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High Reps vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?

Jonell Langley on Thu, Feb 05, 2015 @ 17:02 PM

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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!

 

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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:

Training Effect

Reps Per Set

% of 1RM

Strength

1-5

80-90%

Hypertrophy

6-12

60-80%

Endurance

15+

>40%

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

Training Effect

Reps Per Set

Exercise Volume (1RM)

Strength

Under 6

80-100%

Hypertrophy

6-15

0-20%

Endurance

15+

0-10%

 

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

Training Effect

Reps Per Set

Exercise Volume (1RM)

Strength

Under 6

0-15%

Hypertrophy

6-15

70-85%

Endurance

15+

15%

 

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:

  1.  Complete low and high reps in the same workout using different exercises
  2. Start out with higher reps (15+) and go down in reps as you complete multiple sets for a given exercise
  3. Change up your workouts, so that some are geared towards strength vs. endurance

Primary Goal – Building Muscle

Training Effect

Reps per Set

Exercise Volume(1RM)

Strength

Under 6

30%

Hypertrophy

6-15

60%

Endurance

15+

10%

 

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. 

I hope this helped!

JONELL_HEADSHOP_CROPPED

This blog was written by Jonell Langley, NASM CPT at Body Kinetics Health Club of Mill Valley.

 


 

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