A common question I get asked regarding fitness is the proper repetition range to use for strength training. There clearly is some confusion surrounding this topic, and my goal is to educate the fitness public on the general concept behind choosing repetition ranges and what the outcomes are.
One popular myth surrounding strength training is that heavy weights using low repetitions will build muscle mass. This is mostly false. To build muscle mass, three variables are needed — a large training volume, large quantities of food and rest.
Training volume is imperative to stress the muscles and the corresponding nervous system to prime the body for growth. Training volume is precisely measured as the weight lifted multiplied by the total number of repetitions.
For example, if you lifted 200 pounds for two sets of five repetitions, the total training volume equals 2,000 pounds lifted. However, if you lifted 300 pounds for one set of five repetitions, the total volume would only be 1,500 pounds. The former, there is 25 percent more training volume despite using 33 percent less weight than the latter.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT WEIGHT
The only caveat in the quest for muscle size increases is that the weight needs to be heavy enough to fatigue the proper muscle fibers and their corresponding motor units (command centers that tell the muscles to contract). You can achieve a very high training volume using weights that allow for 20 to 30 repetitions for example, yet these weights are too light to recruit the Type 2 fibers that have much more potential to grow larger versus the endurance Type 1 fibers that don’t typically grow larger regardless of the stimulus.
The take home message is that if you use moderate weights (that are still heavy enough for Type 2 muscle recruitment) for several sets of moderate repetitions, then it will yield a larger training volume and fatigues the muscles more appropriately for muscle growth than using very heavy weights for fewer repetitions.
STRENGTH GAINS VS MUSCLE SIZE INCREASES
Conversely, using maximal weights for few repetitions such as the example of lifting 300 pounds for 5 repetitions, will provide an optimal stimulus for strength gains mostly. Strength gains should not be confused with muscle size increases. Even though a larger muscle will have the potential to produce more force, using very heavy weights with a low training volume will help recruit a larger number of motor units and the rate at which the corresponding muscles contract improving the ability to display strength without the addition of weight gain. Heavy weights alone aren’t efficient at producing muscle size increases because a heavy weight can’t be lifted enough times in a row to fatigue the muscle which is critical for muscle size increases.
If you want to have very strong legs without adding size to them, consider using a heavy weight for 2 sets of 3-5 repetitions, ladies. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve seen who historically have used reps in the 8-15 range and can’t fit into their jeans after 12 weeks.
CONSIDER YOUR SAFETY
Safety is another considering factor when choosing repetition ranges. The current dogma is that lighter weights performed at higher repetitions is safer than heavier loads performed for fewer repetitions. This is belief is misleading. If you are performing large complicated movement patterns such as squatting, deadlifting, Olympic lifting or lunging, use fewer repetitions regardless.
Using moderate to high repetitions causes fatigue which is a sure fire way to have a technical breakdown leading to injury. These complex lifts should not be performed in a fatigued state for safety concerns.
If you are a competitive Crossfitter for the sake of competing in the sport, this obviously doesn’t apply to you. But if you employ high intensity exercise performed across broad time and modal domains, I contend that most barbell lifts should be performed under close supervision, using heavy loads for low repetitions. If you want to improve your anaerobic conditioning, pullups, pushups, gymnastics, jumping rope and kettlebell swings are great movements that complement the use of high repetition ranges.
TIPS FOR OUTDOOR ENTHUSIASTS
Lastly, it is ever so popular to use high heart rate resistance training for time or for as many reps as possible to test your mettle and improve fitness. Even though I like this approach for the right applications, I’m not certain it is optimal for people residing in the Vail Valley.
Most active residents spend significant time in a moderate to high heart rate zone to begin with because of the activities the landscape provides. If you spend any appreciable time outdoors running, biking or hiking, why spend more time in a gym training the exact heart rate zone you already train extensively during outdoor recreation? If you are an outdoor enthusiast, try using heavier weights for fewer repetitions in the gym to balance out the high intensity heart rate training you achieve on the mountain. Stay safe out there!
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.