When someone first begins lifting weights and working out, one of the most frequently asked questions revolves around the optimal or ideal number of repetitions that should be performed to either get strong or gain muscle, or both. The question is asked because everyone has at least one of these goals in mind and they want to know what target repetitions will help them accomplish their specific goals.
Before we get into low-load training I wanted to share what are the common rep ranges used. There is moderate, which often refers to rep ranges of 6 to 15, and high reps, which are typically rep ranges above 15, to maximize muscle growth. For a focus on strength, most gravitate to reps at 6 or below. So let’s now talk about the fundamentals.
The number of reps they perform will determine the relative load applied, assuming they are pushing themselves on each set. The effectiveness of low-load training, which involves lifting weights that are less than 60% of your one-rep maximum (1RM), or a weight that you could lift for at least 15 reps, has been up for dispute over the years. Some claim that low-load, high-rep training is the only way to gain muscle, a more traditional style for bodybuilders. While others assert that high-load training puts more stress on the muscles, which promotes greater muscle growth. Which is true? They are likely both true.
At this point, this topic has been studied to a large degree and there is plenty of research demonstrating that both high-load and low-load training can result in similar hypertrophy gains (1). While there is always more work to be done and additional evidence can always point to a clearer picture, we can base what we already know on how to move forward. This is important from a practical standpoint for many of us. For us home workout enthusiasts who want to make the most of our gym time (which is usually more limited than that of those who go to commercial gyms), we can understand that if these two interventions can produce the same or similar results, you can feel confident training in the rep range that you are most comfortable with. If you are just starting with your home gym, you may also be limited to the weights you currently own and that you have access to. Who knows, it may save you time in the gym as well. Awesome, I know.
In a recent meta-analysis, by Brad Schoenfeld (if you do not know who this is, you should) et. al (2017) examined the effects of high-load (>60% of 1RM) and low-load (<60% of 1RM) training on strength and muscle development. There were, in my opinion, two discoveries that are important to understand. First, it was discovered that although training with smaller loads still produced significant strength gains, heavier loading led to larger increases in 1RM strength. If muscular strength is the goal in mind, you should lean toward more heavyweight or high-load training. However, if you are more concerned with increases in muscle mass, the meta-analysis discovered that gains in isometric strength or increases in muscle mass may not be influenced by training load. Ultimately, both training loads produced similar results for hypertrophy.
What Are Some Benefits Of Low-Load Training?
Strength training in your preferred rep range.
If you enjoy a particular rep range, say reps between 8 to 12 or if you prefer different rep ranges for different muscles, you can choose to do so. For example, I would be hard-pressed to complete barbell squats with repetitions over 10 but on the bench press, I do not like going much below 6. With this body of research showing results would be similar, I can work with my preferences and enjoy my workouts more or stay away from reps for muscle groups I do not like. Barbell squats are hard enough as it is, the last thing I want to worry about is cranking out 15 of those bad boys. You’ll hear more about it later. If you prefer to train using lower weights or do not have access to heavy plates and dumbbells, no worries!
If you prefer working out in lower rep ranges and heavier weights, you can also feel more comfortable backing off and using lighter weights and not sacrificing muscular gains. In essence, back off the higher intensity when you need to.
Shorter Warm-Up Time
Working up to a 1RM on a deadlift can take considerable time with multiple sets and this is just your warm-up even before your working sets. If you are training in higher rep ranges, your warm-up sets can be completed much quicker. LINK TO WARM-UP ARTICLE. This makes sense as warming up to increase muscle temperature and weights near what you will be working at will take several fewer sets if you are working at 60% 1RM vs. 90% 1RM.
Lower Stress On Your Joints
We all understand that heavy weights can put significant stress on our joints and let’s face it, many of us who are not the young bucks we once were, need to be more mindful of this. While overtraining can happen with heavy and lighter weights, as overtraining is more highly associated with total training volume than the weight you use, many of us feel more strain with heavier weights.
Another benefit I would see is not needing to exercise in multiple rep ranges if you did not want to. Often, many individuals can suffer nagging injuries or even worse, an injury that keeps them out of weight training altogether when using very heavy weights. Not that this can’t happen with any weight but the likelihood of something happening increases as you increase the weight.
This may be even more critical for older adults who are currently or starting a weight training regimen.
Reduce The Number Of Sets You Have To Perform
When training with lower weights, you will be performing more repetitions, if you train to or close to failure. As your sets increase in the repetitions performed, your training volume load is accomplished quicker. Volume load is calculated by the weight you use and the repetitions performed. Here is an example saying your 1RM bench press is 300 pounds.
80% 1RM equals 240 pounds and most complete ~8 reps with this weight
30% 1RM equals 90 pounds and most complete 25 – 30 reps.
For our example, let’s say you can complete 25 reps. Using the volume load equation I shared above, using your 80% 1RM would equate to 1,920 pounds of volume load and 30% would be 2,250 pounds of volume load. As you can see, you could reach muscular failure quicker and with fewer sets. This could not only reduce the number of sets performed but the time it takes to work out as you have also reduced your rest time during your training program.
include link to 1RM Calculator
What to be wary of with low-load training
Doing 25 – 30 reps of any exercise can be very difficult and exhausting. This is not because of the weight used but more the fact that many find very low-load training unbearable. 30% 1RM, as I mentioned above, equates to repetitions at or above 25. In this study, individuals were asked to provide their perceived exertion and discomfort during the bench press, hack squat, and lat pulldown during low-load training (25–30RM) and moderate-load training (8–12RM). If you guessed that most had a higher discomfort with the higher rep ranges, you would be correct.
Although low-load and moderate-load exercise can result in equivalent hypertrophy, utilizing just low-load training has significant practical drawbacks. This study demonstrates that generally speaking, people find moderate-load training to be more pleasurable and less tiring than low-load training. Another thing to consider is it may also be more difficult to maintain progressive overload with low loads than with moderate loads.
Training To Failure
Another practical issue to consider with low loads is that in low-load versus moderate-load training studies, the low-load groups routinely have participants training to failure. When it comes to training to failure and recovery, we are aware that training to failure increases fatigue and recovery time when compared to submaximal training or leaving a few reps in the tank. An extended recovery period can result in a reduced frequency and volume if only low loads are applied, as training to failure may be required to maximize hypertrophy.
While there is a lot to consider when choosing your rep ranges or the intensity of the weight you use in your workouts, you should be mindful of all the factors mentioned above. However, being worried about whether you gain muscle using lower weights versus heavier weights, should not deter you from using what you enjoy best. As many of us trainers know, doing what you enjoy, including the repetitions performed, is the best way to keep you consistent in the gym.