High vs Low Reps: Which is Best for You and Why? (Science Based Advice)

Find out which is right for you.

Many people believe that aiming for a high rep count is better for cutting and getting very defined muscles with visible striations, meanwhile low reps are better at building more muscle mass and bulking up.

However, neither of these statements is actually true, and there are many outdated misconceptions that people still have when it comes to choosing the best rep range for their goals. In this video by Max Posternak from Gravity Transformation, we’ll go over the benefits and drawbacks of each so that you can choose the best rep range for yourself.

What Exactly Constitutes High or Low Rep Ranges?

Let’s first define exactly what we mean when we say high or low reps. High reps, when it comes to weight training, typically involve sets with more than twelve reps per set.

On the other hand, low reps are commonly associated with any rep range from one to six reps per set. Usually, you’ll stick within a range of three to six reps to minimize the chance of injury.

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Obviously, low reps are usually performed in combination with a much heavier weight load, meanwhile high reps require a lighter weight load.

The idea that high repetitions inherently lead to more defined muscles is a very outdated and common misconception. Having more cut visible muscles is usually referred to as muscle definition or muscle tone, and both are primarily influenced by two factors: muscle size and body fat percentage.

While high repetition training can contribute to muscle size, it doesn’t have a direct correlation with building more defined muscles. You’re not going to burn significantly more fat from doing high reps either, and there’s no way to target fat burn to specifically burn the fat away from the muscles you’re working.

Muscle Size and Body Fat Percentage

When it comes to muscle definition, aside from genetics, the two biggest factors that are actually in your control are building your muscle size through resistance training while also reducing overall body fat percentage, which mostly boils down to maintaining a proper diet plan. Without addressing the body fat component, even well-developed muscles will stay hidden underneath a layer of body fat. So regardless of your rep range, you can still get very defined muscles just by building them up and staying lean.

High Rep Training

Both high rep training and low rep training can be very effective for muscle growth in their own ways.

For example, let’s start with high rep training. Metabolic stress is a big component of muscle growth and it’s generally higher when performing high reps rather than low reps.

This metabolic stress triggers the release of growth hormone and igf-1, which both play a key role in boosting muscle protein synthesis and helping with the muscle repair and growth process. Typically, during high rep sets, the muscles that you’re working will also get a greater amount of time under tension.

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Not only will you feel more fatigued the longer a muscle is activated during a set, but more time under tension also stimulates the recruitment of both slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers.

So even though fast twitch fibers are in fact more associated with heavier weight loads while slow twitch fibers are more associated with higher reps, better resistance to fatigue, and improvements in endurance-based activities, the constant stress placed on your muscles during high rep training will actually engage both fiber types effectively.

Problems with High Rep Training

The major downfall of high rep training in terms of muscle growth is when you go overboard with reps. If you try to do any exercise for 50 or 100 reps, there’s a high chance that your form will start to break down or you’ll need to take a break due to excessive fatigue and exhaustion rather than your muscles actually failing. This is why if you’re trying to build muscle with high rep training, still use heavy enough weights that limit you to under 20 reps before you fail or at least come close to failure.

push up

Low Rep Training

Low rep training offers its own unique set of advantages for muscle growth. For example, since it’s associated with heavier weight loads, it requires the recruitment of a higher percentage of muscle fibers, specifically the fast twitch fibers which have a greater potential for overall growth.

Low rep training also places a very high demand on your central nervous system, leading to beneficial neural adaptations like increased muscle motor unit recruitment and improved coordination between your nervous system and your muscles.

This is how low rep training can lead to much greater strength gains than high rep training. Increased strength can then allow you to lift heavier weights which contributes to progressive overload. Consistently increasing the overall stress placed on your muscles over time is one of the main factors that leads to greater overall muscle growth, and low rep training helps you do just that.

Issues with Low Rep Training

The downfall with low rep training is twofold. First of all, low rep training requires heavy weight loads to be effective, and those heavy weight loads place more strain on your joints and connective tissues. If you have improper form with heavier weight loads, it can easily lead to injuries like muscle strains, joint inflammation, or full-out tears.

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The other issue is that low rep training doesn’t stimulate slow twitch muscle fibers very effectively, so muscle fatigue can actually lead to a strength plateau.

This is why, purely for muscle building purposes, we recommend combining both high and low reps.

The Best of Both Worlds: A Handy Solution

For example, a very simple way to structure this is to perform 3 to 6 reps for 3 weeks and then switch to 12 to 20 reps for 3 weeks. Each of these rep ranges should be done with a heavy enough weight load that takes you to failure within that rep range. By switching back and forth like this, you get the best of both worlds.

Rep Ranges for Performance

Now, of course, if your goal is purely performance rather than muscle growth, you may want to choose one rep range over the other and stick to it. That’s because activities such as long-distance running, cycling, rowing, and long-distance swimming are all much more dependent on muscular endurance and those slow twitch muscle fibers.

So, if your goal was to perform your best at a marathon, it would make sense to focus less on squatting the heaviest weight load you could force out for three reps and instead focus more on higher reps to develop your endurance capacity.

wall ball crossfit workoutSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

On the other hand, if your goal is to get better at sprinting, powerlifting, or explosive sports with short bursts of activity like football, then you may be better off focusing on lower rep ranges. These lower rep ranges will improve power output, explosiveness, and central nervous system efficiency.

There are also other sports that require both fast twitch and slow twitch fiber such as soccer, boxing, and wrestling.

These activities have short, intense bursts of explosive movement coupled with prolonged periods of sustained muscle activation that require endurance. For example, a boxer needs to bounce around the ring sometimes for 12 full rounds while also throwing bursts of explosive punches in between. So it’s beneficial for these kinds of activities to perform both high reps and low reps during your workout routine.

And remember, the 3 weeks of low reps followed by 3 weeks of high reps is just one way to set up your routine to get the benefits of both. You can also do both within one workout. For example, let’s pretend you’re trying to increase your push strength as well as your endurance. You always want to perform your heaviest compound lifts first so that fatigue isn’t as much of a limiting factor in the amount of weight you can lift.

So, you can start your workout with three really heavy sets of bench press for three to six reps. Then, for your next three sets, you could perform six to eight reps of dumbbell presses with a drop set of 20 reps at the end of each set.

Learn more in Max’s video below.


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