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Lifting Weights to Build Lean Muscle: High vs Low Reps

Strength training is important in building lean muscle to help your body perform and look better.  Lifting weights is also a metabolism booster by building lean muscle you will burn more calories and add definition to your body.  The right strength training plan can prevent injury by improving your posture, building core strength, and helping with joint alignment.

Here is what you need to know regarding reps and load, if you are just starting to lift weights or have plateaued and want to start seeing more gains in building lean muscle.

Building Lean Muscle and Improve Muscle Definition

Strength Training Basics

Reps (Repetitions) and Sets are the basis of most strength training programs.  Your reps are simply how many times you complete a movement.  Low reps range from 1 to about 6.  Mid-range reps are generally 8 to 12.  High range reps are more than 14 reps.   Your sets are how many times you complete a rep scheme.  So, if a strength training program prescribes 3 x 5 at a certain weight, you are looking at 3 sets of 5 reps.  That means you’re going to complete that exercise 15 times, with a break between each set of 5.

How Heavy Should You Lift?

Each rep scheme is going to target your muscles in a different way and has different benefits (more on that in a moment).  When choosing your weight within each rep scheme, it should be at a level that challenges you.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you work to failure in every rep scheme, but should be working hard.  In lower rep schemes, you will struggle to complete your final reps.  In higher rep schemes, you may not fail, but you should feel fatigued.  This is because of the different muscle fibers targeted by varied loads and periods of training.

Benefits of Heavy Weights, Low Reps vs. Low Weights, High Reps

There are benefits to training in each rep scheme.  Here’s an overview of what happens when you lift weights.

Heavy Weight/Low Reps (1-6 Reps/set)

This is the type of strength training that we use to just get stronger and is usually the focus of athletes whose goal is to lift a heavy weight, such as Powerlifters and Olympic Weightlifters. Lifting heavy weight for low repetitions will increase the weight that you can lift 1 time (i.e. your 1 rep max or 1RM).   Because body size provides an advantage in lifting heavy weights, you might get bigger (especially if you support your lifting with extra calories).

You will get stronger and build lean muscle.  If your goal is simply to lift heavy things, you don’t need to do any other type of training.  If your goals are a leaner and more defined body, or you want to complement other athletic activities, you should look at other types of training, or complement heavy lifting with a more well-rounded program.

Moderate to Heavy Weight/Mid-range Reps (8-12 reps/set)

This is the type of strength training that is the best for building visible muscle.  For that reason, it’s typically used by Bodybuilders, alone or in combination with the Heavy Weight/Low Reps approach.  Whether your goal is toning or building lean muscle, this is the type of strength training gives you the most visible results by promoting larger muscles, otherwise known as hypertrophy.

Women often fear that lifting this way will make them too big.  In truth, that’s unlikely, especially if you’re watching your diet.  Most women have to lift (and eat) a lot to really build lean muscle.  This is even more true as we age.  If your goal is to tone up, a moderately heavy weight and a rep range of about 10-12 reps per set is a powerful addition to your cardio or lighter sets of weight training. Select your weight at a level that leaves you struggling to finish your final repetitions.

Low Weight and High Reps (more than 14 reps)

If heavy weights make you strong, and moderately heavy weights make you look good, I’ll explain where low weights fit in.  Low weights (even body weight) and higher repetitions are where things get more complicated.  When performed deliberately and at a moderate speed, lower weights can be a welcome break from lifting heavier.  This “deload” lets your muscles recover from periods of heavier lifting and gives you the opportunity to recruit more muscle fibers while building endurance that will help you in your heavy lifting.

For exercisers who are new to lifting, lifting lower weights for longer is also less intimidating and will still lead to building lean muscle and improving performance.  This rep scheme can also be useful for injury prevention and training of smaller stabilizing muscles.

The other fun part about low weights, is the potential to introduce speed into a strength training workout.  Velocity training, which emphasizes moving weights quickly, results in a higher power output.  This translates to improvement in performance in other athletic activities and strength training.  It also improves both endurance and lean muscle composition.  This is a form of strength training that works well for new exercisers, as well as experienced athletes who can benefit from a change in their routine.

How to Choose the Best Strength Training Program

Now you know the basics, and we can choose the best strength training program for your goals.  If you’re new to strength training, starting with a low weight/high rep or moderate weight/moderate rep scheme is probably a good place to start.

Each of these programs will build lean muscle mass, give you a more toned appearance, and improve daily function.  To keep things interesting, vary your programming with different rep schemes and weights throughout your week or during different times of the year. Be sure to include peaks (times of highest performance) and to schedule rest and de-load weeks that will let your body recover from heavy training periods.

 

About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.

 

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