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Ultra-High Repetition (UHR) Training: Insights, Perspectives, and Programming Considerations

by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS
Faculty Member, World Instructor Training Schools

The events of 2020 have plunged many of us into the caverns of our deepest possible introspections — the way we evaluate our lives, purpose, and appreciate each waking moment is magnified. Amid the differences the mass media conveniently highlights to divide us and through our daily struggles in this volatile world, there is one common denominator among us — something that has served as our cornerstone — training.

The way we as coaches, athletes, fitness professionals, and enthusiasts view training has indelibly changed. One thing this year has taught our collective brethren is to be more resourceful and resilient than ever. Brick and mortar business models are now shifting to virtual mediums. Programming is now more flexible, not in the literal sense, but in the practical one, given the pre-emptive and seemingly pulsatile closures of gyms and fitness facilities, otherwise deemed as “non-essential” businesses.

Nowadays, much of my work revolves around instituting, delivering, and evaluating wellness initiatives within higher education, though I continue to support a small contingent of clients, including a handful of professional basketball players. Though an infinitesimally small sample of the population we serve, the adverse impact on their personal and professional lives is representative of those wanting to doggedly continue the pursuit of their training goals.

With limited to no access to facilities and most having a sparse collection of equipment at their disposal, their predicament forced us to establish a new normalcy through sustainable programming.

Enter ultra-high repetition (UHR) training…

At first glance, employing repetition ranges beyond (20) may have limited utility. And in traditional settings, performing exclusively higher repetitions may not favorably elicit adaptations in maximal or limit strength, however, UHR does warrant consideration in several circumstances beyond those rehabilitating from injury.

It has been well established that higher repetitions per set will tap into the oxidatively mediated Type I muscle fibers that are responsible for stability and motor control, thus providing an adequate stimulus requisite for activation.

However, those beginning an exercise program or returning from a long layoff, perhaps prompted by facility closures and limited access to equipment, could benefit from UHR training.


Add dumbbell training to your programming knowledge base


An experimental design consisting of circuit training sessions performed 3x weekly conducted over a period of (12) weeks involving repetitions as high as (36) per set, yielded considerable improvements in strength and body compositions among the training group [4]. Among untrained individuals, little differences in strength were realized upon completing 3x weekly sessions for (7) weeks for groups performing 3-5 repetitions, 13-15 repetitions, and 23-25 repetitions [9]. An earlier study involving untrained subjects demonstrated increased time to fatigue, maximal aerobic power, and significant improvements in muscular endurance upon completion of performing an (8) week battery involving a repetition range of 20-28 repetitions for two sets interpolated by one minute of rest [1]. Additionally, dual energy X-ray scans following 27 weeks of low-load, high-repetition resistance training revealed significant improvements in pelvic bone mineral density and accretions within the appendicular skeleton and lumbar spine [5].

Acutely, energy expenditure was found to be comparable between time matched sessions involving lower loads with higher repetitions and higher loads for lower repetitions [6]. Lesser loads representing 30% of 1RM, when brought to momentary muscular fatigue, were shown to educe acute myofibrillar protein synthesis rates comparable to 90% of 1RM among untrained, but active young men, when paired with immediate post-session protein enriched recovery supplement [3]. Performing repetitions to failure at 30% 1RM within an (8) week program evoked increases in physiological cross-sectional area of the lower thigh, or quadriceps (7.8%) similar to high load, repetitions to failure (8.1%) and high load, repetitions not taken to failure (7.7%) [2]. Comparable increases in muscle thickness were observed among groups of women engaging in either 30% 1RM or 80% 1RM over a period of six weeks [8]. And though Schoenfeld and colleagues (2015) illustrated improved strength among highly trained subjects performing a protocol of higher loads and moderate repetitions (8-12 repetitions), comparable increases in thickness of the elbow flexors and extensors and knee extensors were attained with lower loads and higher repetitions (25-35 repetitions) absent any deliberate nutritional modifications over (8) weeks [7]. As observed in multiple prior studies, muscular endurance significantly improved.

It can be speculated that the training intensity achieved in said protocols was sufficient to activate the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), an enzymatic protein that stewards muscle protein synthesis, which is a key determinant of hypertrophy.

Broadly speaking, training with higher repetition ranges builds and maintains the foundational work capacity required for more intense training as denominated by external load, volume, tonnage (load x volume), or density and permit for more frequent training, which in turn, permit enhanced muscle protein synthesis. Frequent training, absent circa maximal loads and attendant mechanical tension, is also more conducive to inter-session recovery since muscle soreness and taxation of the central nervous system are of little concern.

Below are some programming considerations:

  1. For injured persons, beginners, and those lacking relative strength, or proficiency with their bodyweight, and or limited proprioception, light dumbbells, household objects and canned goods with even weight distribution are recommended.
  2. If possible, bodyweight exercises should be performed as they enable a myriad of progression schemes: repetitions and sets (volume) and density and can also be performed intermittently. Bodyweight exercises, almost exclusively, are credited for sculpting Herculean physiques, including that of former Heisman trophy winner, Herschel Walker, who performed hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups daily.
  3. Bands also permit the execution of high repetitions sets while mitigating post-session and day after soreness. Bands accommodate the strength curve on exercises. Overload is experienced closer to the end of the exercise’s respective range of motion or “lock-out”.
  4. High intensity plyometric exercises, such as bounding, broad and vertical and other multi-directional jumps, and those intended to develop muscular power should not be performed in high repetition sets.
  5. Olympic lifts should not be performed in high repetition sets as technical execution and motor learning tasks take precedence over muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness.
  6. Though the loads may seem light from the outset, its prudent to adhere to progressive overload and not drastically increase volume or intensity arbitrarily and/or in subsequent training sessions. Also, limit training to failure to one set per training session and build up to one set per exercise performed, ideally the last set of said exercise.

Add dumbbell training to your programming knowledge base


References

  1. Campos, G.E., Luecke, T.J., Wendeln, H.K., Toma, K., Hagerman, F.C., Murray, T.F., Ragg, K.E., Ratamess, N.A., Kraemer, W.J., & Staron, R.S. (2002). Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 88, 50-60.
  2. Lasevicius, T., Schoenfeld, B.J., Silva-Batista, C., de Souza Barros, T., Aihara, A.Y., Brendon, H., Longo, A.R., Tricoli, V., de Almeida Peres, B., & Teixeira, E.L. (2019). Muscular failure promotes greater muscle hypertrophy in low-load but not in high-load resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, [Epub ahead of print].
  3. Mitchell, C.J., Churchward-Venne, T.A., West, D.W.D., Burd, N.A., Breen, L., Baker, S.K., & Phillips, S.M. (2012). Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 113 (1), 71-77.
  4. O’Connor, T.E. & Lamb, K.L. (2003). The effects of Bodymax high-repetition resistance training on measures of body composition and muscular strength in active adult women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17 (3), 614-620.
  5. Petersen, B.A., Hastings, B., & Gotschall, J.S. (2015). Low load, high repetition resistance training program increases bone mineral density in untrained adults. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 57 (1-2), 70-76.
  6. Rustaden, A.M., Gjestvang, C., Bǿ, K., Hagen Haakstad, L.A., & Paulsen, G. (2020). Similar energy expenditure during BodyPump and heavy load resistance exercise in overweight women. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 570
  7. Schoenfeld, B.J., Peterson, M.D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G.T. (2015). Effects of low- versus high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29 (10), 2954-2963.
  8. Stefanaki, D.G.A., Dzulkarnain, A., & Gray, S.R. (2019). Comparing the effects of low and high load resistance exercise to failure on adaptive responses to resistance exercise in young women. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37 (12), 1375-1380.
  9. Weiss, L.W., Coney, H.D., & Clark, F.C. (1999). Differential functional adaptations to short-term low-, moderate-, and high-repetition weight training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13 (3), 236-241.
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