The debate over whether low reps are better than high reps for building muscle has been around for quite some time, and for beginners and intermediate gym-goers whose primary goal is to pack on muscle it’s a legitimate question to ask.
Although everyone has their preferred training style, both rep ranges have their benefits when it comes to gaining muscle So let’s look closer at low reps vs high reps and which is best for packing on size and strength.
Low Reps vs High Reps: Activating The Muscle Fibers
Low reps use 70 to 80% of your one-rep max, meaning you should reach failure on any given exercise in the 8 to 12 rep range with a specific weight. Many professional powerlifters and bodybuilders will use 85 to 100% of their one-rep max, which would equate to around 1 to 5 reps before achieving muscle failure.
When you lift heavier weights you activate the “type 2” muscle fibers, also known as the “fast-twitch” muscle fibers.
The type 2 muscle fiber is responsible for short-burst activities such as sprinting and jumping and is the primary muscle fiber which develops strength and explosive speed. If you want to get bigger, then you need to train your type 2 muscle fiber with lower rep ranges to promote muscle hypertrophy. As Type 2 muscle fibers are only suitable for short burst movements, you won’t trigger them if you use anything above 12 reps.
Conversely, high reps are anything between 50 to 65% of your one-rep max, meaning you should reach failure on any given exercise above 15 reps with a specific weight. When you focus on high reps, you work the “type 1” muscle fiber, also known as the “slow-twitch” muscle fiber. This muscle fiber is responsible for endurance, meaning they tend to fatigue much later than type 2 muscle fibers.
According to more recent studies, there is evidence to suggest using higher reps may also contribute to muscle growth, however, you will notice a greater increase in muscle endurance by focusing on higher reps than you would lower reps which, in turn, will indirectly benefit your lower rep training by enabling you to work out longer and prevent overtraining. High rep workouts are often better to raise heart rate and burn calories, especially when used in a circuit and some athletes specifically focus on high reps to get better at their sport such as long-distance running.
So What Happens If You Combine The Two?
Remember, at a basic level, low reps are great for building muscle and high reps help to build endurance, so by alternating between the two on a regular basis you can help continue to make gains and prevent burnout. Here’s how:
- When you lift heavy weights for several months, your CNS (central nervous system) burns out. You need to make sure that you are taking at least two to four weeks off from heavyweights once every six months. Doing high reps training for a few weeks will help you get the break you need, and help you feel stronger and rejuvenated once you get back into training heavy again.
- Using high reps can help you shock your muscles into growth. As you know, your muscles get used to training the same way, which is why it’s recommended that you switch things up to confuse the muscles. Switching up your sets and reps is very important, so you should consider training with a combination of both high and low reps.
- Once you become an advanced lifter, you can use a mixture of high reps and low reps to further your muscle gains. As an advanced lifter, you will be more vulnerable to injury, which is why you should utilise both rep ranges to keep progressing and to keep gaining muscle.
Training for muscle endurance is just as necessary as training for muscle size. Muscle endurance will help you extend your workout time without the risk of overtraining. Make sure to have a structured plan which periodically adds more reps and weight onto each training block.
What If You’re Limited To Just Light Weights?
I’m going to drop a bit of a curve ball in here and say that, although the general difference between using low reps vs high reps is a matter of muscle growth vs muscle endurance, you can also build muscle if you’re limited to using light weights and therefore, by return have to perform a higher rep range in order to fatigue your muscles.
And that’s the key point here – muscle fatigue, if we create tension on our muscles for long enough and work them to fatigue then we will still create muscle hypertrophy and cause them to grow – so in this scenario the weight doesn’t matter so much. A good way is to utilize tempo; the tempo is something you use to describe how slow or fast you will perform a specific rep. For example, you would go four seconds on the eccentric (lowering of the rep), and four seconds on the concentric (lifting of the rep).
The slower you can perform the rep, the more time your muscle will spend under the weight. If you can manage to increase the time under tension, lighter weights can help you gain muscle. Keep in mind that using a slow tempo is ideal for beginners who want to increase their mind-muscle connection or for ageing advanced lifters who can’t lift as heavy anymore. Make sure to utilize slow tempo as a way to increase the intensity of your workouts, or to shock your muscle fibers.
To add to your light weight arsenal, you can also use drop sets and supersets. Many advanced lifters will use drop sets and supersets as a way to mitigate the use of heavy weights but still get the benefits.
Drop set: When you perform a set till failure and lower the weight and perform the same exercise without any break.
Superset: Perform two exercises back-to-back without any breaks, ideal for advanced lifters.
Low reps vs high reps needn’t cause too much debate as both have their benefits. Every lifter should utilise both rep ranges at various points to develop both strength and muscle endurance and to keep the body guessing. Next time you workout try using low reps on the start of your workout, and then high reps as a finisher or to increase muscle endurance. Otherwise, every six months or so, give your central nervous system time to recover by performing a few weeks with higher reps and lighter weights – as I’ve mentioned you can still build muscle this way whilst giving your body a break from the heavy lifting.
Once you become an advanced lifter, utilize drop sets and supersets to gain muscle without the risk of injury. Always remember to lift until exhaustion, regardless of the rep scheme you are using, and you should continue to see size and strength gains.
What do you use in your workouts, do you lift heavy with lower reps or are you more of an endurance lifter and make use of high reps? Let me know in the comments underneath.