In today’s article, we’re going to be taking a look at high reps vs low reps, in a bid to determine which you should be doing as part of your training regimes.
When it comes to weight training and resistance training in general for that matter, there is a common misconception that all forms of training are the same.
That is simply not the case.
If it was, bodybuilders, athletes, CrossFitters, and powerlifters, for example, would all be training in precisely the same way.
In truth, resistance training varies hugely from sport to sport, and goal to goal.
An athlete looking to improve his 100m spring, for example, may lift weights as part of his routine, but he certainly won’t be lifting weights the same way as a powerlifter looking to break the bench press world record.
If you are looking to build an aesthetic and muscular physique, though, it pays to know how to train properly to get the most from your workouts.
That’s why, today, we’re looking high reps or low reps, to help you decide which you should be doing.
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If you were to walk into any gym and observe the people training in there with weights, you’d notice how they all trained very differently.
Some people would have an extremely heavy set of dumbbells and would be busting out maybe 3 or 4 reps at a time, before hitting failure and throwing the weights noisily onto the floor.
Others, though, would have much lighter looking dumbbells and would instead be performing, say, 12 – 15 reps per working set with the same exercise.
Why do some people choose heavy weights and low reps, whereas others opt for lighter weights and more reps?
Well, it depends on what they want from their body.
If you are training for strength and size, light weights and high reps generally won’t cut it.
Instead, you’re going to want to go with heavier weights and lower reps.
On the flip side, if you want to shape and tone your muscles and burn fat, lighter weights and higher reps are likely the way to go.
Whereas we can’t speak for everybody because each person is different, generally you do find that people that emphasize heavy weights with low reps, do so for very specific reasons.
The belief is that people only perform low rep workouts when they are training for muscle mass and strength.
If you want lean muscle growth, I.E to look like a bodybuilder, you should stick with higher weights, right? Well, not necessarily.
First off, we need to determine what a low rep zone is.
If somebody were to ordinarily perform 100 reps per set, 20 reps per set to them would be classed as low, whereas to most people it’s high.
Subjectivity aside, the general consensus is that the low rep range sits at anything from 1 rep per set, up to 6 reps per set.
This form of training is often geared more towards powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and strongman training where the goal is to become, well, strong.
However, this is where people sometimes slip up.
You see, in order for you to benefit, strength-wise, from this way of training, you need to ensure that you are lifting some serious weights.
This is because training in this manner will help to make the nervous system much more efficient as you will get it firing on all cylinders, so to speak.
It’s all to do with shocking the body by switching things up.
Unless you have trained as a powerlifter, strongman, or strength athlete for a prolonged period of time, the concept of training with very heavy weights for low reps will be unfamiliar.
Most people choose to lift weights that they are comfortable with, at least at the start, for safety reasons.
Say that you pick a setup dumbbells up that, for the first few reps feel nice and comfortable, but as you approach 8 reps you begin to struggle, you’re training in the manner that most people, bodybuilders included, training in.
If however, you pick a set of dumbbells up that feel heavy before you’ve even done a single rep, you’re pushing your body outside of its normal boundaries and thresholds and are exposing it to more stressors, which elicit a response.
With low rep training with heavyweights, each movement is slower and more controlled and consequently, you can break down more muscle fibers.
There’s no way that you can bounce or jerk the weight around anymore.
Now, the only way to lift the weight is through brute strength and raw power.
In order to do so, you recruit more motor units and more muscle fibers, which not only helps improve strength and power, it also increases muscle mass too.
This is why bodybuilders in the off-season often train much heavier than they do when training for a contest.
Muscle growth is therefore possible, though you will likely look very different from somebody that trains with lighter weights and higher reps.
As we’re looking at differences, we’re now going to look at a few of the main reasons why people often emphasize high rep training as part of their training routines.
High rep training is generally a form of training that falls in the 8 – 15 rep ranges, although there are some training protocols that, per the working set, go as high as 30 reps.
The truth is that there is no limit to the number of reps you do per set to count your method of training as high rep, it’s just that most people aim for 8 – 15 reps.
Bodybuilders, in particular, will often perform a lot of reps per working set, as this is believed to not only elicit muscle growth, but it can also provide very impressive muscle pumps as well.
There are all kinds of technical terms used for this type of training, although ‘structural hypertrophy’ is one that is banded around a fair amount.
Higher reps are generally performed with lighter weights which, in the early stages of the exercise, may feel very easy, yet once you approach 8 reps or so, that’s when muscular fatigue begins to set in, and you begin to ‘feel the burn’ as it were.
Higher rep training is useful because it allows you to focus not only on perfect form during the exercise but also on the target muscle groups themselves because you will be in control of the weight as you do the exercise.
Reducing the speed in which you perform the exercise, I.E not throwing it around in an uncontrolled manner, and by simply enhancing the number of reps that you perform, time under tension is increased drastically through this manner of training.
Time under tension is basically a term used to describe the amount of time that the target muscle group is under tension from the exercise being performed.
This, in turn, helps create more microscopic rips and tears in the muscle fibers, which is where muscle hypertrophy, or ‘growth’ to everyday folks, will happen.
Now, don’t get us wrong, there will be some increases in strength and power, but the main benefits are going to come in the form of muscle growth.
So, does that mean that you have to perform low reps for strength, and high reps for muscle growth?
Well, not exactly because the more of something you do, the more your body will adapt.
In this section, as we’re comparing, we’re going to look at several benefits of low rep training.
These include, but are not limited to:
There’s no way around it, if you want to improve your strength, you are going to need to perform low reps with heavyweights.
Training with heavy weights at low reps will help you to considerably increase your strength and power.
If you’re constantly using similar weights and are performing 10 – 12 reps, even if you had more in the tank, how can you tell whether you are making progress?
With low rep training, if you stick with a weight in which you could consistently only perform 4 reps, yet on your next session you finally hit 5, this shows that you are making progress and getting stronger.
Now, you can increase the load slightly and move up.
Make no mistake about it, a lot of people that follow a typical 5-day bodybuilding split with the same exercises for the same reps will find themselves growing bored.
Doing the same thing over and over again is bound to make you bored, which is why low rep training is so beneficial.
Because you’re working so hard you don’t have time to be bored because all you are thinking about is lifting the weight and becoming as strong as you can be, without dropping the weight and injuring yourself.
People often assume that low rep training with heavy weights will result in weight gain.
That’s not the case.
If you are eating calories above maintenance, then yes, you will gain weight, but if you create a slight deficit and train with heavy weights and low reps, fat loss is easily achievable.
Now we’re going to look at the benefits of high rep training.
These benefits include, but are not limited to:
One of the main reasons why high rep training is so popular amongst bodybuilders is due to the fact that it provides you with incredibly impressive muscle pumps.
A muscle pump is achieved when oxygenated blood, water, and other fluids are forced into the cells in the muscles.
This then causes the cells to expand, which causes the muscles to look bigger and fuller, and to feel harder.
If you are training for muscle hypertrophy, moderate weight and high reps could be integral to your muscle growth.
As mentioned, with this form of training, because you are increasing time under tension for the target muscle, and because of the fact that each rep is creating additional rips and tears in the muscle fibers, muscle hypertrophy is achievable with this method of training.
This is why so many bodybuilders choose to adopt this method of training as opposed to low rep training and prefer it when it comes to high rep.
If you want to burn fat and tone up, high rep training is generally considered more beneficial, simply because of the increase in volume.
Performing 20 reps, for example, requires more energy than performing 6 reps with a moderate weight, and so you’ll likely burn more calories and lose more fat.
This is why so many bodybuilders prepping for a show will use lighter weights and perform more reps to help them become leaner and more defined.
In terms of which is better out of high reps vs low reps, there is no definitive answer to which is better because it depends on the person doing the exercise in the first place.
Ask a strongman whether low reps with heavy weights are better than high reps with lighter weights, and he’ll likely say yes.
Ask a bodybuilder prepping for a contest whether training heavy with low reps is better than training lighter with higher reps, though, and he’ll say no.
Both types of training have their merits, which is why it is advisable to switch things up and try to incorporate them both into your routines whenever possible.
Reda is an ACE Certified Nutritionist, Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt and bodybuilder with 11 years of experience. He's been published on many influential websites such as lifehack.org, Wealthy Gorilla, Good Men Project and more.