As a major advocate for strength based training being the cornerstone of your programming to ensure you give yourself the best opportunity to grow maximum muscle in the most optimal manner, this article is written with a different outlook on the training principles that matter most… Namely, can you get jacked with lighter weights or is heavier better?
Some of the posing questions that will be answered in this article are:
- How light can you lift relative to your 1RM and still grow muscle?
- Is it better to lift heavier?
- When training, is it necessary to achieve failure?
- What is the best way to implement this all?
Four pretty straight forward questions, with admittedly, at least in my opinion, pretty straight forward answers.
This muscle growing thing really isn’t all that technical in the scheme of things.
So before you continue reading further, read below.
Progress…That right there, progression, above all else is the fundamental factor you need to control. Remember this!
Now back to the article and the question at hand, can you get JACKED lifting lighter weights?
For years there have been reference repetition ranges that have been allocated to achieving specific weight lifting outcomes. If you’re familiar with the research, hell even a brotastic forum has perpetuated these numbers, then you would be familiar with the following.
|Repetitions||1 - 3||3 - 6||8 - 12||15+|
Based on the premise of repetition ranges equating to particular outcomes, individuals looking to grow muscle, which is what this article is about, should stick to the 8-12 repetition range.
All well and good…
But this model fails to recognise the most important factors that we now know are the primary determinants for hypertrophy, which is volume lifted and progression OVER TIME!
The reality is simple…
Growing muscle is the end result of a multitude of biological adaptations to stress (lifting weight), completed repetitively, over time.
And to achieve this, we need to:
- Lift more volume over time (more reps, more weight, more sets)
Now it may sound pretty simple, and it is theoretically, but think about this for a second.
Can you grow muscle if you get stronger in the 3-6 rep range? HELL YEAH you can…
And what about in the hypertrophy range of 8-12? You guessed it… you’re growing!
The real question we need to ask here is…
Which range can you PROGRESS in the most consistently from day to day, week to week, month to month and year by year?
Anecdotally, and unsurprisingly based on the above information, it is my experience that your ability to progress the most consistently will happen in the 8-12 range. Not because it’s the best range for muscle growth specifically, but more so because it's less fatiguing on your CNS, the risk for injury is lower and the metabolic demand is not too intense.
It’s a safe, effective, progressional range with pretty consistent performance.
But that is not to say we cannot improve our approach and move away from just focusing on one repetition range.
So let’s look at the research...
It was previously proposed, and with the research to support it, that the most consistent hypertrophy was achieved in the 8-12 rep range with a relative weight intensity of 70-85% of your 1 repetition max (1RM).
Fast forward to the early 2000’s and research began to surface on the efficacy of low-intensity lifting and hypertrophy. Moving now into today’s research and Brad Schoenfeld et al (2015) began to provide greater weight for the argument of low-intensity hypertrophic lifting.
In fact, low intensity lifting regimes were found to be EQUALLY as effective as high intensity lifting regimes for achieving muscle growth provided failure was achieved in both, however, strength increases tended to favour the high-intensity group (1).
Interesting... Same growth, not quite as strong.
Similarly, Nobrega et al (2017) compared low-intensity versus high0intensity, as well as complete failure versus volitional failure and found that lifters using as low as 30% of their tested 1RM’s achieved the same hypertrophy as 80% of 1RM lifters when completing a single leg extension protocol to volitional failure.
Same growth, same strength...
But does this mean you should now lift light? Perhaps if you were short sighted…
You see... the thing about science is, it’s a great indicator or confidence builder that you are using or recommending principles that don’t cause damage. Even more so than following the science to be better at your job/activity, science provides clarity and reason for making SMART, educated decisions.
So while these 2 specific studies, and there are many more with similar findings, indicate that low loads (when you reach failure) achieve the same, or at least a statistically similar hypertrophy when compared to high loads, this doesn’t mean they should be the cornerstone of your programming.
Ask yourself these questions
- What rep range can you progress in the most frequently?
- What rep range reduces your risk of injury?
- What rep range do you actually enjoy lifting in?
- What rep range leaves you feeling less 'beat up' over time?
The answer to the above questions will more than likely be multiple different rep ranges.
And that right there is the answer to your question…
What rep range is the one that will make you grow the most?
It’s the rep range, or more specifically, the combination of rep ranges, that allow you to progress the most consistently, with the least risk of injury, that you enjoy and leaves you feeling like you are recovering well.
So what are the take home notes?
- Lift heavy and try to improve your lifting weekly while focussing on getting stronger over time.
- Accumulate some training volume with sets in the 8-12 rep range
- Incorporate elements of high fatigue, high metabolic, failure based low load training at the end of your sessions
You don’t need to go to failure when training volume is equated (3) and you will arguably fatigue faster, meaning you’ll do LESS volume when you hit failure too early in a workout, compared to stopping 1-2 reps short (1). Which just further supports the above 3 aspects of training periodization as you need to control both intensity and volume in order to be successful long term.
Don’t focus on one modality of training intensity…
Utilise a diverse range of repetitions, control your fatigue and focus on progression!
Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2954-63. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958.
Nóbrega S, Ugrinowitsch C, Pintanel L, Barcelos C, Libardi C. Effect Of Resistance Training To Muscle Failure Versus Volitional Interruption At High- And Low-Intensities On Muscle Mass And Strength. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: Post Acceptance: January 24, 2017 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001787
Martorelli S, Cadore EL, Izquierdo M, Celes R, Martorelli A, Cleto VA, Alvarenga JG, Bottaro M. Strength training with repetitions to failure does not provide additional strength and muscle hypertrophy gains in young women. European Journal of Translational Myology. 2017 Jun 27;27(2).