Workout programming for resistance training can feel like as much of an art as it is a science.
Deciding which exercises to perform, how many exercises to do per muscle group, how much weight to lift, how many sets to perform, and how many reps to do per set are just some of the factors that must be determined for every workout and every training program.
One of the most common debates or decisions that beginners (and even more advanced lifters!) struggle with is whether it is better to use an approach of high weight low reps or high reps low weight. In other words, is it better to lift heavier weights for fewer reps or lift lighter weights for more reps?
In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of low weight high reps training versus high weight low reps training to help you decide which strength training approach is best for your fitness goals.
We will cover:
- What Does Low Weight High Reps Mean?
- What Does High Weight Low Reps Mean?
- High Reps vs Low Reps and the Strength Continuum
- Should I Lift Heavy Weights Or Light Weights?
Let’s dive in!
What Does Low Weight High Reps Mean?
Low weight high reps training involves lifting lighter weights for more repetitions.
Although this is certainly a sweeping generalization, many women who want to “tone“ their muscles use lighter dumbbells—say 5 pounds—and perform 20-25 reps of an exercise, hearing that lifting heavier weights will cause their muscles to “bulk up.“
With that said, it’s important to establish that many women naturally gravitate toward high weight low reps training as well, and plenty of men also take the low weight high rep approach.
Whether considering high reps low weight workouts, or low reps high weight workouts, another necessary point to establish is that the terms “high“ and “low” are relative, particularly when it comes to “high weight“ or “low weight.“In other words, what may be a high or low weight (heavy or light weight) for one person will vary significantly from another person.
There isn’t a universal cutoff weight in terms of pounds or kilograms that distinguishes whether you are automatically using a heavy or light weight or high or low weight.
Doing biceps curls with 10-pound dumbbells might be a low weight for some and a high weight for others.
What Does High Weight Low Reps Mean?
High weight low reps training is the opposite of low weight high reps training, which involves lifting heavy weights for fewer repetitions.
High Reps vs Low Reps and the Strength Continuum
With resistance training, there is a “strength continuum,” which is essentially a framework that helps define the relationship between the load lifted and the number of reps performed with the resultant training outcome.
The load used is relative to your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for an exercise. The 1RM refers to the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single complete rep of exercise while using proper form and technique.
For example, if you are trying to determine your 1RM for the back squat, you would use whatever weight you can lift while executing perfect form for just one repetition.
If you can use the same weight and do another rap, the weight you are using is not enough. On the other hand, if your form falters or you “cheat“ in that you don’t go deep enough or make some other compromise to your technique, the weight you are using is higher than your true 1RM.
Along the strength continuum, as the number of reps that you can perform increases, the relative percentage of the load based on your 1RM decreases.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the following table shows the percentage of your 1RM you should use for the given number of reps of an exercise:
|Maximum Number of Reps||Percent of 1RM Load|
In general, the traditional strength training framework involves using heavy weights for fewer reps to increase strength and size and lighter weights for many reps to increase muscular endurance.
Using the low weight high reps approach helps activate the Type 1 (“slow twitch”) muscle fibers, which are your endurance muscle fibers capable of supporting aerobic training and generating energy via aerobic metabolism.
Using high weight low reps training helps activate the Type 2 (“fast twitch”) muscle fibers, which are more powerful and explosive but fatigue more easily.
Different fitness organizations report slightly different training volume recommendations, but the following table shows a good approximation of training volume guidelines for reps, sets, and load:
|Training Goal||Sets||Reps||Rest Period||Intensity|
|General fitness||1-3||12-15||30 to 90 seconds||Varies on exercise and ability level|
|Muscular Endurance||3-4||>12||Up to 30 seconds||<67% of 1RM|
|Hypertrophy (building muscle mass)||3-6||6-12||30 to 90 seconds||67% to 85% of 1RM|
|Muscle strength||4-6||3-6||2 to 5 minutes||>85% of 1RM|
|Power||3-5||1-5||2 to 5 minutes||85%–100% of 1RM|
Should I Lift Heavy Weights Or Light Weights?
Whether it’s better to lift heavy or light weights depends mainly on your goals:
High Reps vs. Low Reps For Strength
If you are looking to increase strength, the research has rather conclusively demonstrated that it’s better to do high weight low reps vs low weight high reps workouts.
In order to actually get stronger, your muscle fibers need to lift heavy enough weights to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
This requires overloading the muscles to the point that some amount of microscopic damage occurs to the muscle fibers, triggering the reparative process. This ultimately strengthens your muscles by reinforcing your muscle fibers with new muscle proteins and improving the glycolytic capacity and efficiency of the Type 2 muscle fibers.
This helps the fast-twist muscle fibers activate more quickly and generate ATP faster for more powerful and forceful muscle contractions. This will help you lift heavier weights (increasing strength).
Although lifting heavier weights and performing your reps is certainly more effective than lifting lighter weights and performing many reps, it is still possible to increase strength using the low weight high reps approach.
High Reps vs. Low Reps For Building Muscle
It is generally thought that lifting moderately-heavy weights (65-85% of your 1RM) for a mid-range number of reps (8-12) is ideal for building muscle.
However, there has been evidence to suggest that lifting light weights for high reps and lifting heavy weights for lower reps result in similar gains in muscle hypertrophy.
Another study found no significant differences in the amount of hypertrophic muscle growth between lifting weights using loads equal to the 10RM compared to lifting light weights equal to the 20RM.
Similarly, a large review found that novice and recreational weightlifters who trained with the light weights high reps approach (less than 60% of their 1RM or that could be used to perform a minimum of 15 reps) experienced essentially the same amount of muscle growth as similar weightlifters who used loads between 60-70% or more of their 1RM for the exercise.
With these studies, it’s important to note that the increases in muscle size from lifting lighter weights was more significant in novice lifters.
With that said, some studies suggest that even experienced lifters can build muscle by lifting light weights as long as the sets are completed to failure.
In other words, the low weight vs high weight issue may be less of a deciding factor as long as the low weight is done with high reps.
High Reps vs. Low Reps For Losing Weight
There is not a lot of research about whether it is better to lift light weight for lots of reps or heavy weights for fewer reps if the goal is weight loss.
Strength training, in general, has been shown to help support weight loss, but it’s less clear if there is a specific rep and load range that best facilitates weight loss.
Lifting weights as an activity helps burn calories at the moment, but also, building muscle will help boost your metabolic rate, which can make it easier to lose weight in the long term.
If you are trying to lift weights to lose weight, consider varying your workouts by sometimes lifting heavier weights for fewer reps and sometimes lifting lighter weights for many reps.
In your strength training sessions, make sure to perform compound, multi-joint exercises that involve numerous major muscle groups, such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, chest press, step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, and kettlebell swings.
If you are looking for a complete list of compound exercises to have a wide variety to choose from to add to your next training sessions, check out our guide: A Complete List Of Compound Exercises To Spice Up Your Training.