What will build more muscle, low reps or high reps?
JC: This was a hard one to respond to without writing a text-book.
The formula has long since been heavy weight/low rep for mass building, light weight/high rep for general conditioning. There are essentially three methods to train for however, and those are strength, hypertrophy, and endurance. Before I elaborate on these methods I want to make it clear that gains can be achieved at any training level with any training style. The results we see from our workouts are the product of the body’s response to a certain stimulus. Tell your body what to do and it will. If it can’t, it will figure out how. Keep in mind, there is more to building muscle than lifting weight – at any level or intensity. Again, I bring up the obvious, but you have to eat to suit your goal. Your diet MUST complement your exercise routine.
Strength – The rep range for strength training is usually 1-5. Hypertrophy – The rep range for hypertrophy is typically 6-10. Hypertrophy is the increase in the size of the muscle, but it a two-part process – Sarcoplasmic and Myofibril. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will result in the enlargement of the actual skeletal muscle, the part you will see. Myofibril hypertrophy refers to the inner cell of the muscle responsible for strength. Strength gain is muscle gain, and vice versa. Although you really can’t have one without the other, you can tailor your workout to favor one over the other. This is why you will see bodybuilders with well-defined and chiseled features, and power lifters with bigger, more bulkier frames. Take a look at Olympic lifters – are you not blown away every time the little guy gets up there and lifts more than you could ever dream of lifting? To get the most out of your training, it is wise to incorporate both methods of training that cycle through all of the rep ranges. This will have the muscle not only looking bigger, but also lifting heavier.
If heavy weight is not your thing but you want to get bigger, try occlusion training. Blood restricted training has shown positive results in hypertrophy. The only drawback to occlusion is you can’t occlude everything. It is better suiting for arms and legs, but it still lets you work with significantly lighter weight in a routine that is incredibly taxing to the muscle. Progressive overload is by far the most popular technique – the adding of weight with the gradual reduction in reps.
The final method, endurance, is often referred to as “toning.” The rep range is typically 12-15. I don’t believe in “toning.” To me there is either muscle gain or muscle loss. Working at a higher rep level will exercise and condition the muscle to undertake activity at greater intervals. The stress on the muscle is not as great as with strength and hypertrophy, so the demand on the body to accommodate the stimulus will not be as great. Adaptation will only take you so far with this method of training, so whilst you may experience gains, they will be slower and minimal. Your body will respond to what you tell it to do. If you are not telling the muscle you need it to lift 400lbs off the ground, it’s not going to try.
Matt: On one hand it’s correct to say that low reps build the most muscle. Training the contractile portion (myofibrillar hypertrophy) which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the muscle is where the greatest growth potential lies and specifically type II fibers, which respond best to intense bouts of tension caused by lifting heavy weights, are responsible for the most dramatic muscle mass growth. Training in the lower rep ranges also has the greatest effect on EPOC so there is fat loss value there as well. As far as building a hard, lean physique, you can’t go wrong with lifting heavy weights for a long enough time to create enough fatigue to stimulate new tissue growth. This means somewhere in the 3 to 8 rep range.
Building the energy systems that fuel the muscle contractions (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) is only responsible for about 20 percent of muscle volume and is best trained in the higher rep ranges. Essentially you need to increase your muscular endurance in order to increase the volume of sarcoplasm that fuels the muscles. Lifting weights for higher reps also has the benefit of a greater energy demand during training which serves to enhance fat loss.
So it’s obvious that in order to build big muscles you only need to train in the low rep range, right? Well, in order to get the best of all you need to train in both the low and high rep range. The additional sarcoplasm will serve to both increase the size of you muscles and also to provide more fuel for lifting in the lower rep range. This will ultimately lead to greater loads and more muscle-building.
Sometimes training means more than just looking at the immediate result, as in this case it can mean training your muscular endurance to benefit your maximal lifts. It’s literally teaching your muscles to be able to lift more, even as in this case it is not directly.
Colin: Generally speaking a typical bodybuilder often uses higher rep lower weight while a powerlifter or athlete looking for strength will usually go with higher weight and lower reps. I do believe you need a mixture of both for the best results. Matt’s density training article summed this up very well.
When I was still fairly new to the game I thought the stronger you were the bigger and more defined you will be but that most certainly is not the case. In fact just going by my own results this last year my muscles throughout my body measure larger than they did a year ago, but my 1 rep maxes in pretty much all big lifts except the deadlift were higher back then. I also have a lower body fat percentage than I did a year ago.
That alone kind of led me into a trap of thinking that lower weight, higher rep work was the way to do everything because I’m not one that cares a ton about strength (although I confess it is fun watching the numbers go up and I’m getting back into it). I care more about size and appearance. When you stop and think about it though, if you really want big legs, wouldn’t it make sense to have legs that can squat a ton of weight?
This is why I am starting this new routine of hitting each muscle group twice per week, once for power and once for hypertrophy. I’m hoping this new system that incorporates the best of both worlds will really get things moving in the right direction for this long bulk I just began. Regardless of how often you hit everything though, I think it’s important to include both types in your routine.
Michael: In my experience, neither is going to effectively stimulate a hypertrophic response.
Higher reps demand using relatively lighter amounts of weight and are typically insufficient to tear the muscle down. And, since we’re working over longer periods of time, the body’s adaptation lends itself toward an endurance response.
On the flip side, fewer reps allow for greater amounts of weight, but the duration is too short to tear the muscle down. We end up with a strength adaptation via neurological pathways realigning themselves, but, again, no real hypertrophic response.
I have found the winning combination to be a moderate number of reps (8-12) with moderately heavy weight. So I guess the answer is “Moderation is the key!”
Round 1: The best fat loss method
Round 2: Fasted vs fed cardio for fatloss
Round 5: The best 3 exercises
Round 6: The ideal training program
Round 7: How much protein for fat loss
Round 8: The last 10 pounds
Round 9: The ultimate training split
Round 10: Do carbs or fats make you fat?