 60-65% of one-rep max.
But, the fact remains that just one extra high-rep set was enough to induce muscle growth.
However, what’s even more interesting is that the second group saw increases in strength.
This simple study shows that there is a benefit to training both low rep and high rep when it comes to strength and hypertrophy.
With that being said, I would usually prefer to strength train with a compound exercise and then perform high-rep work with an isolation movement.
So, this may involve 3-5 sets of 1-5 rep squats before finishing off with a couple of sets of 25-35-rep leg extension or leg presses.
But, that’s not to say that you can’t use compound exercises for high-rep training.
What About 20-Rep Breathing Squats?
One of the most famous high-rep leg exercises are 20-rep breathing squats.
Plus, these are typically performed while adhering to all the training protocols I’ve already mentioned.
So, you would generally perform your strength training sets first.
Perhaps, you perform 3×5 sets of 1-5 reps of barbell back squats or maybe even Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1.
Then for your final set you choose a weight that is your 10-rep max, which is approximately around 75% of your one-rep max (this can be considered a “significant load”).
Your aim is to perform 20 straight reps of barbell back squats with your 10-rep max.
This will involve “resting” while still holding the barbell across your back, and taking deep breaths between reps.
So, in effect, your first 5 reps will generally involve you taking one deep breath between each rep.
Therefore, you would take in a deep breath, hold your breath while you squat, and release that breath on the way back up.
By the time you’ve gone past rep 5 you’ll probably find that you need to take 2-3 deep breaths between each rep.
So, as soon as you return to the starting position, you’ll “rest” by taking a few deep breaths, before hitting your next rep.
You’ll also find that by the time you’ve hit rep 15 this has become as much of a mental exercise as it is physical.
If you’ve chosen the right weight you’ll probably be taking between 8-10 breaths between reps and your mind will be screaming at you that it’s had enough.
However, simply continue taking as many breaths as you need in-between reps until you hit that 20th rep.
Trust me, when performed with the correct weight this is absolutely brutal, and you’ll even consider never doing this again.
But, when done at the end of a leg strength workout you’ll elicit some impressive size and strength gains.
The 20-Rep Breathing Squat
Be Wary of High-Rep Deadlifts
Training legs will usually always involve squats and deadlifts.
Basically, these are two exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck.
However, whereas high-rep squatting is considered a great way to enhance leg development, there are plenty of negatives when it comes to deadlifting.
In truth, there is actually nothing wrong with high-rep deadlifts, but only when performed correctly.
Firstly, I would never advise you to perform high-rep deadlifts with a mixed grip, as the underhand grip will place too much stress on the biceps.
So, this will usually involve training with a much lighter weight or even using wrist wraps.
Additionally, I much prefer to perform trap-bar deadlifts for high reps.
This will take a great deal of strain off the lower back, which is usually where problems can arise.
I will also say that high-rep deadlifts will pack on some serious size in your upper back and traps.
However, when it comes to deadlifts, I would consider 10-15 reps in the high rep range, and never look to exceed this.
Yes, I appreciate that there are various workout programs that involve 20-50 reps of numerous deadlift variations.
But, for the average gym-goer, you probably won’t have the level of core strength and lower back endurance required.
So, I would keep deadlifts in the 10-15 rep range until you feel you have the required strength to go that step further.
So, as you can see, a combination of both low reps and high reps are best for legs.
Performing low rep exercises first will stimulate the fast twitch fibre muscles, which offer the best potential for growth.
However, performing high-rep leg exercises with a significant load (at least 60-65% of your one-rep max) will lead to muscle growth too.
Plus, even performing just one high-rep set, as well as your strength sets, will also increase your overall strength.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to perform 20-rep breathing squats.
This should be done with your 10-rep max, typically around 75% of your one-rep max.
Nick Nilsson, “The Mad Scientist of Muscle”, is well-known for creating training programs that go against everything you know. It just so happens that you can produce substantial muscle growth by working with 3-rep sets, minimal rest, and high volume. You can check out my Time-Volume Training Review to discover more.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.