It’s an age-old question and one we get here at Dioxyme all the time: “Should you do more reps or more weight?” While both approaches can be beneficial, choosing which one is right for you ultimately depends on a number of factors.
In this article, we’re going over everything you need to know about training with more reps vs. more weight. We’ll cover things like rep ranges and 1 rep max percentages, as well as how to choose the approach that best fits your goals.
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Endurance vs Strength Training
Before we dive too far into the more reps or more weight debate, let's first discuss a basic concept known as the strength continuum. In basic terms, you can think of weight lifting as existing on a spectrum, with endurance training existing on one end and strength training on the other.
Your strength and the weights you lift have an inverse relationship, meaning that the more weight you lift, the fewer number of reps you’ll be able to do and vice versa. Not all that surprising right?
On top of that though, things like the number or reps you perform, as well as the intensity at which they're performed, can both impact the ways in which your muscles are affected.
⫸Training for Muscle Endurance (More Reps)
On one side of the spectrum lies endurance training. As opposed to strength training, an endurance-based lifting program is geared towards building up your muscles’ oxygen uptake, not your strength.
Because you’ll be using low force movements, you’ll be doing a lot more reps compared to strength training. Most endurance-based programs will have you working with rep ranges at or above 20 reps per set.
Since the goal is to lift relatively light weights for a high number of reps, you generally won’t be going above 50% of your 1RM with endurance-based weight training.
⫸Training for Muscle Strength (More Weight)
On the other side of the continuum is strength training, where you’ll be working with heavier weights and ultimately won’t be able to do as many reps per set. Unsurprisingly, the goal of strength training is to make your muscles stronger, which doesn’t always mean making them bigger.
When it comes to strength training, you’ll usually be working at or above 70% of your 1 rep max (1RM) -- 100% of your 1RM would represent the maximum amount of weight you can successfully lift for 1 rep. While you can physically figure out your 1 rep max in the gym, many people simply use a 1 rep max calculator.
As far as reps go, most strength-based training approaches utilize rep ranges between 1 - 5 reps per set. Although some people may work up to their true 1 rep max, many rarely go above 90 - 95%.
⫸Training for Muscle Size (Hybrid)
In between both ends of the spectrum is hypertrophy training -- hypertrophy refers to the process through which your muscles grow. Most hypertrophy-based weight lifting programs utilize rep ranges between 6 - 12 reps per set, usually between 65% - 80% 1RM.
While the aforementioned approach may be the most popular when it comes to building muscle, research suggests that lower-load training (<65% 1RM) can still produce significant increases in muscle thickness when exercises are performed to failure.(1)
More Reps or More Weight for Fat Loss?
When it comes to working out for weight loss, most people think of cardiovascular-based exercises like jogging on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.
While it’s true that these kinds of exercises can help when it comes to weight loss, research shows that lifting weights may be just as effective for shedding some excess pounds.
For example, a 2010 study published by the American Diabetes Association evaluated the effects of a 16-week resistance training program on middle-aged men and women with type 2 diabetes.(2)
All study participants ate 1 of 2 hypocaloric diets, consisting of either high carb or high protein. From there, half of each diet group participated in resistance training 3 days a week while the other half did not.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers ultimately found that both of the groups that did resistance training lost significant amounts of weight, however, the group that was also assigned to a high protein diet ultimately lost the most -- they lost an average of 6.4kgs of fat mass and over 8kgs of total body weight.
While resistance training can certainly be beneficial for weight loss, the research is less clear in terms of which approach works best. In fact, researchers have demonstrated positive results with both low and high-rep training programs.
These findings seem to suggest that the number of reps you do and the amount of weight you lift may not matter all that much when it comes to losing weight. Instead, the key factor when it comes to weight loss is intensity. In order to maximize your weight-loss potential, you’ll need to be working at a high intensity when you’re in the gym.
⫸The Importance of Workout Intensity
The intensity of your workout can be influenced by a number of factors. One of the most obvious ways to increase the intensity of your workout is to use heavier weights. Working with weights that are closer to your one-rep max will ultimately be more taxing on your body compared to doing the same number of reps at a lower weight.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t lift lighter and still increase the intensity. Another way to up the intensity in your workout is by lifting to failure. Taking your sets to muscular failure can be extremely taxing on your muscles, which in addition to burning more calories, can also help to improve your body composition.
On top of lifting until failure, you can also increase the time in which your muscles are under tension in order to increase the intensity. Instead of moving as quickly as possible through your set, focus on slowing down the eccentric portion of the movement.
For example, on the bench press, chose a weight at or below 65% or your 1RM max and count to four as you lower it to your chest. You’ll quickly find that this is much more challenging on your muscles compared to just breezing through the movement.
While the intensity of your workout is an important factor when it comes to weight loss, your diet plays a far greater role, no matter what kind of exercises you’re doing. In fact, if you’re eating a hypocaloric diet, you can lose weight without exercising at all.
With that being said, numerous studies have demonstrated that resistance training helps to preserve fat-free mass during weight loss, which helps to improve your body composition to a greater degree than diet alone.(3)(4)(5)
More Reps or More Weight for Strength Gains?
When it comes to gaining strength, nothing is better than a training routine that involves fewer reps with heavier weights (≥ 70% 1RM). But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t still build muscle lifting lighter with more reps.
For example, a 2006 study recruited 52 participants and placed them in one of two groups in which they were asked to partake in a lower body workout routine twice a week.(6) Group one did high resistance exercises (70% 1RM) and group two did low resistance (40% 1RM).
After 16 weeks of training, the researchers ultimately found that the high resistance group, on average, saw the greatest results -- their power output increased by 42%. However, the low resistance group also saw significant results with an average power increase of 34%.
So while fewer reps and more weight may yield the best results, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to increase your strength. In fact, a training regime that includes a mixture of both high and low resistance exercises may be the optimal route for building strength while also keeping your risk of injury at a minimum.
More Reps or More Weight For Building Muscle?
When it comes to building muscle, you'll most likely need to be working with weights that you're able to perform 6 - 12 reps with per set in order to maximize your muscle-building potential. However, some research does shows that higher rep ranges performed to failure may have similar effects when it comes to bulking up.
For instance, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of high-load and low-load resistance training.(7) Participants were tasked with an 8-week full-body weight training program and placed in one of two groups. Group 1 performed 25 - 35 reps per set and group 2 performed 8 - 12 reps per set.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers ultimately observed significant increases in muscle thickness in both groups. On average, the thickness of participants’ elbow flexors increased by 5.3% for the high-load group and 8.6% for the low-load group. Quad thickness also, on average, increased by more than 9 percent for both groups.
⫸The Importance of Training Volume and Diet
When it comes to bulking up, training volume and diet play more important roles that the number of reps you do in terms of maximizing your muscle-building potential.
Whether you chose to go with more reps or more weight, in order to make gains, your training volume needs to go up over time. In simple terms, that means that over the course of your training program, you need to be progressively increasing the amount of weight you lift or the numbers of reps you do in order to see results.
While progressive overload is an important aspect of building muscle, nothing is more important than your diet. In fact, without enough calories and protein, you won’t be able to pack on lean muscle mass no matter how much time you spend at the gym.
For most people, a surplus of around 500 extra calories per day combined with a daily protein intake of 1g of protein per pound of body weight should be enough to support healthy muscle growth.
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Although different training approaches may be slightly better suited for some goals as opposed to others, the fact of the matter is that you can still make significant improvements in the weight room no matter whether you do more reps or more weight.
When it comes to losing weight, the key lies in doing your exercises at a high-intensity. No matter whether you’re lifting light or heavy, you need to be seriously challenging your body with your workout in order to maximize your fat-burning potential.
On the flip side, if you’re looking to build muscle, you need to be progressively increasing your training volume over the course of your program, no matter whether that means upping the number of reps you do or the amount of weight you lift.
Finally, while nothing is better than high-load resistance training when it comes to building strength, the research does show that you can still make significant strength gains even with lighter loads.
- “Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise.” Burd, N.A., Mitchell, C.J., Churchward-Venne, T.A., Phillips, S.M. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Jun. 2012.
- “A High-Protein Diet With Resistance Exercise Training Improves Weight Loss and Body Composition in Overweight and Obese Patients With Type 2 Diabetes” Wycherley, T.P., Noakes, M., Clifton, R.M., Cleanthous, X., Keogh, J.B., Brinkwoth, G.D. American Diabetes Association. May. 2010.
- “A meta-analysis of the factors affecting exercise-induced changes in body mass, fat mass and fat-free mass in males and females.” Ballor, D.L., Keesey, R.E. International Journal of Obesity. Nov. 1991.
- “Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults” Campbell, W.W., Crim, M.C., Young, V.R., Evans, W.J. The American Journal of Clincial Nutrition. Aug. 1994.
- “Resistance Training Conserves Fat‐free Mass and Resting Energy Expenditure Following Weight Loss” Hunter, G.R., Byrne, N.M., Sirikul, B., Fernandez, J.R., Zuckerman, P.A., Darnell, B.E., Gower, B.A. Obesity. Sep. 2012.
- “Comparative Effects of Light or Heavy Resistance Power Training for Improving Lower Extremity Power and Physical Performance in Mobility-Limited Older Adults” Reid, K.F., Martin, K.I., Doros, G., Clark, D.J., Hau, C., Patten, C., Phillips, E.M., Frontera, W.R., Feilding, R.A. The Journal of Gerontology. Sep. 2014.
- “Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men” Schoenfeld, B.J., Peterson, M.D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G.T. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Oct. 2015.
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