Workout Tips

On Trial: High Reps or Low Reps?

What works best for high-endurance muscle fibers like abs and calves?

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On Trial: High Reps or Low Reps?

calf muscle

Point: Slicing Abs and Calves With High Reps

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS

From a physiological standpoint, the purpose of any training session is to stress the body so that adaptation results. Training is beneficial only if it forces the body to adapt to the stress of physical effort. The Weider Principle of Overload states that habitually overloading the body causes it to respond and adapt. Here, overload is defined as a positive stressor that can be the result of the load (or weight used), the rest period allowed, the frequency of the stressor (how often you work that muscle group) and the number of repetitions done with a given weight. For example, one way to overload any muscle group is to increase the number of reps you can do with a certain amount of weight. You could also increase the amount of weight you can do for a certain number of reps. The question: What is the optimum blend of weight and repetitions for the abs and calves?

To the Point

Calves and abs are similar to other bodyparts, but in some ways, they are a breed apart. They both speak a different language, or at least a certain dialect. Unlike most major bodyparts, the calves and abs are incredibly resilient and resistant to fatigue. Abdominal and calf muscles are generally composed of a greater percentage of slow-twitch (endurance) muscle fibers than fast-twitch (power) fibers. Many bodybuilders wish this wasn't so. They wish calves had the same genetic make-up as other bodyparts because they tend to train them in the same fashion. They'll pound their calves with heavy weight and low reps, such as with heavy calf raises, but I believe that the slow-twitch muscle fibers are not very responsive to this type of overload. To get them responding, the reps have to be high - above the 12-rep range.

Repeated Blows

Let's say you're doing crunches or standing calf raises with nothing but your own bodyweight. You could probably bust out about 25-30 reps without feeling too much pain, right? This is by no means a negative thing, because as we've learned, these fibers are genetically designed for high reps. How many footsteps did you take today? Did you have to rest your calves every 10-15 steps? I hope not. How many times per hour do your abs contract to stabilize your spinal column? The point is that if a muscle fiber prefers high reps to low reps, why not add resistance to the high-rep variation as adaptation occurs? In other words, when your calves and abs can perform more than 20 reps, resistance should be added. This way, you can work on overloading the muscle with more weight, but you remain in the rep range in which these muscles perform best.

The Final Cut

Some of the best abs in the world of bodybuilding were built without the use of any extra weight, and many big calf owners rarely drop their reps below 15. High repetition is the dialect that abs and calves understand. The muscle responds only if the message is understood. Just as you shouldn't waste your time speaking Cajun to a native New Englander, don't waste your time hammering abs and calves with a message that is unclear to them. By all means, use progressively heavier weight with abs and calves, but you should meld it into the rep range that those muscle fibers understand.

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