Selecting proper rep ranges for your workouts can help you achieve your goals. Select the wrong rep ranges, and it can hinder them…
Most people tend to believe heavier weights for low reps builds strength, whereas lighter weights and higher reps build muscle and endurance.
That however, is not always the case…
Lifting heavy weights for low reps can be an effective way to build both muscle and strength. If you only lift heavy and with low reps, you may be missing out on the benefits of doing higher reps for adding muscle size. Ideally, you will use higher reps to supplement low rep sets to maximize you results.
If you struggle with gaining size, lifting heavy can be a good way to build muscle, but it should not be the only way. In the article, we will discuss what you need to do to maximize muscle growth while training heavy, including:
- Can You Build Muscle with Low Reps (What Does the Research Say?)
- Factors That Determine How Big You May Get with Low Reps
- How Much Weight Can You Gain with Low Reps
- Low vs High Reps – What’s Best for Muscle Growth (Final Verdict)
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What Is Considered a Heavy Weight?
For most lifters, anything over 80% of your 1-rep max can qualify as “heavy” weight. It is estimated that 80% is close to someone’s 8-10 rep maximum, which for most people will allow them to train in the 5-10 rep range for most “heavy, hard effort work sets”.
It is important to note that some people will mistake a light weight taken to failure, in which by the end it “feels heavy” as a heavy weight. This in fact is not the case, so be sure to understand the relationship between “heavy weight” and percentage of 1-rep max.
What Is Considered Low Reps?
Low reps are any exercise done to failure or very close to failure (within 1-2 reps of failure) with 8 or fewer reps per set.
This of course varies based on the training goal, and could easily be expanded to anything between 5-10 reps if the goal is general muscle building.
For strength development, 2-5 reps could also qualify as low reps, however, for the sake of this article, we will discuss low reps and heavy weight training for muscle growth, which is reps 8 or less.
Can You Build Muscle With Low Reps? (What the Science Says)
Yes, you can build muscle while training with low reps. In fact, you can build muscle at the same time as building strength, while training with lower reps vs high reps when the volume is equated.
When equating volume, you can estimate your loading by multiplying your sets x reps x load used for a given exercise. Generally speaking, you will need to perform more sets when training heavier to accumulate equal volume amounts as if you were to train with high reps.
For example, let’s say you squat 135 lbs for four sets of 10 reps. Your overall volume for this movement is 5,360 lbs (135 x 4 x 10).
If you wanted to lift heavy, let’s say 3 reps with 225lbs, you would need to perform roughly seven sets (5,360lbs / (225lbs for 3 reps) = total number of sets) to get the similar amount of volume as the high rep sets.
Study 1 – Effort is the Most Important Factor For Muscle Growth
In a literature review, researchers concluded that people should train at the highest intensity of effort to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible when looking for the best results.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but they then went on to conclude that results were seen in all groups who trained with the utmost intensity and were able to keep the muscle under tension, regardless of resistance type, duration, or rest interval.
Takeaway – If you train hard and keep tension on the muscle, you will get growth. Using a variety of both low and high-rep sets can be your best option to build muscle and get the benefits of all rep ranges.
Study 2 – If You Train to Muscle Failure, You Will Get Growth
Researchers found that when resistance training groups trained to failure, they had muscle growth regardless of the training load.
They did find that strength adaptations were load dependent though.
Lastly, they concluded that when participating in a program, your best bet is to stick to the rep schemes for more than 2 weeks as they found switching loads every 2 weeks did not lead to superior muscle hypertrophy or strength gains in comparison to longer programs.
Takeaway – Train to muscle failure, and get growth. If you are looking to also increase strength, then you will want to pay attention to lower rep training, which when done to failure could help you increase both muscle growth and strength more than higher rep training. Also, don’t switch rep ranges every session, keep them the same for 2+ weeks.
Study 3 – Lifting Heavy Weights for High Volumes Builds Muscle
When training for low reps and with heavy weights, you want to make sure that you accumulate enough training volume to induce muscle hypertrophy. Research shows that when you do this, you will get the same muscle growth as high-rep training.
Takeaway – When training low reps, be sure to pay attention to how many total work sets you are doing. You may need to do more total work sets when lifting with heavier weights to get equivalent volume in comparison to high rep training, but you will also get the added benefit of superior strength building (than doing high reps).
Study 4 – Build More Strength (and Muscle) With Low Reps
Researchers found that muscle growth was the same in both high and low-rep training groups over a 4 and 8-week training period, however, the low-rep group also significantly increased their strength more than the high-rep group in that time frame.
Researchers went on to conclude that performing high-intensity (heavy loads) exercise for low reps is more beneficial for gaining maximal strength and muscle mass in shorter training cycles than high-rep training.
Takeaway – If you are looking to also increase maximal strength, low rep training done with high levels of effort and heavy weights can be a great way to build strength and muscle. The effort needed to do so can be intense, which is why it is suggested to do shorter training cycles and then transition back to a more balanced approach (low and high-rep training).
5 Factors That Determine If You’ll Get Bigger From Lifting Heavy Weights With Low Reps
Below are five key factors that determine your ability to gain muscle and get bigger from lifting heavy weights with low reps.
Are You Eating Enough Calories?
Outside of the gym, you need to be eating enough calories to (1) fuel hard workouts, (2) recover between hard workout sessions, and (3) provide enough nutrients and calories to help place the body in an anabolic state.
Anabolic state refers to the state at which your body can grow and produce new tissues via increased hormonal outputs (can be naturally done by eating enough and training hard with weights).
Takeaway – For lifters who are looking to build muscle and are already lean (under 15% body fat), aim to consume 10-20% more calories per day above your current daily energy needs. If you are someone who is over 15% body fat, aim to consume calories equal to your daily calorie needs and track your weight gain/muscle growth accordingly.
- Related Article: What Should Your Calories & Macros Be When Bulking
Are You Training Hard Enough?
This is one of the most significant factors that will determine your rate of success. Generally speaking, when people lack the results they want, this is often the reason why (they aren’t training hard enough).
This is where a coach or objective individual can help you during workout sessions. If you do not have access to one, you can also record your workouts and always give your best effort, and try to beat your previous efforts every week for months at a time.
With the help of the Fitbod app, lifters are able to track their workouts, analyze their progress, and allow the app to progress their workout intensity each week to continue to challenge the muscles.
Takeaway – When weight training, training hard refers to your ability to train a muscle to failure or 1-2 reps shy of failure (still with good form). This is not an easy task, as it takes practice, skill, and most importantly, raw honest effort to work hard and push yourself to failure (and still hold a high quality of technique).
Are You Getting Enough Training Volume?
Training volume is another key ingredient to building more muscle, regardless of the amount of weight you are using.
When training with heavier weights for lower reps, you need to make sure you are still accumulating enough training volume (sets taken to failure or very close to failure) for each muscle.
The exact training volume range can vary from individual to individual, however, 12-20 total weekly sets could be sufficient.
Takeaway – Aim to get in 12-15 total “hard effort” sets per week, per muscle.
Are You Taking Supplements?
You do not need supplements to build muscle, however, doing so could give you an added edge. When supplementing your training and diet, you may want to focus on (1) protein supplements, (2) creatine monohydrate, (3) caffeine, and (4) carbohydrate powders.
- Protein powders can be helpful to ensure you are getting enough protein in your diet to fuel muscle growth. Generally speaking, aim to consume 1.2-1.6g per kilogram (of your body weight). If you can get all of that from your diet alone, then you may not need protein powders, however, they are a good, low-calorie source of high protein.
- Creatine has been shown to help increase strength and muscle mass and can be a great way to build more muscle. Aim to consume 5g per day of creatine monohydrate.
- Caffeine can be a good supplement to help you increase your energy levels, and mental focus, and push harder later in your workouts. Caffeine can come in many forms, such as pre-workout, coffee, or pills. For best results, take 100-200mg of caffeine before workouts and assess your tolerance, increasing that level upwards of 200-400mg as needed.
- Carbohydrate powders, such as dextrose, maltodextrin, or carb sports drinks can be a great source of energy during hard workouts. Ingesting them during/after workouts along with protein has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth).
Disclaimer – Prior to supplementing or training, be sure to get cleared by your medical professional to ensure you are ready to partake in a workout and diet regimen.
Are You Training Consistently?
Building muscle takes time, and regardless of how heavy the weights that you are using, you need to train multiple times a week for 6-8 weeks straight to see any significant gains.
Takeaway – For best results, train hard 3+ days per week (which will ensure you are able to get enough training volume in) for 6-8 weeks straight to assess progress.
How Much Muscle Can You Gain Training With Heavy Weights and Low Reps?
When training with heavy weights and low reps, you can expect to gain 2-4lbs of muscle per month (beginners) and 1-2lbs per month for more advanced lifters.
In a previous article, we discussed how much muscle you can realistically gain in one month, which depends on your training history, diet, how hard you train, and supplementation
Low Reps vs. High Reps: Should You Do Both?
Yes, most people will benefit from integrating both low and high-rep training in the same training program. If you are looking for both muscle growth and strength, low reps can be a great foundation for you.
Adding in high reps will also help you build muscle and can improve blood flow to tissues. Conversely, if you only train high reps, you will be able to build muscle, however, you will be missing out on building more strength by training in lower rep ranges too.
Low Rep Training – Benefits
- Low rep training offers the similar benefits of high rep training when it comes to muscle growth, but also offers you superior strength building.
- Low-rep training can also be a great way to transition into power movements, such as cleans, snatches, and jumps, as raw power movements are typically done in short, explosive low-rep sets.
Low Rep Training – Limitations
- Low rep training, done with high intensities (necessary to build muscle) can be intense, and very strenuous.
- Heavier loads are great for building muscle and strength but can place a lot of strain on joints and connective tissues. When not monitored properly, this can create overuse injuries.
High Rep Training – Benefits
- High-rep training can help you build muscle, and when done with good form can be a great way to increase mass without having to use heavy loads.
- Lifters who have joint pain or cannot train heavily due to whatever reasons can use higher rep training to keep the absolute loading lower, yet still drive muscle growth.
- Lastly training with higher reps can help you increase blood flow to the muscle tissues and connective tissues around the joints.
High Rep Training – Limitations
- Training high reps can be exhausting, not just on the muscle, but on the surrounding muscles, body, and mind.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Better to Lift More With Less Reps?
For lifters who are looking to build both strength and muscle, lower reps do seem to produce greater strength gains while also increasing muscle size. Training high reps can increase muscle size, however, does not produce as much strength development as lower rep training.
Does Lifting More Weight With Less Reps Help Muscle Growth
Research has shown that both high and low-rep training can build muscle when the overall volume is equated. Lifting with more weight and fewer reps allows you to simultaneously increase strength, however, you will need to typically perform more sets in a workout to ensure enough training volume.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.