Ivan Dunbar, How Many Reps Makes the Champion? (1964 Health & Strength Article)


One of bodybuilding’s most perplexing problems is deciding on how many repetitions. In recent years there has been a tendency to standardise the number to around ten, as this is felt to provide the best combination for muscular bulk, strength and stamina.

Not too many years ago the guiding rule was low reps for bulk, high reps for definition. But is this true? Well I remember, some years ago, embarking on a “bulk course” (the most misused phrase in bodybuilding) consisting of five exercises designed to gain at least a stone of muscular bulk and bring me at long last from the ranks of obscurity to bodybuilding stardom. Unfortunately, though there was a considerable increase in strength, the massive gains in bulk did not materialise.

However, we usually learn something from each course, and on this occasion it made me realise that there is no hard and fast rule regarding the number of repetitions or sets. Certainly low reps, will work for some fellows, just as high reps will work for others. If you are fortunate and find that low reps give you all you desire in bulk and definition you have no problem. But if, like the majority, you need something different (or even drastic) then I suggest, as they do in the women’s magazines, that you “Now read on…”

What is it that makes the average bodybuilder so reluctant to try fifteen (or even twenty) repetitions on any exercises? Many fellows have never done more than five or six on any exercise throughout their entire careers. This is rather sad as others have found that after months of sticking at the same level a change to higher reps has proved the necessary stimulant to further improvement.

Undoubtedly one of the main reasons high reps are not popular is that they make for a ‘tough programme’ and only those with the highest degree of enthusiasm and effort will survive. Some of you may be surprised to learn that we had a fellow here (who shall be nameless!) around 1947 who weighed 12st. 9lb. stopped at a heigh of 5ft. 7in. and was muscular with it. I personally recorded a cold measurement at a 16 1/4 in. arm, 47 1/2 in. chest (he had a fantastic rib-box development), a 25in. thigh and a 16 1/4 in. calf. Unfortunately he was about ten years before his time and in the physique line-up he stood out like an oak tree in a field of primroses. The result – usually about third place.

This powerful physique was the result of about eight upper body exercises, five sets of twelve reps, in each plus five sets of twenty on the squat, and wait for it – five sets of twenty on the Dead Lift. Unbelievable perhaps, but I witnessed the workout many times.

Now I don’t suggest you all rush off and do such a programme. In fact, in fairness I should add that ‘our man’ was unemployed at the time and therefore able to obtain the maximum amount of rest required for such a schedule. (Come to think of it he didn’t have any food problems either).

What I do advocate, if you are stale or ‘sticking’ on your present training methods, is that you try higher reps, for a change, at least for a few exercises. An example of this might be to keep the normal number of repetitions in most of your exercises, and on the squat do three sets of twenty. In fact, this particular method has proven high successful here at the gym. Many fellows have found that the squat practised in ‘twenties’ has provided the flush and blood flow necessary to add those extra inches.

Another successful method is to mix the reps for the workout. On the upper body movements (Military Press, Upright Rowing, Bench Press, etc.) do three sets of six, on the squat do three of twenty, and on the arms three of fifteen. The number of exercises and sets you should do will be decided by the length of time you are training, occupation, etc. Avoid at all costs making the workout ‘overlong’ and if you switch to higher reps, you may have to reduce the number of exercises, or sets – or both. For the average trainer around eight exercises, three sets of each should be enough. Give yourself time to adjust to the increased reps. Remember that stamina is an important factor in high reps and you will not be abel to use the same poundage for twenty reps in the squat as you would for ten. Accept this fact at the start otherwise you will get discouraged and give up.

If you are now capable of ten reps with 300 lb. on the squat and intend on doing 3 x 20, your starting poundage should be 230, then 240 and finally 250. Use these poundages for a fortnight and then add 10lb. all round making your starting weight 240lb. This way you will be able to keep a steady increase which in turn will assure you of steady progress. Make your target, after two months, twenty reps, with a poundage at least as heavy as your present limit weight for five reps. After two or three months on the twenty reps you will be amazed at the increase in stamina and endurance, as well as leg size.

Another method of building up to twenty reps is to take a weight 20lb. below your best ten rep poundage (using 300 as our guide again) and do three sets of ten. Stay with this poundage and add one rep to each set every workout. assuming that you train twice weekly you should be capable of 3 x 20 with 280lb. after about four weeks training. However, this is quite a though method, and you must be serious before attempting it.

Another important factor, while engaged in a high rep programme, is to make sure your diet intake is adequate. This, as well as proper rest, is essential if you are to give the schedule a fair chance. A greater ‘breaking down’ of cell tissue makes it imperative that you supply the necessary proteins, vitamins, et.c to provide body nourishment. Pay attention to these points and you must gain some measure of success. Here then is an all round programme some of you might like to try:

  1. Press Behind Neck 3 x 12 reps
  2. Dumbell Upright Rowing Motion 3 x 12
  3. Regular Squat 3 x 20
  4. Breathing Pullover 3 x 20
  5. Bench Press 3 x 15
  6. Bent Over barbell Rowing 3 x 15
  7. Curls (Dumbells) 3 x 12
  8. Tricep Lying with Swingbar 3 x 12
  9. 9 Tricep Dips (feet raised forward)
  10. Good morning Exercise 3 x 15

Abdominals and Calf – Optional


Ivan Dunbar, ‘How Many Reps Makes the Champion?’, Health and Strength, 17 September (1964), pp. 9-12.