A common debate exists within the fitness and strength training community.
The debate is centered around increasing muscle size and strength. Specifically, whether or not using different methods of strength training can give the same results. These methods are:
- Lower weights with higher repetitions
- Higher weights with lower repetitions.
Those in favour of low weight/high reps argue that pushing your muscles to failure, no matter what the weight, will stimulate the same response. Those supporting high weight/low rep argue that each method puts a different stimulus on your muscles. Therefore, the same results can’t be elicited.
In theory this all sounds great. No matter what approach you take to strength training you can reach the same outcome. I mean who doesn’t like the sound of that. So long as you push your muscles to the same extent they’ll adapt in the same way right? Well, to evaluate the argument I want to look into research behind the opinion.
So, what does the research say…
So, before you go on your merry way lifting however you want, it might be wise to look at this paper published in 2014.
This study looked at the effects of a volume based bodybuilding-type training program against a powerlifting-type strength training programme. The participants in the study were all well-trained but were assigned their training style at random. Basically, “bodybuilding” had lower weights/higher reps with less rest between efforts and “powerlifting” had higher weights/lower reps with more rest between efforts.
The outcome was in one sense quite surprising. Over the 8-week period no real difference in muscle growth between groups was found. However, the “powerlifing” style of training produced far superior strength results. Indicating that, if your focus is to get strong, you should drop the reps and up the weight but if you’re looking for size, well, it doesn’t really matter.
These findings were also supported in a later paper…
Published in 2015, this paper looked into the specific effects both styles of strength training have on the body. Again, they did use well-trained males for this study, so that may bias results. However, the results were interesting nonetheless.
The study found that both strength training styles created similar muscle thickness in participants. It also found that the best strength gains were made by the higher weight/lower repetition participants. Alongside this, the study found that muscle endurance was greater in lower weight/higher repetition group.
In a nutshell, this supports traditional approaches. Whilst both strength training styles taken to failure can elicit significant increases in muscle size, if you’re looking to get strong then higher weight/lower repetitions is the way forward. If you want more muscular endurance, lower weights/higher repetitions are favoured.
These findings are consistent with other researchers as well…
Way back when in 2002, this study found that lower repetition/higher weight in untrained men produced far more effective strength gains. They also noted that lower weight/higher repetition favoured endurance development. The study found that hypertrophy was greatest for the higher weight groups and lower weight showed little muscle growth progression.
Overall, the results lent themselves to the traditional thinking of higher weight/lower reps favouring strength and hypertrophy. Lower weight/higher reps favouring muscular endurance. For me, the significance here is that these results were found in untrained individuals. The two studies above used participants accustomed to training, but this paper suggests findings are consistent across beginners as well.
Although, there is evidence to support no difference in results dependent on training style…
In July 2016, a study was published which opposed these findings. It concluded that high weight/low rep and low weight/high rep strength training gave similar results for muscle growth when performed until failure. Interestingly, there was also an increase in maximal strength across both groups – albeit to a slightly greater extent in the high weight/low weight group. However, differences were minimal across strength training styles.
In addition, previous research has found that strength training with high or low weight/reps resulted in similar muscle hypertrophy and strength improvements in people new to strength training. They also stated higher weight/lower repetition produced more maximal strength gains but again, nothing of notable significance was found. The key here is that the strength training style that will work best for you may be dependent upon your previous exposure to strength training.
What that all means for you…
Well, in summary, based on the research above, my opinion lends itself to the traditional approach:
If you have a background in strength training lower weight/higher repetition until failure will help your muscle endurance and may help you add some size but will add minimal strength. If you’re looking for serious strength gains then up the weights and drop the reps, this will also help you develop muscle size. You will compromise on maximal endurance efforts but where pure maximal strength development is concerned… who cares.
If you are a beginner to strength training then either style of training will give you benefit across the board. Okay, so you may sacrifice some strength if you opt for lower weight/higher reps. Likewise, if you opt for higher weight/lower reps you will benefit overall but may struggle with prolonged effort. However, at the outset of your strength training journey the difference will be minimal. Once you get some experience under your belt, then look to manipulate weight /reps for specific results.