Welcome to the eternal dispute in the sanctum sanctorum of gains - which is better, high reps low weight or high weight low reps? You are bound to be ambushed by gym-bros everywhere who will have opposing arguments, but trust me, science is sexy and you needn’t worry about anything else. Science is your best friend in these matters.
What I am about to share with you are proven ways of utilizing exact rep ranges for your specific goals in the gym. Whether you want to train for endurance, muscular hypertrophy or strength and power, you will need to follow these training methods in order to activate certain types of muscle fibers and engage your CNS (central nervous system) for strength optimization.
Let’s dig into it!
High Reps vs Low Reps
There is a long-lasting dispute, as well as some misconceptions about rep ranges and their intended uses, but some claims have stood the test of time - high reps are best for endurance and have little carryover into bodybuilding and low reps will build a massive physique.
Well, science has something else to say about those claims and you will see that it’s not as simple as previously thought.
First of all, we should acknowledge the existence of three different types of training utilizing different rep ranges:
- High reps
- Moderate reps
- Low reps
Each type of training will trigger different a different response from the body, activating type 1 or 2 muscle fibers and the nervous system.
On the metabolic end of the spectrum are higher repetitions and they are responsible for muscle breakdown due to a prolonged time under tension:
- More reps per set
- Fewer total sets
- Longer time under tension
- Shorter rest periods
These are the key factors of high rep training and they will be responsible for muscular endurance and muscular hypertrophy.
On the other side of the spectrum, the neural side lays the low repetition approach mostly responsible for building strength and explosive power:
- Fewer reps per set
- More total sets
- Shorter time under tension
- Longer rest periods
One of the biggest misconceptions is that very heavy weight with low repetitions will build a massive physique, but the truth backed by science is that hypertrophy is triggered by longer time under tension much more because it more muscle is being broken down, unlike heavy weights which stimulate the central nervous system and make you one strong mofo.
Now, what are high reps and what are moderate reps? There is a difference and it will mean a win or fail for your goals.
Doing high reps that exceed 15 repetitions per set is actually endurance-building training, while the 8-15 rep range is what we call moderate repetitions and there is a big difference between the two.
Why are high reps good for endurance and not for hypertrophy?
Your body has type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers (slow twitch and fast twitch), and while slow twitch muscle fibers are responsible for prolonged endurance, fast twitch fibers are responsible for triggering hypertrophy, and hypertrophy is only achieved with moderate to high weight.
Light weights are not suitable for triggering enough muscle breakdown for a natural lifter to grow.
The Benefits of High Reps
In case you though that you should forget training in the high rep range, bear in mind that there are certain high reps low weight benefits that might make you incorporate this training method from once in a while.
- Helps with muscular endurance
- Best for prolonged periods of activity such as marathon running
- Raises heart rate and is good for fat loss
Even if your goal in the gym is only to get big and/or strong, you should consider including high reps at the end of your workouts that will lead your muscles to failure, which has shown to have the same metabolic effects as moderate stress.
However, keep in mind that going to failure is good from time to time and only in the last set, there is a reason why failure training is suboptimal compared to moderate rep training and that reason is muscular recovery.
Remember, you should stimulate your muscles to grow, do not burn the out completely so that you put your body in a catabolic state and are unable to recover, let alone grow. Failure training will do that if performed frequently.
But it is good for getting that extra pump at the end of a workout.
One common misconception is that you should use low weight high reps for toning your muscles and making them look a certain way. This is completely untrue; your muscles have a certain genetic structure and look a certain way, regardless of how you train them.
Whether and how much they are visible will be determined by your body fat percentage, the lower the body fat percentage, the better the muscle will look.
The Benefits of Moderate Reps
Is this the golden snitch? Is this the answer to your questions and the deliverer of your sufferings? Not to get overly dramatic, so, yes and no.
Moderate reps are excellent for muscular hypertrophy as it produces significant muscle breakdown imperative for growth.
This is the 8-15 rep range, utilizing 60-75% of your 1RM (one rep max).
While you will experience some strength gain while performing moderate reps, the CNS stimulation is not optimal with this style of training alone, and it will have little carryover to your one rep maximum and almost no carryover to your explosive power.
While performing moderate repetitions it is imperative to focus on two things:
- Mind-muscle connection
- Proper Form
Controlled and deep belly breathing will play a very important role in stabilizing your body and giving you the energy you need to perform all of the repetitions before getting too tired. Most people in the gym forget about this aspect of hypertrophy training and experience a failure to complete all of the reps as the sets go by.
This is largely due to improper breathing, even more than muscle fatigue.
Secondly, the ability to completely devote your attention and concentrate exclusively on the muscle you are working and feeling the contraction is a technique that needs to be practiced. Once you master it, you will experience better pumps, faster hypertrophy and more soreness after the workout.
Some tips to help you while training mind-muscle connection:
- Two-second eccentric and explosive concentric on compound movements
- Two-second eccentric and two-second concentric on auxiliary movements (biceps curl, etc.)
- Steady breathing
- Focus on the muscle you’re working in squeezing it as tight as you can at the top of the movement
Practice this and reap the rewards!
The Benefits of Low Reps
You might be thinking by now that training in the moderate rep range is the only thing you need to be doing to get big. Hate to burst your freshly created bubble, but it’s not that easy for us natural lifters.
When you don't take any performance-enhancing drugs, it's imperative to stimulate both type 2 muscle fibers and your central nervous system in order to entice significant growth.
Getting strong really means getting bigger.
In order to stimulate your CNS, you will have to utilize the high weight low reps for mass method in order to become strong but also big.
This is the 1-5 rep range using 85-100% of your one rep maximum.
This is heavy work. The feeling is different; the pump is there but to a significantly lesser degree, your muscles and bones will hurt deeply. That is your body adapting to high stress.
While moderate reps will build connective tissue strength, very heavy work will build a sturdy frame and your bones and joints will be able to withstand almost anything.
Some key elements that you must keep in mind while doing strength work:
- Proper Form
This is where breathing is of the utmost importance. Proper breathing will keep you steady and strong while you are grinding through the reps, and it will help you maintain proper form.
Bracing is a key element of heavy lifting, and you achieve it by creating intra-abdominal pressure with belly breaths, and squeezing your entire body, creating total body tension.
When it comes to proper form, this is where it becomes very important. It will keep you from hurting yourself when lifting heavy so make sure your spine is always neutral and that form is in check!
So what should you do?
It might be a bit confusing as to the approach you are supposed to take with your training, given all of this information.
The truth is that there are no extremes when it comes to fitness. You need every part of it.
While there is an optimal rep range for mass, you should be wise to incorporate other methods in order to reap the most benefit.
Endurance and very high rep training may not be necessary, but combining strength work with hypertrophy work should be of paramount importance to you and your goals. You can achieve this synergy through a training style called power building and there are several ways you can do it.
I’m going to show you a way I know is most beneficial.
Best Training Program
Here are some sample workout routines that will combine strength will hypertrophy for maximum results:
The Wavering Method
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 might have noticed, you should not try to move the same weights or loads on a week-to-week basis.
In week 1, you are building a strong base that will enable you to lift heavier in the coming weeks. The next week, you push the limits of your volume and week 3, you will deload. While you lower the intensity in the third week, you will allow your body to recuperate and recover for the final week of the month when you will give it your all by going very heavy.
Try using this technique for your compound movements and you will see the amazing results in both strength and hypertrophy.
The Pyramid Method
This method is best for those of you who are just starting out or are still in the novice stages of training, and it yields amazing results.
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%
This is an example of a pyramid cycle approach to prepare you for week 3 when the intensity is highest. The following week, you deload and get ready to begin the cycle again on week 5. You will adjust the weights according to your strength and one rep maximum progress.
Did this style of training work for you? Have I managed to debunk the high reps low weight conundrum? Take some time to get used to it and for your body to respond, and let me know in the comments below!