Low Reps or High Reps for Muscle Growth?
It’s a never-ending debate in gyms across the globe -- heavy weight for low reps or lighter weight for higher reps. Both sides of the debate have their staunch loyalists, with each side touting their methodology as the end-all, be-all holy grail of gains.
But which method truly delivers the best results for the average trainee?
Let’s find out.
Heavy Weight vs Light Weight
If you’re not entirely sure what we’re talking about, let’s step back for a second to explain the whole heavy vs light debate:
One one side, you have the lower weight, higher volume training preached by physique competitors and bodybuilders. On the flip side, you have the heavy weight, low volume approach to lifting that is adorned by powerlifters and powerbuilders.
Both sides argue that their method is the “most effective” way to go about shedding fat, building muscle, and etching the physique of a modern day Adonis. Over the years, we’ve seen both methods work equally well, as top level bodybuilding competitors including Dorian Yates and Arnold Schwarzenegger have both won multiple Mr. Olympia titles, but training very differently.
But what about the average trainee, the guy who just goes to the gym and grinds it out 3-4x per week? What method of weightlifting will deliver the best results?
First, let’s take a deeper look at what sparks muscle growth and then we’ll see what science has to say about the debate!
Resistance Training and Muscle Growth
Resistance training is essential to muscle growth. The most basic way to explain hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth) is simply this -- muscles adapt and change in response to their use. If you lift a heavy weight to failure, your muscles are temporarily broken down. Following this, muscles repair themselves in order to be able to handle that load better the next time it’s called to lift that weight.
So, if you keep lifting the same weight over and over and over, your muscles will grow to be able to accommodate the amount of work you subject them too. In order for your muscles to continue to grow, you must continually increase the workload your muscles are subjected to. This is known as progressive overload.
Now, you can go about overloading your muscles through a variety of ways -- increased weight, increased reps, increased time under tension, shortened rest periods, etc. All of these accomplish the same thing, which is to constantly challenge the muscles to perform more work than they previously did. In the presence of a caloric surplus, this will lead to bigger, stronger muscles.
Notice that we didn’t say you have to use heavy weight, low weight, high reps or low reps for muscle growth. That’s because in theory, as long as you’re increasing the total volume of work on a muscle over time, no matter which method you employ, they should grow.
As it turns out, this is true, as a groundbreaking study conducted in 2015 finally shed some light on the age old debate of high reps vs low reps for muscle growth. Let’s check it out!
Low Reps vs High Reps Research
Brad Schoenfeld, one of the leading researchers in the area of hypertrophy, conducted a study in 2015 to answer the question of what truly is superior for muscle growth -- low reps or high reps. Schoenfeld and his team recruited 24 resistance-trained men and split into two groups. Experience levels for the lifters ranged from 1.5-9 years, thereby eliminating the possibility of “newbie” gains not accounted for in many other trials on muscle growth.
The high rep group performed a traditional resistance training program of 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions to failure while the high rep group performed the same exercises using 3 sets of 25-35 repetitions to failure. Exercises the trainees performed consisted of:
All exercises were performed three times per week for 8 weeks using a lifting tempo of 1 second up and 2 seconds down. Weights were adjusted over the course of the trial to keep trainees failing the the prescribed rep range and each attempted to increase weight each week. Exercise sessions were monitored and recorded.
The men were instructed to maintain a consistent diet, and were given a supplement containing 24g whey protein following training. This may be the one week area of the study, in that researchers could not control food intake, so we have to take it on faith that test subjects adhered to their diet.
At the end of the 8 weeks, researchers recorded muscle thickness for quadriceps, biceps, and triceps to measure changes in muscle size over the course of the trial. Max strength was also recorded via a 1RM squat and bench, as was muscular endurance (assessed by the total number of reps at 50% of 1RM on the flat bench press.
So, what were the results of the 8 weeks of intense weight lifting?
Interestingly enough, there was essentially no significant difference in muscle thickness between the high rep or low rep group! More specifically changes in muscle thickness (i.e. growth) for the high rep vs low rep protocol were:
The high load (low rep) group gained more strength than the low load (high rep) group for bench press 1RM, gaining 6.5% vs. 2.0% in max strength, and max strength changes in squats were 19.6% versus 8.8%, respectively. When looking at muscular endurance, only the low load group showed improvement (16.6% increase in endurance) compared to the high group.
So, what does this tell us?
There’s more than one way to “skin the cat” when it comes to building. Higher reps work equally as well as lower reps. However, it may be more efficient to follow a lower rep protocol if you’re pressed for time, or don’t handle pain that well (doing 30+ reps of squat will HURT!).
In the end, both methods work for muscle growth. If you’re interested in purely building strength, the low rep training is what you should focus on. What may be best, is to use a mix of high rep and low rep training, that way you get the best of both worlds, and by switching up rep protocols every so often, you’ll avoid plateaus and keep the gains rolling.
Regardless of how you train, always make sure you’re providing your body with all the essential nutrients it needs ahead of a grueling workout. PreHAK contains everything you need to maximize performance and ensure that gains keep on coming!
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