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High Rep Low Load vs. Low Rep High Load

May 28, 2018
Ashley Ann Lawrie

One of the best things about weight training is how much you can vary the workouts. This high level of variability means that you have an infinite number of ways to program your workouts. With that said, there is quite a bit of research that goes into the rep/set/load scheme of a workout so if you want to make the most out of your training, it is important to understand how manipulating these values can serve your training goals.

High Rep/Low Load Training

As trainers we like to use this combination early in a client’s fitness journey to help teach their bodies how to perform a movement. Some of you may have heard the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, well this is the idea with the higher rep scheme. Trainers may ask you to do 15-20 reps of something with what feels like no weight. This isn’t because we think you can’t handle heavier weights, it is actually because we want you to master the movement.

We spend so much time mindlessly moving, but this can lead to compensations and the body moving sub-optimally. By performing many reps at a low load it means we can ensure your body gets used to doing the movement properly and safely. Once we feel comfortable with your form, then we will begin to challenge the movement and the muscles with high loads.

At this point we can choose to keep the rep range the same and increase the weight, or decrease the reps. This is how we start to develop strength in the muscles. Our bodies are highly adaptable and are always looking for ways to repair, recover and make the next time a little bit easier. This is the basis for progressive overload in personal training. So when we increase the weight and keep the reps in the mid-to-high range (10-12+), trainers are looking to increase the muscle’s time under tension. The longer the muscle is under tension, the greater the number of metabolic byproducts there are. Once the workout is complete, the muscles will begin the repair and recovery phase. The more byproducts we have in the muscle, the more material the body has to use to put the muscle back together. More muscle = more strength.

Low Rep/High Load

So what about those individuals in the gym who are lifting only one or two reps in the gym? Are they just being lazy? Are they lifting more than they should? Well, hopefully not.

Low rep matched with a high load is a really interesting concept that has come out of exercise research. Where the higher rep work will test the muscle, lower rep work with high enough load will actually work both the brain and the muscle. Now, with that said, the brain is also being trained in the higher rep workouts, it is just that during the low load sets the nervous system is what we are trying to train.

In your muscle there are areas called motor units. A motor unit is the group of muscle cells all connected by a motor neuron, which is the nervous system’s connection to the muscles. When we train with heavier weights and lower loads we are training the brain to recruit as many of the motor neurons as possible. This is true strength.

In the lower load workouts your nervous system will only activate as much of the muscle as required to move the weight to conserve energy. This is why we keep the reps low to move heavy weights. Keep the rep demand low so we can move more weight. Every rep should be perfectly executed, and we are not looking to “feel the burn” with this kind of workout. Your muscles can still be sore from a strength training workout, but this is because you have asked a larger area of the muscle to contract. With every contraction comes micro-tears in the muscle and therefore some soreness can be expected but is not the goal.

Another thing to note with this kind of rep-set-load scheme is that because you are training the nervous system as well as the muskuloskeletal system, you might feel more tired than usual. Your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) have just allocated a number of resources to help you move that weight, so they will require some time to recover those resources.

So which one is better?

This is a common question we get from clients. Should they do high rep/low load or low rep/high load to achieve optimal fitness levels? Hopefully this article has helped you understand that the rep-set-load scheme that trainers choose serves a specific purpose. If one of those variables changes throughout your program, then your fitness levels will also progress.

Will one of them get you to your goals faster? That is tough to answer because how quickly you reach your goal is dependent on so much more than the number of reps you do in the gym. If your nutrition, sleep, stress management, and activities outside the gym support the workouts, then you will reach your goals faster than if one or many of those is being neglected. How much you lift and how many times you lift that will either make you better, bigger, or stronger.

As a final note, this article only scratches the surface of programming workouts. There are so many other ways to manipulate the training variables. If something seems repetitive, easy, or just out-right weird, know that it is in your program for a reason.

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