Lifting heavy weights for moderate reps (3-6) is one of the best ways to build muscle. In fact, one of the best programs I have ever done featured one core lift in each of four sessions (Monday: deadlift, Tuesday: bench press or weighted dips, Thursday: front squats, Friday: bent rows or weighted pull ups) at the beginning of the session, for 10 sets of 3 reps. The other two or three exercises in each session were assistance work.
But lifting heavy is hard on the joints, and it's also hard on the neurological system - it takes a lot of energy to make the nerves fire all of the muscle fibers needed to lift heavy weights. Too much fatigue leads to injury. We can't work out if we are injured - the goal is health and fitness.
So sometimes it's a god idea to lift lighter weights for higher reps. In this post from his blog, Chad Waterbury offers some good guidelines for using higher reps and still building muscle.
What’s the best rep range to build muscle? That’s a question many of you have probably pondered over the years, especially if you’re wanting to know how to get ripped. Most people do 8-12 reps per set for maximum growth. However, heavier weights can build just as much muscle, if there’s enough volume. Three sets of three reps (3×3) won’t add much mass, but 10 sets of three reps (10×3) definitely will.
So what about high rep training? Can it build just as much muscle?
I love heavy lifting as much as the next guy, but there are times when your joints need a break and your muscles need a different type of stimulus to accelerate growth. High rep training can be the path to new muscle, if you adhere to the following four steps:
1. Take each set to failure: I’m not a big fan of training to failure; however, when training with light weights it’s necessary to take each set to the point of exhaustion. With heavier loads (eg, 4-6 rep max) you can get away with avoiding failure because the load is heavy enough to recruit your largest motor units, even if you don’t reach failure.
For muscle growth, the motor units must be fatigued. If you can do 25 push-ups but you stop that set at 19 or 20 reps, there won’t be enough fatigue to stimulate growth through an increase in protein synthesis. Research by Burd, et al (2010) shows that training with light loads (30% of max) can result in the same level of increased protein synthesis as heavy loads (90% of max), provided you take those high rep sets to failure.
Training to “failure” can mean different things to different people. My definition: when you can no longer achieve a full range of motion rep with perfect form you’ve reached failure. Don’t push beyond that point.
2. Choose the right exercises for high rep training: There are certain strength exercises that should never be taken to failure: squat, deadlift, and Olympic lifts. The risk of taking any of those exercises to failure far outweighs the potential benefit, and this is especially true with high rep sets that accumulate a huge amount of fatigue. As a rule, stick to high rep training to failure for upper body lifts and single leg lower body exercises.
A few of my favorite exercises to train to failure with high reps are: push-up, pull-up, handstand push-up, lunge, standing calf raise, and single-leg hip thrust.
3. Don’t go too light: You could curl a soup can all day long and it won’t add muscle to your biceps. When the load is too light it’s impossible to recruit and fatigue the motor units that are large enough to result in visible growth.
As a general rule, stick to loads that allow 20-30 reps for your first set for your high rep workouts. If you can any more than that, the load isn’t ideal for growth. From there, keep cranking out sets of as many reps as you can with that same load until you reach a target number of total reps (eg, 50 reps for that muscle group).
4. Get the most out of each rep: When training with light loads, the speed and tension you develop in each rep becomes paramount. If you purposely slow down the concentric (muscle shortening) phase, you’ll leave the larger motor units untapped. And when the muscle group is maximally shortened, that peak contraction should be squeezed briefly to build extra tension. With that extra tension comes extra muscle growth because you’ll recruit more motor units.
Bottom line for tempo: the shortening (concentric) phase should be fast, followed by a brief but intense squeeze of the muscle, and then do the lengthening (eccentric) phase under control.
When you do high rep training the right way, you can build new muscle and train more frequently because it’s less stressful to the central nervous system (CNS) and joints. That’s why there are many body weight exercises in my new book, High Frequency Training. Coming October 16!