When it comes to safely and effectively loading a movement, not all exercises were created equal. Sure, there are regions of the body, muscle groups, and movements that respond extremely well to torturous high-rep sets to produce a desired training response, but there are also movements that, in my experience, should not be challenged with reps. You may have heard of them: the back squat, barbell deadlift, and bench press.
Why aren't these great for reps? Any time one of these compound movements is trained, there is one mandatory rule in order to yield the greatest training effect while also reducing the risk for injuries: You must—must!—produce and maintain full-body tension with laser focus and locked-in intensity.
Lifters who have shed blood, sweat, and tears in the weight room over the years know that keeping full tension under serious loading is pretty damn hard to do for a hard triple, let alone maintain for higher rep sets. They also know that losing tension and falling into ugly, grinding reps is a fast track to injury.
This doesn't mean that all versions of these movements must be in the six-reps-and-under club, though. Here's how to program the big lifts safely, and alternative movements that you can program more safely in higher-rep schemes for pain-free results.
Low Reps: Barbell Deadlift
Proper full-body tension and bracing during the deadlift is arguably the single hardest setup skill to master in the weight room. Why? Because you train this staple movement from the bottom up as opposed to the top down.
By starting with the bar on the floor and setting up around it to perform the concentric (raising) half of the rep, rather than performing the eccentric (lowering) half first, you have to consciously generate the tension you need, rather than having the lift help you generate it. This tough setup is also the reason I often see lifters get stronger, tighter, and more explosive in their second and third reps in a set, as opposed to the first rep off the floor. For those latter reps, they have the eccentric portion to help them.
But that rock-solid tension you find at rep three doesn't last forever, and when you lose it, things can get ugly fast. This is the reason why I primarily program the traditional deadlift in pure strength rep schemes of between 2-6 reps. Load it heavy, and allow it to help teach you the skill of tension.
High Rep Alternative: Trap Bar Deadlift
The mechanical difference between the conventional deadlift and the trap bar deadlift is subtle. The trap bar has neutral grip handles, for one, but more importantly, it shifts the weight's center of mass back just a few crucial inches—to where it is more in line with your body's center of mass.
This shift of just a few inches slightly alters the movement pattern, making it easier to achieve and maintain the brace through more reps per set.
So if you're looking for a brutal max-rep challenge on the deadlift, stick to the trap bar, and of course, keep constant effort to perfect that spinal position and full-body tension. To be clear, you can also can train this movement low, in that 2-6 rep range, but it's also perfect to strap in and go for a ride.
Low Reps: Barbell Bench Press
Unlike the deadlift, the bench press starts with eccentric lowering. But even with that advantage, it can be equally as challenging to do right. Think of all the cues that you've heard—or googled—for how to get tight for the bench press. It's a head-to-toe undertaking! You start at the feet, driving them down into the ground actively. Then your glutes must fire maximally, the core brace hard, and the lats and pecs co-contract at the top of the lift.
And that's all before you move the weight! Seriously, the setup itself on the bench is the hardest aspect of the lift. I tell people that the best way to optimize tension on the bench press is to make light weights feel heavy. In other words, work your ass off to create stiffness from head to toe with the same intensity using an empty bar as you'd have with a few wagon wheels on each side.
With all of that in play, you'll quickly realize that the limiting factor for a pristine multi-rep bench press is usually not the pecs or shoulders not being strong enough, but rather the endurance of the brace.
This is why the bench press should be programmed as a power and strength-based movement only. Stick with rep schemes of between 2-6 reps for resilient strength development, and if you really want a challenge, try incorporating some extremely light bands into the mix, either from the top or bottom of the lift.
High-Rep Alternative: Dumbbell Bench Press
Due to the complex anatomical structure of the pecs and shoulders, I recommend hitting the horizontal-press movement pattern from multiple angles, and with a range of intensities, to maximize both muscle and strength. And when it comes time, up the rep ranges and relative intensities—how hard a set feels—with dumbbells.
While full-body tension during dumbbell bench-press variations is still a hurdle, the fact that two external loads are being moved instead of one load helps set you up for success. The two loads reflexively produce stability at the shoulders, which means you can safely scale reps up to target both hypertrophy and the metabolic pump effect.
In layman's terms: go nuts. Use a variety of bench angles, and don't be afraid to add intensity techniques to this setup as well. As long as your spinal, hip, and lower body positions stay strict, you can push yourself on this movement.
Low Reps: Barbell Back Squat
Throughout my tenure coaching athletes, I've seen no lift produce as much apprehension in athletes as the back squat. Part of this is because you have to control the load through such a large range of motion, and through a number of different body positions. Part of it is also no doubt due to the fear of missing a rep and having the bar pin you into the rack—or the ground.
In either case, the squat is the perfect example of how damn hard it is to maintain a brace through a change of direction, and a change of muscle action. At the bottom portion of a squat, the lowering phase (eccentric) rapidly turns into the raising phase (concentric), and it happens at the most vulnerable part of the lift.
Think of the complexity of the movement as I've described it, then think about placing 15-25 rep sets on top of that positional challenge. Doesn't really add up, does it? That's why the barbell squat and its many variations are best trained in the strength rep range, but also trained placing an emphasis on bracing and regaining the brace at the top of every single rep.
This doesn't have to mean that you sit and wait for 15 seconds between each rep to complete a set. Just do what you have to do to ensure that you can rebuild maximum tension before descending into the next rep. This works best for rep schemes of 2-6 reps for the squat. And for some extra CNS fun, try an explosive triple dropset starting at a top-end load, as featured in the video.
High-Rep Alternative: The Goblet Squat
I talked about the virtues of this movement at length in my article "The More Gain, Less Pain Guide to Squats," as well as on my visit to the Jyoto.info Podcast, but if you're looking for the six-word version, here it is: You really should be doing these.
If you want to create metabolic stress and challenge using squat patterns, it's best done using a setup that enforces the most stability in the kinetic chain. For the squat, that's actively holding a weight out in front of your body as opposed to passively placing it on your back. The goblet squat is my preferred squat variation to take rep counts to failure—and upward of 25 reps per set.
Don't dismiss the goblet squat as just another corrective exercise. When it's loaded correctly and programmed with a goal in mind, this simple move can be a game changer for your muscle growth and strength. Think you're strong? Take the relative strength goblet-squat test. Can you get 25 or more unbroken reps with 50 percent of your body weight held in the goblet position?
Try it and see. That's the kind of intensity I'm talking about!