A simple google search on rep ranges and you’ll be bombarded with nothing but conflicting information. Bodybuilding.com forum posts, fitness articles over cluttered with supplement ads, and every other type of fitness-related BS you can think of. I’m going to do my best to clear up the issue for you.
One of the most common questions you’ll hear about training is “Should I lift heavy weight for low reps or light weight for high reps?” The answer isn’t all that black and white.
If you’re trying to get strong, there’s really no two ways about it. You need to pick up heavy things. If your goal is purely to get stronger then working in a lower rep range is going to be your best bet.
So what about training for aesthetics? In terms of muscle growth and development, the key is going to be stimulating muscle fibers. And the same goes for a weight loss program. You need to stimulate muscle to maintain muscle and get that leaner, healthier look you’re going for.
When you lift heavier weight, you actually activate more total muscle fibers than you do with a lighter weight. So everyone should just lift heavy, right? Not exactly.
When trying to isolate and develop a specific muscle you also need to learn something called a “mind-muscle connection.” In a nutshell, this means being able to think about a muscle and turn it on at will during an exercise. When lifting heavier loads, this can be a challenge. In other words, sure, you can single-arm row 80lb dumbbells, but what muscles are you using to do it? Do you feel it in your lats? Rear delts? Rhomboids? How can you tweak the movement to stimulate one of these muscles more effectively?
What I’ve done for years and what I often have my clients do is incorporate pyramid sets for compound lifts. So if you’re doing five sets of an exercise, start at a lower weight for higher reps and as you progress work up in weight and down in reps. This way I’m incorporating a variety of rep ranges and stimulating a variety of different muscle fibers. For me, the main issue with lifting excessively heavy all the time is that I can’t get the same quality contractions that I can with a more manageable load.
That said, regardless of how heavy you’re lifting, in order to stimulate maximum amount of muscle you’re going to need intensity. So whether you’re doing five reps or fifteen, it should not be easy to get there. Push yourself. As long as you’re working hard in the gym and your diet is on point you will see results. I think beginners tend to get too caught up in the minutia of the weight room when they should be putting more energy into busting their ass and eating plenty of food. When you start to hit plateaus in strength or physique, that’s when you need to start tweaking the small stuff.
So volume or strength, which is it? The answer is there really is no one perfect way to train. You need to experiment and learn how your body responds to different types of training. If you’re stimulating muscle and your food intake is high enough, you’re going to grow. What type of training is going to get you the fastest results is for you to find out.
Get after it.