Is There a Difference Between High and Low Reps?
HIGH REPS, LOW REPS? WHICH REP SCHEME IS BEST?
A lot of people get stuck in middle ground training in which they neither gain the muscle size nor the strength they want. There's a fix for that.
Bodybuilders and strength athletes stop making progress for one reason: They stop coercing their body to adapt. Note how I intentionally use the word coerce, not a connotatively weaker action verb like force. The reason is that once you've been in the training game long enough, your body grows wiser and you realize that you can't simply force it to do anything anymore.
When you continue to push and grunt with no concrete strategy other than "hard work," you get injured or beat-up. Few things devour reasonable progress faster than what we'll call "middle ground" training. That is, always training with the same set or rep scheme and with the same intensity. If you default to training in the 8, 10, or 12 rep range, I hate to break it to you, but your growth is simply wallowing in no-gain's land.
Fortunately, there are tools in the training toolbox that will sharpen up your training. Let's start with a brief overview and then move on to how these can be applied to your own programming to maximize growth and development.
THE NEURAL-METABOLIC CONTINUUM
The first order of business is to focus on a key element of training: The neural-metabolic continuum. It's a fancy term that allows you to understand whether you actually work your muscles or central nervous system (CNS), based on key variables. For the sake of brevity, here's a visual breakdown of what it looks like.
Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain. If you're chasing more metabolic (i.e. hypertrophic) gains, your, say, squatting program might look something like this:
4 sets of 10 repetitions
Tempo: 3 seconds down, no pause in the bottom, 1 second up
60-90 seconds rest between sets
On the other end of the spectrum, where you might be chasing more neural (i.e. strength) gains, your program might more resemble this:
5 sets of 3 repetitions
Tempo: As fast as possible
3-5 minutes rest between sets
Are we clear on the layout of the neural-metabolic continuum? Good, now let's look at why you need to spend time in both ends (and not the straight middle) to maximize your growth and development.
THE CASE FOR HIGH REPS
By now, it's probably ingrained in you that you need to perform high reps per set (I'm looking at you, bodybuilders). Let me clarify that I define high reps to dawdle in the 8-12 rep range but could be as low as 6 reps per set.
There shouldn't be anything really earth-shattering here. If you train with high reps, your goal is to build a bigger muscle.
Some folks call this "structural hypertrophy" since the higher rep sets allow you to focus primarily on the muscles themselves. They also lend themselves to fewer total sets per exercise. By virtue of slowing down the movement, coupled with the sheer amount of reps you do per set, you're going to increase time under tension, which is a necessary stimulus for hypertrophy. No doubt, gains in strength will come along for the ride, but increases in muscular growth will outpace the increases in strength.
But what happens if you spend all your time here? Quite simply, your body will adapt to your training in this rep range if you continue it for extended periods of time. Furthermore, training in that zone will ultimately limit the amount of intensity you can use as well.
Do high-rep sets (15, 20, or more reps per set) have a place in programming? Sure, but they're probably the exception rather than the rule.
The solution here is clear: Focus on getting stronger! This brings me to my next point...
THE SOLUTION HERE IS CLEAR: FOCUS ON GETTING STRONGER!
THE CASE FOR LOW REPS
High reps deliver big gains, right? Well, low reps have a place, too!
The low-rep zone can be defined as anything between 1 rep with near-maximal effort and 5 reps in a set. They're often viewed as being geared more for powerlifting or Olympic lifting, but if you really want to make high-threshold motor units work, you will need to push some serious weight!
This focuses on making your nervous system more efficient. If you switch from sets of 10 to sets of 3, you coerce your body to unfamiliar, shocking stressors, especially since low rep ranges encourage the use of much heavier weights. Every movement requires more "tightness" and a more intense focus. Further, more motor units and muscle fibers are recruited, and your body gets better at turning off antagonists (or opposing muscle groups) as well.
The result is that you'll get jacked, but in a slightly different way. Since the goal is more on strength, your body composition will greatly differ from someone who performs exclusively high-rep sets. Powerlifters are strong as hell and can move jaw-dropping weight, but probably lack a bit of the size and definition of a well-trained bodybuilder.
THE PERFECT COMBINATION
So if high reps promote hypertrophy and low reps facilitate strength increases, then in theory, the marriage of both rep schemes will bring forth muscular and strength development worthy of the Greek gods.
You need to spend dedicated periods of time in both the high-rep and low-rep ranges to maximize your development. High reps build muscle and connective tissue strength, and give your body respite from the grind of low-rep sets, too. Similarly, low-rep sets build neuromuscular and CNS efficiency. When you become more efficient and then go back to your big lifts, you can use even more weight than before, because you're just that much more efficient and effective.
As an example of what I often do with physique-focused clients, I break down their set-rep schemes into one of two categories:
- High rep - 8-12 repetitions per set
- Low rep - 4-8 repetitions per set
These aren't hard-and-fast rules. There may be times when even higher reps (15-20) could be used. On the flipside, there are other times when you may want to push the weight and work in the 1-5 rep range.
The biggest benefit from switching between these two ranges is that you'll constantly coerce (there's that word again) your body to adapt, to grow, and to improve.
CAN'T I JUST TRAIN EVERYTHING AT ONCE?
I know some people really like undulating periodization, in which you hit different set-rep schemes on different days of the week.
If this is you, perhaps your training looks something like this:
- Monday - 3 sets of 10 reps
- Wednesday - 5 sets of 5 reps
- Friday - 10 sets of 3 reps
With this weekly program, you hit everything in one training week, thinking it's smart, efficient training. This is true if you're newer to lifting or have never tried a protocol like this before. However, as you get more and more advanced, this type of scenario won't work nearly as well since you're sending multiple mixed messages to your body.
Monday's workout would tell your body it's time to get big, but then Wednesday's workout will kick your body into a bit of strength mode. Finally, Friday's workout will run counter to Monday's and place the emphasis on raw strength. What is a confused body to do?! As you become more proficient, you have to dial up the focus and be the orchestrator to your symphony of muscles (and thus, training).
It's kind of why an elite level sprinter can't simply wake up one day, decide to run a marathon, and hope to be awesome at both distances.
While I'm saying that you need to spend time on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum, you need to have some patience and zero-in your efforts on one at a time. The general rule is to spend at least 4-6 weeks focusing on one end before you even think about heading to the other.
THE FINAL STEP AUTOREGULATION
Hopefully, you're now alternating between periods of high-rep and low-rep training—awesome! The next step is to alternate the level of intensity over the course of the training cycle. Think of the following quote: "A peak is surrounded by two valleys." You can't expect to go at 110 percent intensity every time you train. You'll only burn yourself out. Layer-in days of high intensity combined with days of low intensity.
The astute reader (you!) might inquire about whether simply wavering between high and low rep ranges might already serve this purpose. It does in a rather unrefined way. Here's an example of how I'll set my intensity within a training month:
- Week 1 - 4 sets of 5 reps @70%
- Week 2 - 5 sets of 5 reps @80%
- Week 3 - 4 sets of 3 reps @75%
- Week 4 - 3 sets of 5 reps @85%
As you can see, I'm not trying to move the same weights or loads on a week-to-week basis.
In week 1, I build a base and get a good weight to build my base from. In week 2, I push the limits of my volume. In week 3, I deload. Basically, that means I lower the intensity and volume to make it an "easier" work week, allowing my body to recover and supercompensate. Finally, in week 4, I go for broke with regard to my intensity. Try using this for your squat sometime—it works great!
"YOU CAN'T EXPECT TO GO AT 110 PERCENT INTENSITY EVERY TIME YOU TRAIN. YOU'LL ONLY BURN YOURSELF OUT."
You could also do something far simpler, which yields amazing results when you just get started:
- Week 1 - 3 sets of 10 reps @70%
- Week 2 - 3 sets of 8-10 reps @75%
- Week 3 - 3 sets of 8 reps @80%
- Week 4 - 2 sets of 8 reps @70-75%
In this example, I use a stair-step approach to prepare you for week 3. After that, you deload and get ready to run the cycle again on week 5.
With these examples, the point I'm driving home is that you can't go hard every single week. Instead, "wave" your intensity and build up to a series of big workouts, then back off to allow your body time to recover.
IT'S ALL ABOUT SMARTER TRAINING
If you want to get the most out of your training, you not only need to work hard, but you need to work smart. By training on both ends of the neural-metabolic continuum and incorporating undulating waves of intensity into your training cycle, you'll not only see better results but you'll incur fewer bumps and bruises along the way.
High Reps vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?
If you walk into most gyms today, you’ll see a major contrast between the weights used by men and women.
Some women will curl 5 pound dumbbells for 25 reps in an effort to “tone” their arms, while some guys will bench a ton of weight for only a few reps in an effort to put on muscle and increase strength.
The idea is that high reps help you lose fat and make a muscle more “toned”. On the other hand, low reps can help you build muscle and increase strength.
Is it really this simple? High reps for fat loss and low reps for strength and muscle building?
In this article, you will learn why it’s a smart idea to use both low and high rep ranges in your workout regimen if you want to build muscle, lose fat, or simply improve overallphysical fitness. You will also learn why you can build muscle, increase strength, or lose fat with just about any rep range, but some rep ranges are more optimal than others for each training outcome. Finally, in terms of time-efficiency, safety, and overall effectiveness, the ideal rep ranges to elicit the greatest changes in body composition (both fat loss and muscle building) likely occur within the 6-12 rep range.
High Reps vs. Low Reps: The Strength Continuum
The Strength Continuum is a framework where strength and endurance exist on a continuum that defines the relationship between weight, reps, and training outcome. Strength is represented by the 1 repetition maximum (1RM), which is the maximum weight that can be lifted for one rep, and endurance is the ability to exert a lower force repeatedly over time.
Low repetitions with heavy weight increases strength, whereas high repetitions with light weight increases endurance. According to the concept, as repetitions increase there is a gradual transition from strength to endurance.
Below is a commonly used graph of the strength continuum. The training outcome “Hypertrophy”, which means muscle-building is not an entirely accurate label as you’ll learn more about in a moment.
This framework also works in line with our understanding of muscle fiber types. High reps develop Type 1 muscle fibers (“slow twitch”) that are endurance based and slow to fatigue. Lower repetitions activate Type 2 muscle fibers (“fast twitch”), which have greater power but fatigue quickly.
High Reps vs. Low Reps For Strength
For optimal strength increases, the research conclusively supports low reps with heavy weight vs. high reps with light weight, but high reps can still elicit gains in strength as well.1
For example, in one study, 23 cyclists were placed into high resistance/low repetition (LR), low resistance/high repetition (HR), or cycling-only groups for a 10-week program.2
There were substantial strength gains in all 4 resistance training exercises tested for both LR and HR groups, but the LR group had “significantly” greater strength gains than the HR group in the leg press exercise. Interestingly, muscle hypertrophy and overall endurance was relatively equal.
As this study and many others highlight, for optimal strength gains, lift relatively heavier weight for low reps. This is in line with how Powerlifters train for competitions to help increase neuromuscular adaptation, which is the efficiency of the brain to control the muscles. You can get stronger as a result of increase in muscle size OR increase in neuromuscular adaptation.
High Reps vs. Low Reps For Fat Loss
Some believe heavy weights are only good for building muscle, but what about fat loss? Can lifting heavier help you burn more fat, or does it turn you into the hulk?
One study from the University of Alabama in Birmingham showed that dieters who lifted heavy weights lost the same amount of weight as dieters who did just cardio, but all the weight lost by the weight lifters was fat while the cardio group lost muscle along with some fat.3. The common belief is that high reps magically get rid of fat. While high reps with light weight to fatigue can create a muscular response, it does not necessarily remove fat better than low reps with heavy weight.
While more studies are needed to compare the fat loss effects of high reps vs. low reps, substantial evidence is mounting that it’s not necessarily the amount of weight that is used, or the number of repetitions that helps burn the most fat, but the intensity of the workout. The goal is to create muscular failure with less rest between exercises, which can have powerful hormonal, metabolic, and calorie burn effects (See: afterburn effect). In addition, for fat loss, proper nutrition will have a MUCH greater impact on fat loss than the specific rep range, or even workout.
High Reps vs. Low Reps For Building Muscle
Similar to fat loss, the number of rep ranges that is optimal for muscle building is open to debate and the research is inconclusive. Most research points to reps under 15 reps as being better for muscle building, but other research shows muscle building can be equally effective with light weight and high reps.
For example, a recent study of resistance-trained young men found that light weight with high reps, performed until failure, was equally effective in stimulating muscle proteins as a heavy weight with low reps.4
There is a common misconception that lifting heavier weights automatically helps you build muscle. That’s not the case at all. In fact, how much you eat in combination with the overall volume and intensity of the workout and how it becomes more challenging over time will make the difference, not necessarily the weight/reps. If you eat relatively less calories than you burn, you can lift very, very heavy weight and most likely not gain an ounce of muscle mass. This especially applies to women who have 1/10 the amount of the muscle-building hormone testosterone as men. In a calorie deficit, increases in strength are likely due to neuromuscular adaptation and not increases in muscle mass.
High Reps vs. Low Reps: Putting It All Together
So now we know just about any rep range can help you increase strength, build muscle, or lose fat, but what ranges should you use? What should be your focus? The following proposes what may be optimal rep ranges based on specific goals.5
Primary Goal – Increasing Strength
Strength – Under 6 reps (80-100% of exercise volume)
Hypertrophy – 6-15 reps (0-20% of exercise volume)
Endurance – 15+ reps (0-10% of exercise volume)
The top strength athletes in the world spend the vast majority of their time lifting very heavy weight for low reps. While we know higher rep ranges can also create strength gains, lower reps are optimal.
Primary Goal – Optimal Fat Loss
Strength – Under 6 reps (0-15% of exercise volume)
Hypertrophy – 6-15 reps (70-85% of exercise volume)
Endurance – 15+ reps (15% of exercise volume)
As stated earlier, the intensity of the workout is more important than the specific rep ranges for fat loss, but the following is a smart approach that combines what I consider the “sweet spot” of the 6-15 reps, which can further be broken down into 6-10 and 10-15. For less advanced lifters and the general population, those ranges can be changed slightly to 8-12, and 12-15.
There a couple very compelling benefits of the 6-15 rep range. First, you are getting significant muscle stimulation with much less chance of injury than lifting very heavy weights for low reps (under 6 reps). Second, it takes less time to workout than using 15+ reps all the time, which does not offer much added benefit. If you are a beginner, I recommend against using under 12 reps. If you don’t want to push yourself with low reps, there isn’t any need to go below 6 reps, or even below 10 reps if you are older, or fear getting injured. Lifting in multiple rep ranges will help stimulate a maximum amount of muscle fibers to help burn fat and improve overall fitness.
So how do you implement high and low rep ranges in your workouts? There are few primary options (1) complete low and high reps in the same workout using different exercises, (2) start out with higher reps (say 15 reps) and go down in reps as you complete multiple sets for a given exercise, or (3) change up your workouts, so that some are geared towards strength vs. endurance.
Primary Goal – Building Muscle
Strength – Under 6 reps (30% of exercise volume)
Hypertrophy – 6-15 reps (60% of exercise volume)
Endurance – 15+ reps (10% of exercise volume)
As you learned before, while research shows it is possible to build muscle with lighter weights, the traditional method is to lift relatively heavier weights and increase those weights over time. Of course, genetics play an important factor as does the composition of muscle fibers from one muscle to the next and one individual to the next.
If you are looking to increase strength, build muscle, and increase fat loss all at the same time (which is not a great idea for reasons discussed here – Can You Lose Fat And Build Muscle At the Same Time?), stick with the ratios in the Optimal Fat Loss section.
I hope this article was enlightening to help dispel some of the common myths associated with lifting weights and has empowered you with useful information you can apply to your current exercise regimen.
High Reps vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?
As a trainer, I am often asked by our gym members, which is better? I want to tone up my body, and get stronger, so should I do more repetitions with less weight? Or should I do fewer repetitions with more weight?
You will often see women at the gym with lighter weights, completing more reps, for 1-2 sets, however, you will see men lifting much heavier weight for fewer reps, and usually 3 sets of each exercise. For example, some women will curl 6-8-10 lb dumbbells for 25 reps in an effort to tone their arms, while some guys will bench a ton of weight for only a few reps in an effort to put on muscle and increase strength.
What differentiates these two concepts is that high reps help you lose fat and make a muscle more “toned,” whereas low reps can help you build muscle and increase strength. BUT…is it really this simple; High reps for fat loss, and low reps for strength and muscle building? Not so much!
It is actually smart to utilize both concepts of high and low repetition ranges in your workouts if you want to build muscle, lose fat, or simply improve overall physical fitness. Just about any rep range is effective for putting on muscle, gaining strength, and fat loss. However, in terms of time-efficiency, safety, and overall effectiveness, the optimal rep range to elicit the greatest changes in body composition likely occur within the 8-15 rep range.
There is an interrelationship between strength and endurance, which is the continuum between weight, repetitions, and training outcome. Strength is represented by the 1 repetition maximum (1RM), which is the maximum weight that can be lifted for one rep, and endurance is the ability to exert a lower force repeatedly over time. The concept is low repetitions with high weight increases strength, whereas high repetitions with low weight increase endurance. That said, as repetitions increase, there is a gradual transition from strength to endurance, however, research conclusively supports low reps with higher weight, gains muscle and strength.
This graph illustrates the strength continuum:
Reps Per Set
% of 1RM
The training outcome “hypertrophy,” which means gaining larger muscles, is not an entirely accurate label. This concept is relevant in the understanding of muscle fiber types. High reps develop Type 1 muscle fibers, referred to as “slow twitch muscles,” which facilitate endurance and are slow to fatigue. Lower repetitions activate Type 2 muscle fibers, referred to as “fast twitch muscles,” which have greater power, but fatigue quickly.
High Reps vs. Low Reps/Strength
Many studies have proven that optimal strength gains are obtained by lifting relatively heavier weight for low reps, which is the program Power Lifters training for competitions adhere to, in order to help increase neuromuscular adaptation, which is the efficiency of the brain to control the muscles. You can get stronger as a result of developing larger muscle OR increase in neuromuscular adaptation.
High Reps vs. Low Reps/Fat Loss
What about fat loss? Can lifting heavier effectively burn fat, or does it turn you into the hulk? I hear so often from my female clients, “I just want to tone and get stronger, but don’t make me look like the hulk!” My response…”I guarantee that will not happen, based on the program I design.” I lift fairly heavier weights than most 50 year young females, 2-3 times per week, and I have yet to have been referred to as “The Hulk!”
So what is the right program?
First of all, diet is 80% + of any weight loss goals you have, the remainder 20% is the exercise part. Studies have shown the dieters who lifted heavy weights lost the same amount of weight as dieters who did just cardio. However, the weight lost by the heavy lifters was fat, while the cardio fanatics lost a lot of muscle in addition to fat. The common belief is that high reps wondrously dissolve fat. While high reps with light weight to fatigue the body can create a muscular response; it does not necessarily remove fat better than low reps with heavy weight, however, more studies are needed to compare the fat loss results of high reps vs. low reps. Considerable evidence is showing that it is not necessarily the amount of weight, or the number of reps that burn the most fat, but the intensity of the workout. The goal is to create muscular failure with less rest between exercises, which can have powerful metabolic, hormonal, and calorie burn effects. As mentioned though, proper nutrition along with consistent weight and cardio exercises, that push your body to engage in the “afterburn,” has far greater impact on fat loss than the specific rep range.
High Reps vs. Low Reps/Muscle Building
On the muscle building spectrum, like the fat loss concept, the number of rep ranges that enhance optimal muscle gain is open to debate and the research is inconclusive. Most research points to reps under 15 as being better for muscle building, but other research shows muscle building can be equally effective with low weight and high reps. In fact, the diet comes into play in this subject as well. If you want to gain muscle, you need to take in the calories in combination with the overall volume and intensity of the workout. How it becomes more challenging over time will make the difference, not necessarily the weight/reps. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you can lift very heavy weight, and most likely not gain much muscle mass. Mainly in women who have 1/10 the amount of muscle building testosterone as men. In a calorie deficit, strength is more likely due to neuromuscular adaptation rather than increases in muscle mass.
High Reps vs. Low Reps/Putting It All Together
So now we know just about any rep range can help you increase strength, build muscle, and/or lose fat, but what ranges should YOU use? What should be YOUR focus? The following is a guide to what may be optimal rep ranges based on specific goals:
Primary Goal – Increasing Strength
Reps Per Set
Exercise Volume (1RM)
The top strength athletes in the world spend the vast majority of their time lifting very heavy weight for low reps. Since we now know that higher rep ranges can also create strength gains, lower reps are optimal!!!
Primary Goal – Optimal Fat Loss
Reps Per Set
Exercise Volume (1RM)
As I mentioned, the intensity of the workout is more important than the specific rep ranges for fat loss, but what is considered ideal is 6-15 reps, which can be switched into 6-10 and 10-15. For less advanced lifters, ranges can be changed to 8-12 and 12-15.
The nice thing about the 6-15 rep range is that you are getting significant muscle stimulation with much less chance of injury than heavy weights for low reps. It also takes less time to work out than using 15+ reps all the time, which does not offer much added benefit. However, if you are a beginner, I do not recommend anything under 12 reps. If you are not interested in pushing yourself with low reps, there is no need to go below 6 reps, or even below 10 reps if you are older, or fear getting hurt. Lifting in multiple rep ranges will help stimulate a maximum amount of muscle fibers to help burn fat and improve overall fitness.
Implementing high and low Reps into your Workout:
There are a few options:
- Complete low and high reps in the same workout using different exercises
- Start out with higher reps (15+) and go down in reps as you complete multiple sets for a given exercise
- Change up your workouts, so that some are geared towards strength vs. endurance
Primary Goal – Building Muscle
Reps per Set
While research shows it is possible to build muscle with lighter weights, the traditional method is to lift relatively heavier weights and increase those weights over time.
If you are looking to increase strength, build muscle, and increase fat loss all at the same time, which is not the best overall method for achieving all 3 of those goals successfully (consult with a nutritionist, as well as a knowledgeable trainer), stick with the ratios in the Optimal Fat Loss section.
As you have learned, the myths behind high reps with lower weight vs. low reps with heavier weight both achieve effective results with regard to the Strength Continuum, strength and endurance; however, there is a method in progressing toward optimal results. This information is strictly a guideline in helping you gain a better understanding of the different training methodology behind toning our bodies, yet getting stronger. I recommend working with a Trainer, as well, consulting with a nutritionist, as every body type is different, and therefore will reflect different results at different durations of a program.
In 2010, researchers from McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada caused a bit of a commotion when they published a study showing a single resistance exercise workout performed at 30% 1RM was every bit as effective in stimulating muscle protein synthesis as loads lifted at 90% of 1RM (both performed to failure).
In fact, the 30%1RM condition resulted in a more prolonged muscle protein synthetic response with a greater elevation of myofibrillar protein synthesis rates than the 90% of 1RM condition at 24h after exercise.
These results would suggest lifting very light weights that are only 30% of your 1-rep maximum is more effective at stimulating muscle growth than lifting much heavier 90%RM weights. This caused a lot of excitement in bodybuilding magazines and Internet forums, but yours truly smiled knowingly, poured himself another glass of San Vittoria, and went back to downloading New Order remixes from Soundcloud(100% free and legal, thank you very much).
The reason for my distinct lack of excitement was that, having read several squillion research papers over the years, I long ago learned there’s a big difference between short-term and long term studies. There are a lot of things you can prod the body into doing after a single exposure to a certain stimulus, but maintaining that same response over a period of weeks, months or years is often an entirely different proposition. If the McMaster results were to hold up over the long-term, it would mean that lighter weights performed for higher reps were in fact more effective for stimulating muscle hypertrophy than heavier weights. While I certainly believe higher reps have their place in hypertrophy training and are under-appreciated by many trainees, to claim they are in fact superior than lower reps pretty much contradicts the entire empirical history of weight training.
What we needed from the McMaster Uni researchers was a paper in which they tested their 30%RM versus 90%RM protocol over the longer term. And then measuring actual muscle growth and strength gains over that period, as opposed to temporary spikes in muscle protein synthesis. Because at the end of the day, you go to the gym to build muscles impressive enough to make women yell "woohoo!" from passing vehicles and to nudge their friends so hard when you strut by that they spill their Midoris. Yeah, don't give me that line about lifting weights for self-improvement and health and bone density and all that bollocks, this is Uncle Anthony you're talking to. I know why you really go to the gym. And while I'm dazzling you with my powers of clairvoyancy, let me tell you I also know you want muscles strong enough to lift heavy stuff with ease, causing your mates to be greatly impressed and the girl of your dreams to purr "Gee, you're so strong!", right before you hoist her onto your shoulder and carry her off into a golden sunset to live happily ever after.
Regardless of what a worthy marker for hypertrophy it may constitute, no-one really give’s a rat’s posterior how high you can spike your muscle protein synthesis rates. No-one ever pulled a tasty hottie with the line “Hey honey, did you know that by modifying the percentage of one-rep max I use in my resistance exercise workouts I’ve been able to elevate my post-workout muscle protein synthetic rates by 38.65 percent? Pretty cool, huh?”
Heck, that’s only slightly less pathetic than “Um, can I buy you a drink?”
Anyway, in April of this year, the McMaster lads gave us exactly what we wanted - a paper showing what happens when heavy weights/low reps and light weights/high reps are compared over the longer term.
In their follow-up study, the researchers recruited eighteen men (average age 21) and made them do unilateral (one leg) leg extensions to failure, 3 times per week, for 10 weeks. Yeah, I know, leg extensions are a rather wussy exercise but hey, that’s what the researchers chose, so let’s run with it for now (I’ll explain later how parts of this study have already been confirmed by researchers who employed non-wussy exercises like squats).
At the start of the study, each leg of each participant was randomly assigned in counter-balanced fashion to one of three possible unilateral training conditions:
- one set of knee extension performed to voluntary failure at 80% of 1RM (80%-1);
- three sets of knee extension performed to the point of fatigue at 80% of 1RM (80%-3);
- three sets performed to the point of fatigue with 30% of 1RM (30%-3).
Each participant trained both legs and was therefore assigned to two of the three possible training conditions. At the start of the study, all the participants could squeeze out at least 9 reps with the 80%RM weight and 30+ reps with the 30%RM weight.
Immediately after each training session subjects consumed a source of protein (PowerBar Protein Plus, 360 kcal, 3.5g leucine, 30g protein, 33g carbohydrate, 11g fat) in conjunction with 300ml of water to standardize the postexercise meal and to maximize the training adaptations (there is a wealth of research showing that post-workout ingestion of high quality protein and quickly absorbed carbohydrates is highly beneficial when it comes to maximizing the results of your training regimen. And before I get the usual 15 million emails all asking “Anthony, I know you’re a busy man but can you set aside everything else you had planned for today and post an elaborate, painstakingly presented breakdown of this research?”, the answer is…ugh. For those of you who are proud owners of The Fat Loss Bible, you may kindly open Chapter 15 and get the info. For those of you who don’t have FLB – buy it, you stingy sods. Hey, I just bought a dog who eats almost as much as I do, so I could do with the extra funds).
Anyway, where was I…oh yeah, eighteen blokes doing wussy leg extensions, one leg at a time, three times a week, for 10 weeks.
The researchers made pre- and post-training measures of strength, muscle volume by MRI, as well as pre- and post-training biopsies of the vastus lateralis (one of your thigh muscles, Google it), and a single post-exercise biopsy one hour after the first bout of exercise, to measure signalling proteins.
So what happened?
I’m so glad I asked.
Muscle Hypertrophy. After 10 weeks of training, the quadriceps muscle volume increased by a statistically significant degree in all groups, but the 80% x 3 sets and 30% x 3 sets protocols showed more than double the average hypertrophy of the 80% x 1 set condition (80% x 3 = 7.2%, 30% x 3 = 6.8%, 80% x 1 = 3.2%).
And so the hypertrophy findings of this study indicate that while multiple sets of leg extensions at 80%RM produce much greater hypertrophy than single sets of the same weight, there was little difference in hypertrophy between thigh muscles subjected to 3 sets of either 80%RM or 30%RM.
Strength Increases. The increase in 1RM strength was greater in the 80% x 1 and 80% x 3 conditions compared to the 30% x 3 condition. This is in agreement with other studies, utilizing squats and leg presses, that also found heavier weights to induce greater strength gains when compared to light weights performed at higher repetition ranges[3-5].
So if it’s strength you’re after, then keep lifting the heavy stuff. All the Olympic lifters among you, who’ve all but forgotten what it’s like to perform a set of anything more than 3 reps will be saying “no sh!t Sherlock/Einstein/Anthony!” Well, I prefer Anthony, but Einstein will work (Sherlock is a bit too tweed coat/cigar pipe for my liking, thanks). As anyone who’s ever nestled under both a 200lb bar and a 500lb bar then walked it out of the rack to begin squatting will know, lifting heavy weights just ain’t the same as lifting light weights, regardless of how much “burning” you feel and how many ugly grimaces you make while repping out with the lighter weight.
As the researchers stated:
“These results suggest that practice with a heavy relative load is necessary to maximize gains in 1RM strength of the trained movement. These observations are in line with previous work which has shown that strength gains are specific to the movement that is trained and strength gains are due to a combination of muscle hypertrophy and neural adaptations”.
Muscle signalling proteins. The researchers didn’t measure (or at least report) muscle protein synthesis in this new paper, but they did report changes in associated signalling proteins such as Akt, mTOR and p70S6K. Levels of these signalling proteins post-workout pretty much showed no relation to the observed hypertrophy. For example, the only difference noted was that p70S6K phosphorylation (a science geek word for “activitation”) was elevated 1 hour post exercise in the 80% x 1 and 80% x 3 groups, but not 30% x 3. Phosphorylation of Akt was not elevated in any of the conditions. mTOR phosphorylation was elevated above rest at 1 hour post exercise in all conditions.
Take-away points from this article:
- Don’t be afraid of high reps. They won’t cause your muscles to wither away, leaving you with the physique of a meth-addicted vegan.
- Light weights and high reps don’t cut it for strength development. If you only care about strength, or performing more than 5 reps per set tends to have a strong sleep-inducing effect on you (not good when you have several hundred pounds perched on your back) then breath yourself a big sigh of relief – life ain’t gonna end because you avoid high rep work.