Though it is well established in many fitness communities that the back squat is among one of the most important exercises anyone can have in their training routine, there is still some debate on particularly how this exercise is utilized in said training routine.
One of the factors associated with the performance of the squat is that of its total training volume, otherwise known as how many repetitions one performs of the exercise within a given set or workout session.
Unfortunately, the answer to this particular question is somewhat more complicated than a simple magic number - as it will require certain parts of the exerciser’s experience and training goals to be accounted for prior to reaching an appropriate conclusion.
The term exercise volume refers to the total number of repetitions per set of a given exercise at a certain level of resistance, making it distinct from simple repetition as this only constitutes how many times the exercise is performed in succession.
Exercise volume is of vital importance to the programming and function of resistance exercise, as it not only will dictate the impact of said exercise (in this case, the squat) but also a variety of other factors that will alter the end result of the exercise.
Generally, exercise volume is expressed in fitness nomenclature as “sets X repetitions” meant to explain how many repetitions are performed at separate intervals, and how many times these repetitions are done within a given workout session.
The squat is one exercise that places absolute importance on correct exercise volume in alignment with the exerciser’s desired effects, as the large muscle groups of the legs are found to be most responsive to high and low volume sets of the back squat.
This means that the exerciser may somewhat influence the specificity of the training stimulus induced by the squat by altering the total repetitions they perform, alongside how these repetitions are performed in the first place.
The repetition range of a set of squats can influence the long-term results developed from its regular performance, with higher repetition ranges per set requiring that the amount of weight be reduced in order to maintain correct intensity, and lower repetition ranges allowing for more weight to be used as less energy is expended.
This can result in greater hypertrophy, technique work or strength development depending on what sort of repetition range and programming is utilized during the workout session.
For the most part, the more repetitions an exerciser does of an exercise, the lower the weight or resistance used. This is to account for the greater energy expenditure spent towards performing greater amounts of volume.
In the case of the squat, near-maximal loads ranging from 80-100% of the exerciser’s 1 repetition maximum will generally correspond to a lower number of repetitions per set, both to prevent overtraining and due to the muscles being fatigued to the point of near failure.
The opposite is also true, with sets of high repetitions requiring a much lower percentage of the exerciser’s maximal load, though this is not only because of the greater muscular exertion required - but also that the squat is significantly taxing on the central nervous system and various soft tissues of the body, all of which are placed at risk of damage when exerted at high resistance and high volume.
The ideal volume of the squat will depend on the exerciser’s own training experience and goals, but is generally somewhere between 3 repetitions per set at the low end and up to approximately 20 for endurance-focused training stimulus.
The reason for such a wide range of ideal volume is due to the multipurpose capacity of the back squat exercise, as differing ranges of repetition will be more suitable only in certain cases, and others requiring another amount of volume and resistance be used instead.
In some situations, a training program may even make use of multiple amounts of volume per set so as to induce a novel training stimulus, reduce the risk of overtraining or a variety of other benefits that sticking to a single number of repetitions per set cannot achieve.
Muscular hypertrophy is highly complex at a cellular level, but is otherwise relatively simple to achieve in terms of exercise - wherein the correct length of time under tension as well as appropriate dynamic contraction beneath a load can result in additional muscle mass being developed over time.
It is well established in academic literature that muscular hypertrophy is a result of higher amounts of total exercise volume up to a certain point. This means that, though the number of repetitions per set is higher than one would use for developing strength, it is nonetheless still within a reasonable number with the total volume instead being accrued over multiple sets.
This repetition range is usually between that of 6 and 12 repetitions per set, with 3 sets or more providing sufficient enough volume to induce excellent levels of muscular hypertrophy in the muscle groups of the legs.
These benefits, of course, also require that the exerciser utilize an appropriate amount of resistance in conjunction with the correct repetition range in order to maximize muscular hypertrophy stimulus.
As a large part of muscular strength development is simple adaptation to a novel training stimulus, the repetition range of the squat for such purposes is only between 1 and 5 repetitions per set, allowing a far higher amount of weight be used than what one would be capable of with additional volume.
This not only aids in developing muscular strength by placing greater emphasis on type 2 or fast twitch muscle fibers, of which are responsible for bursts of power in shorter periods of time - but also in priming the central nervous system for contracting skeletal musculature to such an intense extent.
Additionally, the usage of greater weight that is allowed by a lower range of repetition can psychologically condition the exerciser as well, improving their confidence and allowing them to understand the extent of their own physical strength.
Though a more advanced technique, an exerciser may choose to split their total workout squat volume between two or more variations of the squat exercise, such as performing three sets of the back squat alongside a split squat or pin squat.
This is usually done for powerlifters seeking a more specific training stimulus or exercisers wishing to diversify their exercises while still avoiding leg muscle overtraining.
To split repetition volume between one or more variations of the squat, the exerciser may either lower the total resistance of both exercises or structure the repetition range of each set in a way that the total volume is preserved while still performing both exercises.
Another manner of doing this is reducing the intensity of one squat variation by a moderate degree so as to allow a greater amount of repetitions to be performed with the second variation, such as would be the case in the exerciser performing 3 sets of 5 repetitions of the back squat and 2 sets of 12 repetitions of the box squat, for example.
What can be considered a low volume squat repetition range is usually between 1 and 5 repetitions per set, and is otherwise utilized so as to develop the exerciser’s strength or to focus on a specific squat mechanic.
This is not to say that performing low volume squat sets does not induce muscular hypertrophy or must only be used for developing strength, as a lower repetition range is perfectly effective at doing these things as well - it simply means that this lower amount of volume is more suitable for developing a certain aspect of training.
Moreover, low volume squat sets allow for a level of resistance that would otherwise be impossible with higher ranges of repetitions - creating adaptations in the connective tissues, nervous system and skeletal musculature that are more difficult to develop with high volume squat sets.
Just as low volume squat sets are effective, so too are repetition ranges of higher volume, usually anywhere between 6 and 20 per set. These high repetition sets are generally meant to greatly increase the time under tension the skeletal muscle undergoes during the performance of the squat - resulting in certain benefits that are not as pronounced in low volume squat sets.
Though it is entirely possible to also develop muscular strength with the use of higher volume squat sets, it may be of a slower progression than with the higher levels of resistance one would encounter by performing lower repetition range sets of the squat instead.
Training goals are not the sole factor that must be accounted for when deciding on an appropriate repetition range, as diet and other exercises performed in one’s training program must also be included in such decisions.
When utilizing a reduced caloric intake for the purposes of weight loss (what is otherwise known as “cutting”), the exerciser will find that their musculature fatigues far more quickly than in a caloric surplus, as their skeletal muscles have less freely available energy to work with.
This will equate to higher repetition sets being less advisable for individuals dieting, with the opposite also being true for bulking; exercisers in a caloric surplus for the purposes of greater muscular development will find higher repetition range sets of the squat easier to perform.
In terms of other factors involved in training being accounted for when deciding on how many squat repetition to do, the exerciser must include other leg compound exercises or isolation exercises that target muscle groups in the legs - as these will all add to the total volume of the workout session itself, risking injury and overtraining if in excess.
It is best for the exerciser to structure their workout session in such a way that the squat exercise is among one of the first leg exercises performed, with secondary compound exercises and isolation exercises being performed after so as to avoid prematurely fatiguing the leg muscles.
As a general rule, the higher the repetition range of the squats, the lower the intensity of other subsequent leg exercises as such factors like glycogen stores and accumulated fatigue are brought into play by the high volume squat sets.
Though the exerciser may decide on performing 1 to 5 repetitions per set in order to develop strength or 6 to 20 for greater muscular hypertrophy, there is also the factor of progressive overload that must be considered when performing the squat in these repetition ranges.
As progressive overload is not solely confined to the characteristic of increased weight per interval, the exerciser may wish to steadily increase the amount of repetitions they perform with a given load - thereby also leading to muscular development.
The opposite can also be true if the exerciser finds that their training progression has begun to slow down; as they may then switch to a somewhat altered form of training stimulus by increasing the total resistance while lowering their repetitions per set.
If the exerciser has taken all the aforementioned factors into account, they should arrive at the conclusion that a certain repetition range per set is most suitable for their particular circumstances.
However, these repetition ranges (namely 1-5 and 6-20) are not entirely set in stone, especially in the usage of more advanced training methods such as periodization or back-off sets, wherein many varying ranges of repetitions will instead be used.
In conclusion, the ideal squat repetition range for novices looking to build strength or size will generally be somewhere between 5 and 12 per set, with repetitions over 12 being more suited for hypertrophy or warm-ups. For intermediate level exercisers or more advanced individuals, this number will be somewhat different on a case to case basis, and is best decided on by the exerciser themselves or their coach.
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